While many think of church as a place to lay down one’s burdens, gain spiritual refreshment and find inspiration — a house of worship is also vulnerable to potential violence.
Jim Howard, executive director of Trinity Security Allies based in Trinity, knows only too well about that possibility
When he was a teenager, living in Texas, his father shot and killed a deacon after church. Howard’s father was imprisoned, his family moved away, and Howard doubted his faith and left the church.
He subsequently went into a career in law enforcement and eventually returned to the church.
He also found a way to use his professional knowledge to serve his faith, first, by helping to protect a church’s collections and then by forming a church security team.
Besides serving on the security team at Generations Christian Church, on Little Road, he is the executive director of a nonprofit organization that helps churches that need guidance in creating and preserving a safe place to worship.
“Our motto for the church ministry is: ‘Have a place where everybody can come and worship God without fear.’
“Once a person doesn’t feel safe at church, then they’re not going to come to church,” said Howard, who also has a private security consulting business.
When a white man opened fire on June 17, 2015 during a prayer meeting in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, it captured national headlines.
But, the issue of church violence is nothing new, Howard said.
In 1999 — the same year as the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado — there was a shooting at a church in Texas were seven people were killed, he said.
This past Easter Sunday, at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, a man was taken into custody after entering a church armed with a .40-caliber Beretta in his pants pocket and a 300 Blackout rifle in his backpack, according to news reports.
Trinity Security Allies provides presentations to help church leaders learn about precautions they can take to help keep their churches safe, and to create plans for responding to violence, if it occurs.
“We go in and educate,” Howard said.
When he gets called to do a church assessment, he tours the church and its grounds.
In the children’s ministry area, he said, “The first thing I do is to look to be sure the doors will lock.”
That’s rarely an issue where the musical equipment is kept. Typically, he said, he discovers “it’s locked behind a door that Fort Knox would be proud of.”
He said churches should have a check-in, check-out zone for their kids’ ministry. Some churches issue a set of matching badges — one for the child and the other for the parent. The badges must match, or the child won’t be released, he said.
Churches also need to vet their volunteers, he added, especially any that have contact with children.
Security team members must pay attention to people approaching and entering the church.
Look for anything unusual: Someone talking to himself; someone who appears agitated or angry; someone wearing a long coat or heavy jacket when it’s warm outside.
His church has a policy of being especially friendly to newcomers.
They are welcomed by church staff or volunteers, and when people don’t respond, the security team lets someone else at the church know, so they can try to engage them, he said.
While the church isn’t interested in gossip, it needs to know of potential issues, Howard added.
“People who are coming into church are broken,” he said. The church is there to help, but should also take steps to protect itself and those gathered.
All sorts of people walk through a church door, Howard noted.
“We’ve had people with mental illness that have disrupted the church service. We’ve had domestic issues that caused us concern. Injunctions,” he said. “We’ve had thefts.”
When it comes to having guns on a church campus, that’s an issue that a church should address, Howard said.
An active shooter can kill or injure numerous people much faster than law enforcement can respond to the scene.
“If you don’t have someone on your campus that can respond to it, that’s something to really pray about and consider,” he said.
“Our church has a policy, if you have a concealed weapons permit and you want to carry, that’s fine. If you’re on the safety team, with us, if you have a concealed weapons permit, I ask you not to carry — I’m a firearms instructor — unless you and I go out and we do some shooting, so I can see how you handle the gun.”
“Because of my background, I understand what police officers are going to be facing if they come into a church in a scenario like this,” he said.
“I don’t fear a person walking into church with a gun. I fear the gun battle.
“Inside a crowded church, there’s a good possibility that somebody that you know is going to get hit,” he said, noting that two out of three shots typically miss their intended target.
It’s also a good idea to practice what to do, in the event an active shooter ever shows up at the church, Howard said, noting that’s something his church has done.
When: May 7, registration at 8:30 a.m.; meeting starts at 9 a.m.
Where: Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 20735 Leonard Road, Lutz
Who: Open to anyone
How much: Donations accepted for refreshments.
Published April 27, 2016