We just finished our 1st quarter Church Safety Networking Group (CSNG) meetings. These meetings are to network churches and share information of issues and concerns they are having at their houses of worship. This quarter’s training included an after-action critique of the West Freeway Church of Christ shooting. The common narrative has been that the shooting was a “mass shooting” incident. In my professional opinion the West Freeway COC shooting was an armed robbery gone bad. Call me if you want to discuss my opinion. I explained to the CSNG’s members that we are going to start a different style of training on Active Shooter preparedness. We will analyze shootings that have happened across the United States, review studies related to how these shootings occurred and work on proactive prevention strategies instead of reacting to the incident without proper preparation. We will train for Before the incident preparation, During the incident response procedures and what should happen After an active shooter incident occurs.
I don’t think people who have never been involved in a shooting incident understand the real emotional devastation that happens after an active shooting. As someone who has lived through a similar incident, I truly felt and witnessed the effects on my family and friends after my dad walked out of the church and killed a beloved deacon of the church. The victim’s family and my family and friends were all devastated and crushed by this disturbing act of hate and violence. It took me a long time to recover. Still today, because of the past relationship with my father and my mother, I have moments of insecurity that only God, my wife and family, my Christian brothers and sisters have been able to help me to overcome.
I received a call from my sister who still lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area about the West Freeway COC shooting incident. She explained that Tony Wallace, the deacon who was shot during the shooting was a nurse who worked with her. She went on to tell me that he was a great guy and a beacon of light when he was at work. They were all shocked and devastated when they heard the news about Tony. The tragedy of these shootings goes far beyond the boundaries of the church alone. These incidents affect the entire community and reach beyond our communities to us all. For all of these reasons, we must start evaluating how we handle the incidents that face today’s churches and develop strategies to effectively prepare for surviving them.
Recently I was driving my daughter, Jessica, back to school. We started talking about the topic of our next Facebook live broadcast and I told her about our new training on Active Shooter Preparedness. I explained that I believed we should a different approach to the training. Our training during the CSNG meetings will be more focused on preparedness Before, proper response During and healing After a shooting event. She asked me this question; “do these churches do Risk Management or Risk Analysis”. At first I scoffed. Here she is, this college student, and she is hitting me with big words like Risk Management and Risk Analysis. Then she dazzled me with the 5 Phase Emergency Management (EM) model and I thought she was talking about some new rock group she was listening to on Spotify. Yet, the more she talked about Prevention, Preparedness, Response, Recovery and Mitigation, the more I realized if you take away the complicated language she had a good topic for not only our Facebook live but also this month’s blog.
This is the way Jessica explained the Emergency Management Model. In the state of Florida from June to the end of November we would focus on hurricanes more than we would tornadoes. We need to plan for both, but every hurricane season statistics show we have a better chance of getting hit by a hurricane than a tornado. In the Midwest they would just reverse the order because they will probably never see a hurricane unless they plan a trip to Florida during that time of year. So, if we take that approach to the church safety team training, what should we be looking as our primary focus? After we identify our most likely risk exposure, we make our way down the list of potential threats in order of their probability of occurrence. Do we too often focus on things that probably will never happen at our church instead of focusing on the inevitable?
When I go to a church for the first time to do an assessment, the first place I ask the church to take me to is the children’s ministry. I walk through and look for locks on the classroom doors. I cannot tell you how many churches don’t have proper locks on the doors of the areas where, their most precious possessions, our children are located. However, when I ask them to take me to where their audio/video equipment is held the doors are so secure that it would make Fort Knox proud. When this occurs, I look at the person giving me the tour and tell them, they can replace all the a/v equipment with insurance monies, but we cannot replace the precious little ones that God has trusted to our protection. We should consider our Children’s Ministry as our primary risk potential as we develop our Emergency Management Plan.
Many church leaders who contact us in the beginning stages of starting a Safety Team will tell me right off the bat that they are more likely to be struck by lightning than have an active shooter in their church. They often follow up with, “don’t come into their church and talk about arming everyone with a sidearm and teach them how to clear rooms”. I agree with them and tell them we need to sit down and talk about what they see as possible threats and how to prevent those incidents from happening to their church. We conduct a risk analysis, or as I say, strength and weaknesses analysis to identify potential risks for incidents that happen most frequently at churches, rather than those that might not ever happen, like an active shooter. So finally, if you ask me what steps I would take first to manage risks at your church, it would be conduct a risk analysis and implement a risk management plan. But with any plan it needs to be adaptable. Talking to Simon Osamoh and James McGarvey with Church Safety and Security, we discussed the necessity for flexibility with our planning because when different incidents occur, our training priorities and focus could change.
If we consider what seems to be one of the most significant issues with churches today it would be vandalism. In our daily Google Alerts, we have at least one or two churches that have been affected by vandals and it seems to be increasing in frequency. I had one safety team leader say that you can’t stop vandalism. Yes, maybe that is true, we can’t stop them, but we can do our due diligence to make it harder for those who do these terrible deeds. Have your local law enforcement come out and do a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) assessment. If they don’t know what that is, you can look it up on the internet. I found one done by Virginia Beach, VA which is 34 pages long. That isn’t a lot of reading and it will help you understand that by taking the four CPTED elements you can do a lot to reduce vandalisms against your church. This measure is a critical part of Prevention strategy. Let’s try to get ahead of it before it becomes a larger issue.
In my personal and professional opinion, I would also be looking at the human interaction of your safety team. Huh, you ask? I hear examples over and over again in our training sessions. Inappropriately handled human interaction between an untrained safety team member and another person can be one of the greatest risks a church faces today. We know that there are three types of people that come into our church. Those who come to worship and we recognize them as they walk through the door. We have those that come into our church that are hurting and one step away from doing something they will regret for the rest of their lives. They are looking for an answer and our praying they may find answers in our churches. The third, of course, is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our Threat Profiling training teaches you how to recognize the last two, but now that you recognize the difference between those that are hurting and the wolves what are you doing? What human interaction skills are you developing to deal with those two types?
In our training I show a video of a young male interrupting a church service. Before the video I ask the students if this church has a safety team. As the video starts two males are outside the church talking about making history. One of the males enters into the church while the other films the disturbance on his phone. You will have to come to one of my training sessions and find out what happens next. In the video, even though it does not look like the church has a safety team, every able male and one tough female stop the intruder before he can get to the front of the church and then they herded him out. In my opinion, except for letting the intruder get too far into the church before he is stopped, they did everything right. When I show this video I ask the trainees what would they have done different, I often get responses like “I would have piled driven that clown into the floor” or “I would have placed a choke hold on him”. No, sorry, not a part of the solution. Think about it, the accomplice was video-recording the whole encounter. The video made its way to YouTube. Think about what would have happened if the press got a hold a video of one of your safety team members pile driving a kid whose only crime was disrupting your church service which is a misdemeanor here in the State of Florida.
I was trained using the Behavioral Change Stairway Model in Crisis Negotiation. I use this technique in our Verbal De-escalation Training Program. The second step after Active Listening is Empathy. We may not see or understand the person’s conflict, but to them it is very real. In any crisis negotiation we have to understand that to get a person from crisis mode to where we can help them, we must treat their crisis as a valid issue. While doing this training I used the example of a person that just lost a loved one. They didn’t know how they would be able to continue on with life and were thinking of suicide. On multiple occasions I have had safety team members tell me that we need to explain to these people that if their loved one is a Christian they will see them again, as if that should solve the problem. No, sorry once again, not part of the solution in these situations. I can see the Facebook or Google Review of your church now. “I went to the church looking for comfort because my mother just passed away some person there told me to get over it because I would one day see them in Heaven.” One star and no “I would not recommend this church”.
Okay, before we go any further we need to address another very real concern as well. There may come a time when you have to put your hands on someone to remove them from the church. There may even be a time when you have to take someone’s life because they threaten those in your congregation. That is not your fault. People sometimes place us in situations that require forceful solutions. If your heart is in the right place for this ministry and you are good with God, He will not put you into a situation that He has not trained you for. When that time comes you will know it. Consider the example of Julie Workman, a survivor of the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church shooting. After evil came into their church and killed 26 people and injured 20 others, two of them her sons, Julie, a registered nurse, jumped up after the madman left the church and started doing triage, saving several people who would have died before first responders could get there. She told me while all this was going on, she kept hearing a voice telling her this was what she had been trained for all her life. God directed her there that day and God put her to work.
So, if I were to identify the most significant risk to our churches, I would say lack of specific training relevant to what those serving the church are going to confront someday, whether it is on the safety team or other positions in the church.
Our main focus should be on the expansion of the Kingdom of God. If that is not the foundation your safety team is built upon you should reconsider your direction. Safety Team Leaders and church leadership need to do a risk analysis on your safety team, making sure everyone is on the same page as it relates to how to deal with the people that are visiting your church. When someone walks into our church hurting, upset, dealing with domestic issues or just having a bad day, our job is to be there for those that are in need of some good old Christian fellowship, prayer or maybe even a hug (all you macho safety team men just hang with me)? After making sure we have developed a well-trained team let’s not forget other possible risks that will come into our church, i.e., domestic issues, lost children, medical emergencies, self-proclaimed profits, disruptive attendees and of course active shooter and develop a 5 Phase EM. Thank you Jessica.
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Jim has many years of law enforcement experience and has run the safety team at his church for several years. TSA was formed after he realized God's calling when multiple churches reached out and asked him to present at their church.