Megachurches with large audiences have long planned for emergencies, but smaller churches often aren’t ready for a crisis, experts say.
First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., where the Rev. Fred Winters was shot and killed during a sermon Sunday was an exception. It initiated a security and emergency plan six months ago, but church officials would not say what it entailed.
The plan did not prevent an attack. Terry J. Sedlacek, 27, was charged Monday with first-degree murder and aggravated battery in the assault that killed Winters and left Sedlacek and two congregants who tackled him with stab wounds.
Still, emergency plans are important, said First Baptist associate pastor Mark Jones.
“I hate to say this, but unfortunately I believe other churches need to follow that example,” he said. “We need to be ready, we need to be prepared, but at the same time, we’re not going to live in a state of fear.”
Televangelist churches and most megachurches with up to 5,000 congregants have coordinated security plans and undercover guards for high-profile ministers and assistants, said Dave Travis, managing director with the Leadership Network, a nonprofit that fosters church innovation nationwide.
First Baptist, with 1,200 congregants, and even smaller churches are among the most vulnerable, he said.
“They tend to be fairly well known in the community, but not quite large enough to have thought through security issues,” he said.
His firm advises clients that every church needs a written security plan and an open discussion of the church’s vulnerabilities.
Churches are “soft targets” — easily accessible places with little or no security, said Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network.
After a church shooting last year in Knoxville, Tenn., a survey of Christian churches found 75 percent had no security or emergency plans, Hawkins said. The network’s own poll of 250 U.S. churches showed a third had a security incident of some kind in the past year.
The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist in Knoxville did not have a security plan in place last July when an out-of-work truck driver went on a shooting spree, killing two people and wounding six. After consulting with police and crime experts, the church developed a plan that includes hiring sextons, not armed security guards, to watch for suspicious behavior.
“We want to be welcoming, we responded with love,” said church board member Jayne Raparelli. “We kept our doors open. We don’t make people go through metal detectors.”
Raparelli could not say whether having a security plan would have stopped the shooter from executing killings he “had planned” and “wanted to do.”
For decades, security has been a major focus for Jewish organizations because of terror attacks in Israel and on Jews elsewhere.
The Anti-Defamation League distributes a security manual that covers topics from armed intruders to bomb threats. National Jewish groups recently formed the Secure Community Network to oversee safety for Jewish groups nationwide.
Boosting security can be contrary to the mission of houses of worship, said the Network’s national director, Paul Goldenberg.
“On the one hand, you want to be accommodating,” he said. “On the other hand, the world has changed.
“You don’t want iron gates and armed guards, but houses of worship do need to train staff, congregants and ushers to identify and respond to such threats as an emotionally disturbed person,” Goldenberg said.
After a man in Colorado went on a shooting spree at two religious facilities in 2007, the Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Ark., established a group of ushers trained in security measures but designed to uphold the church’s image as a sacred place — not an armed church.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group based in Washington, has published security guidelines and safety tips for mosques in response to assaults on mosques and American Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Christian Security Network recommends churches assess their risk for everything from fire and tornadoes to vandalism, burglary, sexual molestation and shootings, then build a plan.
So far this year, churches in 39 states have reported 141 incidents, including burglaries and bomb threats.
The biggest hurdle is overcoming the mentality that such incidents “can’t happen here,” Hawkins said.
“If you don’t think it could happen to you, you won’t be mentally prepared,” he said. “You won’t take it to heart.”
Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll and writer Jim Suhr in Maryville, Ill., contributed to this report.
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