News outlets are reporting another attack on a faith-based institution, this time at a church school in Nashville, Tennessee. In this instance, three adults and three children were killed by, apparently, a 28-year-old woman, before the threat was abolished by law enforcement.
As time goes on, more heinous acts of violence are occurring in what should be sanctuaries for our children. There is no place where crowds gather that is immune to the bad intentions of a disgruntled, deranged, or politically-motivated individual. In this incident, the shooter was able to enter the school through a side entrance..
The tragic outcome might have been avoided if a culture of situation awareness was instilled in our society. Situational awareness is a state of calm, relaxed observation of factors that might indicate a threat or a need to act. These are called “anomalies”; learning to recognize them can identify suspicious individuals and save lives.
(Learn more about situational awareness in this article)
Not all congregations prioritize church or school safety at the level needed in this toxic climate. The premise that a ministry is based on peace fails to take into account that there are those who consider places of worship to be “soft”targets. In this era of active shooters and anti-Christian feeling (or anti-religious feeling in general), pastors must make sure their flock is safe, just like any shepherd. In the New Normal, it has become part of the job description.
In my role as medical preparedness writer, it’s my mission to help the average citizen promote the well-being of loved ones in disasters. I’ve written about hurricanes and earthquakes, but shooter events like the one in Nashville are also instances where mass casualties can occur. These casualties could be minimized with a plan of action.
Large places of worship may choose to hire security professionals and install video surveillance technology. Smaller and less affluent churches, however, might benefit by establishing what I call a “safety ministry“. This group should be comprised of congregants who have some security experience, such as active and former law enforcement, military veterans, and carefully selected others. Members should evaluate the layout of the church, school, and grounds for weak spots (such as side entrances) and organize a plan of action for calling 911 and other measures when needed.
Training goals might best be accomplished with the cooperation and assistance of local police. They can help train church members in how to identify the behavior of possible perpetrators of violence. The pastoral and teaching staff should be actively involved in this training to assess liability issues that might arise, and to insure that the safety ministry is not perceived as a “goon squad”.
The call for volunteers for such a ministry should be made publicly and their purpose should be frankly (but calmly) explained so as to emphasize their benefits to all those attending the church. The formation of a security group in private might otherwise tend to cause concern instead of reassurance.
A simple way to avoid or abort acts of violence in places of worship is the placement of friendly but visible “greeters” or ushers at church entrances. These people can look for anomalies, such as someone inappropriately dressed for the weather. If a person seeking entry is wearing an overcoat in hot weather, it could be because they are concealing a weapon. Having greeters outside could also make it easier to identify those acting nervously, loitering in the parking lot, or otherwise exhibiting suspicious behavior.
Safety ministry personnel should have the ability to close and lock doors to prevent a gunman from entering. Conversely, they can also open all the exits that could be used to direct congregants out of harm’s way when necessary. Ushers can also look for packages left behind that might hide an explosive device.
In an active shooter event, multiple casualties are incurred, leaving wounded and bleeding victims at the scene. Safety Ministry personnel should have training on how to stop bleeding and equipment such as first aid kits geared to help them accomplish this goal. The number and sophistication of such kits may depend on the number and level of training of parishioners. Indeed, the church/school might consider arranging such training for their entire congregation or staff.
Although a safety ministry might be geared towards hours when services are held, a plan of action for a school should be organized for all times when classes or other school activities during the week as well.
One question is: Should non-professional security personnel be armed? I have an opinion (yes), but I can’t give you an answer. This is a decision that must be made taking into account local laws, risk levels, and the wishes of the congregation and staff.
One prediction I made some years ago was that first aid kits would be fixtures on the wall as common as fire extinguishers. This has, sadly, come true. I also I envision a future where safety ministries are standard operating procedure for faith-based venues. This future has not yet come to pass, but I believe it’s inevitable (and might save some lives).
It may be a major challenge to protect people of faith these days, but preparing for untoward events should be the responsibility of every pastor, teacher, parishioner, and, yes, even students. With a plan of action, they’ll have the best chance to keep us safe in the uncertain future.
Joe Alton MD
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