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What every church needs to know about security

Brady Boyd had just settled into the warmth of his office on a freezing December day when he heard something chilling: shots that shattered more than just silence on a seemingly typical Sunday afternoon. "Someone ran into my office and screamed that shots had been fired in the building," recalls Boyd, senior pastor of the 10,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. "At that point, I heard shots myself."

A heavily armed Matthew J. Murray, 24, had already killed two people at Youth With a Mission (YWAM) in a Denver suburb hours earlier. He continued his rampage in New Life's parking lot, fatally shooting two teenage sisters before entering the sanctuary, where hundreds of people scrambled to escape or hide. But he was stopped short of a massive killing spree when a plainclothes volunteer security guard wounded him with her personally owned concealed weapon. In total, the gunman had killed four people and wounded five others before taking his own life.

The guard's presence was no coincidence, though. She had been strategically placed in the main foyer as a part of the church's security plan—one New Life has been shaping and implementing for nearly four years now.

"We have a contingency plan in place for anything that we could dream up, including a shooting," Boyd says. "So when someone did come into our building with a weapon, our security team had been drilled over and over again on what to do. What we believe is that we should expect the worst and pray for the best; that's the way our security team prepares."

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That preparation, Boyd believes, saved countless lives that day. "While it was very tragic that we lost two young girls, we could have very well buried hundreds of people, and that's not an exaggeration," Boyd says, describing the arsenal discovered under the gunman's vest: an assault rifle, two handguns and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition. "If there had been no security there, it would have been disastrous."

But many churches, Boyd believes, are not as prepared. "My fear for the church at large is that they have not given any thought to the worst-case scenario. If any good comes out of this, I think the church should be prepared, and senior pastors need to be diligent and ask 'What are we doing to protect our people?'"

Corporate Church Protection

It is a question former pastor Jerry McConnell and corporate travel safety trainer Randy Spivey urge church leaders to consider. The two head the Spokane, Wash. -based Center for Personal Protection and Safety, a firm launched in 2002 that is responsible for much of the U.S. government's training on crisis negotiations, workplace violence, abduction prevention and hostage survival situations. The parent organization of the Safe Travel Institute and the National Hostage Survival Training Center, the firm provides training to some of the largest corporations in the U.S., including Boeing and Wal-Mart.

McConnell and Spivey believe it's time for faith-based organizations to embrace the same proactive approach already adopted by many of America's largest corporations. "I really felt like God laid on my heart that He wanted us to protect His people," says Spivey, the firm's executive director. "What we're seeing now is that the same issues that are there for a company are there for a ministry; they're all organizations that have people, and their people can be at risk."

McConnell and Spivey began reaching out to the faith-based community in 2003, encouraging leaders to adopt safety guidelines and training programs that could potentially save lives during a crisis situation, specifically during a shooting. At first, many organizations—specifically churches—were reluctant. "In the church community, there is a vulnerability out there, a mind-set that says 'God is going to take care of us and we can go about doing His business,' maybe at the expense of doing some prudent planning and training," Spivey says.

But things have changed since the Colorado shootings. "That was a flashpoint, a catalyst for change in the thinking of pastors," McConnell says. "It really triggered something in people's minds. ... Many of them have heightened their security since the shootings; many have taken a more proactive approach. We've got to be as innocent as lambs and doves, but also as wise as serpents. We can't just be apathetic and let evil run over us. God is our refuge in times of trouble, but He expects us to be proactive."

According to Spivey, fewer than 10 percent of all churches have crisis management plans in place, with small- to mid-size churches often being the most ill-prepared. "The fact that [New Life] had somebody there that was willing to take an action to end violence showed a level of preparation that many organizations still do not have. ... My recommendation is that, No. 1, leaders have a crisis management plan in their church; and No. 2, people are trained in the contingency. Don't just put it on a piece of paper and put it on the shelf. If you've done those two things, you are ahead of 90 percent of not just churches, but many corporations and agencies, because you are taking a proactive stance."

Response Time

Hoping to change the statistics, the Center for Personal Safety and Protection developed and recently released Shots Fired, a training tool to teach people how to survive a shooting incident. The 18-minute DVD addresses two key issues: How to recognize and prevent an act of shooting, and what to do during an actual one. It also guides the user through these options:

• Figure out if it is an actual shooting.
• Ask yourself, Can I get out? And if you can't get out, you may have to barricade the room to ...
• Keep him out.
• If none of the above is possible, you may have to confront the shooter and take him out.

"I call it training that gives people a mental permission slip to act," Spivey explains. "One of the tragedies of Virginia Tech was that the students in one classroom just froze; they didn't know what to do ... and the shooter came back in a couple of minutes later, and that's when he killed most of the individuals."

Instead of focusing on organizational response, the program focuses on training the individual, which many religious organizations fail to do. When individuals freeze during a shooting, disaster is almost always unavoidable, Spivey says, explaining that most shootings end within five to 10 minutes—many times before law enforcement has the chance to act. "You can have a church that has a prevention program and safety procedures, but usually the weakest link is the individual in that sanctuary or in that office who does not know what to do."

According to McConnell, congregants gathering on Sundays are not the most vulnerable to an attack. Instead, it is the office staff working onsite Monday through Friday who is most at risk.

Since its release in December, the DVD has been picked up by dozens of churches of all sizes. "I think pastors recognize that they have an obligation to protect their people," Spivey says. "We're not talking about armed guards running around the church as much as we are helping to create a survival mind-set among people."

Suzy Richardson is a freelance writer who lives in Gainesville, Fla., with her husband and four children.

Five Security Tips Church Leaders Can Implement Now

1. Designate a security lead within your church. The role of the security lead is to coordinate all security-related activities within the organization. In the case of a church, this includes: creating and maintaining a crisis management plan; handling and safeguarding collection monies; monitoring the physical security requirements of a facility (i.e. adequate lighting in parking lots); monitoring church services to detect and respond in cases of disturbances; and reviewing international travel plans to assess risk.

2. Develop and maintain a crisis management plan. This is essential to preparing a church on how to respond to a crisis such as an active shooter incident. The plan outlines procedures for notifying authorities; specific actions to take during the first moments of a crisis; and a training and education plan for the church staff and, possibly, the congregation.

3. Train church leadership on the content of the crisis management plan. A crisis management plan isn't very helpful if those who are responsible for implementing it aren't trained to do so properly. Churches will often designate this responsibility to the security lead or outsource to an outside vendor.

4. Practice the crisis management plan. Organizations should review, update and practice their crisis management plans annually. Usually, this only involves a handful of individuals, such as leadership. A few hours of focus per year can help exponentially if the organization actually has to enact the plan.

5. Involve local law enforcement in the church security plan. Developing a relationship with local law enforcement is good for all organizations. Often, local law enforcement will provide training on topics such as personal safety, workplace violence and recognizing indicators of a violent person before they act out.

Additionally, by informing local law enforcement of any threats made against the church, its people or leadership, they will be able to assist in prevention and response if a crisis does occur.
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