Security without alarm is the goal — Area churches look to bolster safety

Published 9:36 pm Monday, November 6, 2017

Church should be a safe haven in a sinful world and a place that’s open to all, said Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing.

However, church leaders in Lincoln County are making plans to bolster the security in their houses of worship following the tragic shooting in Texas Sunday. The rampage ended the lives of 26 people in a small-town church along with the gunman, who law enforcement believe died from a self-inflicted wound.

That tragedy underscored the need for heightened security and vigilance, even in churches.

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Rushing is a deacon at Pleasant Grove Baptist where 200 people regularly worship on Sunday mornings. After learning about the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Sunday, plans are underway to make the church more secure. He said that since actions like those of shooter Devin Kelly in Texas are impossible to guard against fully, church congregations have become more alert to threats and are responding accordingly.

Safety at church has been a concern for a while.

“Usually greeters try to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary,” he said, though there is no dedicated security team in place as of yet. “It’s hard to lock your doors at church. We’re an open door to anyone who wants to come worship.”

Other churches around the county already have security teams on the ready.

Rev. Greg Warnock at First Baptist Church Brookhaven said their security team serves on a rotation basis, with members covering services Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night prayer service.

The morning service usually sees about 550 people in the pews.

Security teams monitor people going in and out of the building as well as the children’s area, he said. All entrances not being used are locked.

FBC Brookhaven has been taking added precautions at church for two and a half  years.

Still, church leaders want people to feel free to attend and worship without fear.

“We want a welcoming environment. We want to greet people,” he said. “In one sense, we take a practical approach to safety, but we also want people to feel welcome. Ultimately, our life is lived by faith. We do what we think is best. We try to love people and trust God to protect us and guide us and keep us safe.”

Rev. Phillip Sterling at Grace Community Church said a security team is already in place, watching over the congregation during services. Sunday’s tragedy only reinforced that need, he said.

“We do have men who patrol and watch everything,” he said.

Church leaders plan to meet this week to see what other options they may have to make the church safer.

“It’s a reality check. It’s the world that we live in,” he said. “Used to be even the worst of the worst wouldn’t consider targeting a church, but we’re seeing it more and more.”

Sterling said exterior buildings are locked when they’re not in use. Deacons on duty periodically walk the campus “just to make sure there’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he said.

Security for worshippers is the church’s responsibility, he said. “It’s more than just supplying the spiritual needs. It’s supplying the physical as well,” he said. “People before could drop their defenses at church. As we can see, that’s no longer true.”

Sterling said Christians should be aware, but not let fear keep them out of church.

“Even though you have to put these measures in place, we can’t replace the worship with fear of what might happen. It could happen anywhere, anytime. It does not have to be New York and Los Angeles. It can happen in Brookhaven. There will be someone who targets a church just because it’s a church. There are a lot of bitter, angry people in the world and I’m afraid there will be more.”

Deacons also walk around the campus at Heucks Retreat Baptist Church, said Rev. Ken Parvin.

As of now, there are no plans to have armed security at the church.

“I pray that day never comes,” he said.

Still, there may be people in the church who “may or may not be armed” on Sundays, he said.

“I’m going to assume there are guys who have concealed carry permits. I feel certain there are guys in our church,” he said.

Parvin said the main thing is that worshippers continue to see church as a fear-free zone. That’s why church administrators are taking steps to help maintain the safety within the sacred walls.

“We want to give security to the congregation without giving alarm,” he said.