Church security: Questions rise after shooting at small church
BY HOLLY MCCRAY
and SAM HODGES
The shooting tragedy on Nov. 5 at a Texas church has United Methodist churches expressing heartbreak and offering prayers. They’re also refocusing on security.
A gunman’s attack during Sunday morning worship at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, left 26 dead and 20 wounded, and riddled the building with bullets.
That it happened in a small-town setting, where nearly everyone knows everyone else, is part of what’s heightened fears among church folks.
“That just describes half or more of the churches in the United States, and especially United Methodist churches,” said Derrek Belase, a former police officer who is the Oklahoma Conference director of Discipleship. “I felt like I was looking in a mirror as far as what I see in Oklahoma, the churches I work with.”
In Norman, security expert Tara Koetter gave practical advice grounded in scripture. A member of McFarlin United Methodist Church, she owns Sheepdog Security & Investigative Services.
She pointed to John 7:1. “Jesus saw danger, and he took precaution even though he could have called down a legion of angels to protect him. There is a scriptural basis for protecting the needs of our people. Everyone is welcome except the wolf.” She also referred to Proverbs 22 and 23.
She countered concerns that security measures may make a church appear inhospitable. “We have to use the wisdom God gave us. Jesus used it, and we must. I pray over my family, but I also lock my doors at night.”
Koetter said a church needs a safety team. Its members should use 2-way radios, watch outside the church as well as the entry points throughout Sunday mornings, and get ongoing training. They can rotate turns, perhaps each serving once a month.
Such teams also can respond first in medical emergencies and pay attention to stormy weather, which are more likely scenarios than a shooting, she noted. For example, McFarlin UMC has a defibrillator on every floor.
Safety team members learn to recognize faces with unusual expressions, and people may need only to be counseled, Koetter said. “We don’t want to give a law enforcement-type attitude. We only want to meet disruption with the amount of force as is warranted.”
The Koetters began attending McFarlin UMC on the first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks. A nephew survived a mass shooting in Minneapolis in 2012. Three years ago, Tara went to her first meeting as a member of McFarlin’s Board of Trustees.
Days before that, she had a vivid dream about a violent encounter in church.
“My dream was a perfect teaching tool to me,” she said. She was propelled to a new career in her 50s. In addition to the training her company offers, Koetta said she will do a free security consultation for a church.
“Not every one of us is a guard; most of us are sheep,” she concluded. But “that’s a holy thing to be a responder. God puts that in some of us. I believe we have enough sheepdog-type people in our churches that naturally want to protect.”
Rev. Belase, who grew up in Carnegie, said it’s important for churches of all sizes to take “a fearless moral inventory” of their safety plans, buildings, and contexts.
In rural Oklahoma, build relationships with police, volunteer fire departments, and sheriff’s deputies, he said. “Invite them to come tour the church buildings. If they have a mental picture of your facilities, they’ll be able to respond with knowledge, if the need should arise.”
(Sam Hodges of Dallas, Texas, writes for United Methodist News Service.)
This concludes Part One of a two-part series that will continue in the Dec. 22 issue of Contact.