BREAKING NEWS

BREAKING NEWS

Church shootings have increased interest in security at some Fort Wayne congregations

Pastor Dave Keller, left, and Executive Pastor Dennis Larkin have been leading efforts by Abundant Life Church on Coliseum Boulevard to develop a safety and security plan to protect the congregation in any emergency, including a shooter. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
A sunflower decorates the fence set up outside of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which has been reopened as a memorial to the 26 people killed there Nov. 5 during a mass shooting. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Crosses stand as a makeshift memorial in Sutherland Springs, Texas, for the 26 people killed there Nov. 5 during a shooting attack. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Pastor Dave Keller of Abundant Life Church describes safety and security as the “elephant in the room” many religious congregations don’t want to talk about because their faith should protect them.

“I believe security is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of preparedness,” said Keller, leader of the congregation at 3301 E. Coliseum Blvd.

Preparing to deal with intruders or people with violent intentions is like developing a plan to protect congregation members during dangerous weather or from a fire.

Scripture backs up that viewpoint, Keller said, noting a man is supposed to provide for his household, not only financially but also regarding their safety.

The tragic shooting Nov. 5 at church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which 26 men, women and children died, focused national attention again on the issue of safety and security at houses of worship.

FACING THE ISSUE

Over the past week, News-Sentinel.com contacted a few local congregations to ask about how they approach safety and security. Keller was the only one willing to talk.

“We’d rather be pro-active than reactive,” Keller said. “And I feel we owe it to our congregation.”

The News-Sentinel also found no congregation officials willing to talk – or talk on the record – when we reported on this topic in March 2016 following terrorist attacks in Belgium.

But after the 2016 story, about 25 congregations later contacted the Allen County Office of Homeland Security to ask for help with developing a safety and security plan, said Bernie Beier, Allen County homeland security director.

Beier hadn’t received any requests for planning help, however, after the Texas church shooting.

Developing such a plan doesn’t mean religious congregations have to compromise their mission of being welcoming, Beier said.

Being friendlier and engaging people in conversation with questions not only helps new people feel more welcome, it also can tip off ushers or other church members to anyone who could be a problem, Beier said.

INVOLVE THE CONGREGATION

Some religious congregations want to keep their safety and security plans a secret, even from the congregation, Beier said. He believes that is a mistake.

“Tell the entire congregation they all have a role to play in making it a safe and welcoming place,” he said.

Ideally, congregation should know what they should do in various emergency situations, including if someone suffers a heart attack during a service or event, fires or severe weather, Beier said.

Some congregations have posted that information where members can see it, such as in hallways, he said. He also recommends reminding the congregation about the plans during announcements at least once a year.

INTEREST VARIES

Fort Wayne-based Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company also has been promoting church safety and security, and very actively since about 2009, said Jeff Renbarger, the company’s assistant vice president of marketing and communications. That effort includes publishing a “Church Safety & Security Guidebook,” beginning in 2011.

The company makes a lot of free safety and security information available to congregations, regardless of whether Brotherhood insures them or not, on its website, https://www.brotherhoodmutual.com/resources/church-security/. It also holds security seminars around the country, Renbarger said.

Brotherhood Mutual has found varying degrees of interest by religious congregations in safety and security, he said.

The interest usually depends on congregational leaders’ views on safety, he said, and whether the congregation is located near where there has been a tragedy, such as the Sutherland Springs shooting.

An incident such as the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting can take a costly toll on a congregation, Renbarger said. Saying it would be too painful to worship there, that congregation’s pastor has talked of demolishing their church to create a memorial and then building a new church on property the congregation owns, The Associated Press reported.

Brotherhood’s goal is to help churches and ministries take precautions so they can keep doing their work, Renbarger said.

DEVELOPING A PLAN

Abundant Life became more concerned about safety and security about two years ago, said the Rev. Dennis Larkin, the congregation’s executive pastor. They did some research and contracted with Strategos International for help developing a security plan, including how to deal with intruders or active shooters.

The congregation went through Strategos’ Inter-Faith Intruder Response Awareness and Conflict Management training early this year, Larkin said.

They also have developed an emergency response team to handle all types of emergencies. Team members include security personnel as well as nurses, ushers and greeters, he and Keller said.

Team members will learn how to recognize possible problems and how to de-escalate situations before they become violent, Larkin said.

The congregation also will hire an off-duty police officer to head up the security team, Keller said.

Beier also recommends congregations hire off-duty law enforcement officers if they want armed protection because officers are highly trained in using their weapons and dealing with emergency situations.

Domestic disputes are the most common cause of shooting incidents at churches, Keller said. Ministries where those conflicts can arise include counseling sessions, a child-care program, school or during worship services, he added.

“People all say, ‘It won’t happen to us,'” Larkin said.

But if a shooting can happen at a church in a small, rural community, it can happen anywhere, Keller said.

“It’s time for us to have these hard conversations,” he said. “It (a church shooting) is becoming increasingly more prevalent.”

SAFETY TIPS

These safety tips for religious congregations come from Abundant Life Church, Allen County Office of Homeland Security and Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company:

• If you see something unusual, say something to an usher or safety team member.

• Look how people are dressed. Most people don’t wear a backpack into a worship service. A bulge on one hip or a coat weighted down on one side could indicate the presence of a gun.

• Abnormal behavior could be a tip-off to a potential problem. People planning to carryout a plan may be very nervous or extremely focused to the point they don’t recognize people.

5 OPTIONS FOR SURVIVAL

People threatened by a killer typically have five options for surviving, according to information on the Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company’s resource web page for church safety and security:

• Get away: Educate the congregation how to respond and the best means of escape.

• Lock down: Lock and barricade doors to where you are, and then move away from the doors in case the shooter fires at them before moving on to look for other targets.

• Hide: If you can’t get away or lock down, drop to the floor and take cover under pews, chairs or other objects.

• Play dead: This option usually works only if you already have been shot. It also means you really have to look dead and stay still.

• Confront the attacker: This is the last resort and one that should be used when you have no other hope of survival.

SAFETY RESOURCES

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company’s free Church Safety & Security website: https://www.brotherhoodmutual.com/resources/church-security/

Allen County Office of Homeland Security: 449-4663 or https://www.allencounty.us/homeland