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Lakewood shooting sparks discussion of armed security for churches

Two off-duty officers shot the killer before she could do more harm

Houston Police officers watch over displaced churchgoers outside Lakewood Church on Sunday. Associated Press/Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Lakewood shooting sparks discussion of armed security for churches

Last Sunday’s shooting at the Houston megachurch of televangelist Joel Osteen has put a spotlight on the presence of armed security personnel in American houses of worship.

Police said 36-year-old Genesse Ivonne Moreno was carrying a rifle Sunday afternoon when she walked into the Lakewood Church building and opened fire before the start of Spanish worship services. Two off-duty law enforcement officers returned fire, killing Moreno. Two other people, including a 7-year-old boy, were injured. The boy’s grandmother said in a Facebook post on Thursday that he had significant brain damage and was still fighting for his life in the hospital.

It’s a nightmare scenario—one that thousands of U.S. churches have prepared for, sometimes with professional help. The National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management is a nonprofit organization that provides educational materials, templates, and best practices to help churches across the country.

Its educational branch, the Christian Security Institute, is a Texas-licensed security school that trains and certifies state-commissioned security and personal protection officers.

“Most of our people that aren’t hired law enforcement are usually just members of the church, and they feel a calling to protect their people,” said organization’s founder, Chuck Chadwick. “We’ve trained people all the way from ex-Navy SEALs, down to mom and pops and, you know, housewives. Everybody has a place.”

The training is holistic, he said, adding that good security includes more than just walking around the church building while carrying a concealed weapon.

“If all you do is train with a gun, you know, that’s your answer to everything,” he said. “So part of being a professional security officer is being trained in all of the defensive tactics.”

The Christian Security Institute has helped to train about 500 officers for around 100 churches in Texas, Chadwick said, and the organization reaches thousands of individuals on its nationwide mailing list.

By the numbers

A Lifeway Research survey published in June polled 1,000 Protestant pastors throughout the United States about the security measures in place at their churches. Just over half of respondents, 54 percent, said their congregation included armed church members. Twenty percent of pastors surveyed said their congregation had armed private security personnel while 5 percent had uniformed police officers at their church. Meanwhile, 21 percent of churches had a “no firearms” policy.

A majority of congregations, 57 percent, had a plan in place to respond to an active shooter situation.

Chadwick says having an active shooter plan is important, but he emphasized that it’s also important for churches to plan for more common disturbances.

“Mostly the kinds of things that we deal with are domestic disputes and people that … have nefarious motives for being there,” he said. “They want to panhandle for money or something like that. There’s a time and place for benevolence—usually not in the middle of the service. Or [a person who is] mentally ill, he’ll stand up in the middle of the service and start yelling at the pastor.”

The church must also identify the systems and tools needed for the to implement an effective security plan, Chadwick said: “There are best practices for video surveillance, the way you set up radios and how you’re going to communicate with each other.”

Bearing arms

Chadwick’s view is that there’s one component essential for any effective church security plan.

“I think everybody should have trained armed personnel there, whenever the church is gathered,” he said.

While a church may have several congregants volunteer to carry guns, Chadwick says the church should have strict requirements for members of its security team.

“They need to go get the right kind of training, which takes time out of their busy days,” he said. “The Texas state program is six days. So you’ve got to take six days off of work. And it’s $1,000. So somebody has to pay that fee, and somebody has got to take off time to go to the academy.”

The training is much more stringent than a typical concealed carry class that might be completed in a single afternoon, he said. It’s easy to verbally commit as a volunteer, but more difficult to finish training. Chadwick also trains people to avoid what he calls the “SWAT mentality.”

“What we see mostly is guys going too far out trying to be SWAT commandos,” he said. “Most of the time, churches with a few good men or women that are trained appropriately can usually, I think, handle the situation.”

Regardless, Chadwick believes armed security – either paid or volunteer – is unfortunately an essential for modern churches.

Swords and sanctuaries

Not every pastor is on board with the idea of armed security. Stephen Cady, senior minister of Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, N.Y., calls the idea of guns in the church “ludicrous.”

“Look, the whole idea of a sanctuary is that it is a place that is intended to be set aside and a little different than the rest of the world,” he said. “And the idea that we would bring [guns] into a sanctuary, for me, is abhorrent and opposite of what our faith teaches us.”

Cady, who pastors a congregation of roughly 2,300 members, cites the moment in the gospels when Jesus is being taken into custody and his disciple, Peter, draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

“The only moment in our Scripture in which someone tries to use a weapon to protect—to defend—Jesus rebukes him and says, ‘Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,’” Cady said, adding that regardless of the outcomes in specific cases such as Lakewood’s, he believes guns in church do more harm than good.

Cady maintains that there’s a middle road. His church focuses on security plans, staff training, and outreach to troubled persons to protect the congregation.

“Worst case scenario: Even if it meant by not having a gun, you were in harm’s way, I still think the call of the gospel is to lay down our lives,” Cady said. “Sometimes you have to lose your life in order to save it.”

Chadwick, meanwhile, applauds the actions of the two off-duty law enforcement officers at Lakewood Church, adding, “It sounds like those guys are really on it.” He says a church has a responsibility to protect its congregants—and that requires security personnel that are adequately trained and armed.

Travis K. Kircher

Travis is the associate breaking news editor for WORLD.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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