In Sutherland Springs, no one in the First Baptist Church’s tight-knit congregation ever thought a gunman would open fire and kill 26 of its members. But that happened more than a year ago, and a sense of bewilderment has rippled through churches and other places of worship across Texas ever since.
“It’s such a different environment; it’s a small church out in the country. It was a domestic dispute – someone had an issue with someone else in the church and shot it up,” says David McReynolds, operations pastor at Stonegate Fellowship in Midland.
McReynolds says unlike Stonegate, First Baptist didn’t have security officers on site during its service. Without security officers, he says it’s hard for a congregation to defend against someone “who’s just going to be crazy and stupid.”
Now, religious groups, including Stonegate, are setting aside money in their budgets to hire security or to hire consultants to help identify their building’s security weaknesses.
Stonegate is a much larger church than First Baptist; it has about 5,000 congregants on any given weekend at its 19-acre campus. It also has a security plan in place. The church puts aside $50,000 annually for its security budget, and it hires officers to monitor the campus’ six buildings.
“Some of our police officers are part of the SWAT team in our community. They are high-level, and they came in and did evaluations of our facilities,” McReynolds says. “The SWAT team actually does training in our facility once a year, so they’re familiar with it and the buildings. … We have a group of men and women who are prepared for our campus specifically.”
Stonegate also has what it calls “gatekeepers”: plain-clothed, armed volunteers who serve as part of the church’s security team.
While Stonegate is a megachurch, smaller places of worship are also enhancing their security. Paul Lake is a former police officer and founder of Sentry One Consulting Group, which specializes in evaluating church safety.
“The majority of my clients are medium to smaller churches,” Lake says. “I do consult with some of the bigger megachurches as well, and clearly they have deeper pockets and an easier time relinquishing dollars to spend. But even a church that can only afford to help two to four people buy radios, for instance, and train those guys in a one- or two-day class … it can make all the difference in the overall security of any individual congregation.”
Lake helped pass a bill in Texas to make it legal for those with a concealed handgun license to serve on a church safety and security team. But he says weapons on church premises is a double-edged sword.
“In reality, CHL [concealed handgun licenses] provides zero training. It is simply a four-hour opportunity in front of an instructor,” Lake says. “There is no real skill level in either handling the weapon itself or the decision-making that goes into using the weapon. … If that’s all a person has, then they have an extremely deadly tool, and they really have no skill or experience in how to use it.”
But despite that potential risk, McReynolds of Stonegate says his church decided to allow concealed handguns.
“Being in West Texas, we’re in that mentality of, ‘We’re going to protect ourselves,'” McReynolds says. “Our concern more is if there was a shooting incident, there would be so many guns that would come out in defense, police officers have been concerned about figuring out who the good guys and bad guys might be.”
At the East Plano Islamic Center, Vice President Sameer Siddiqui says his mosque does not allow concealed weapons, but it does have a budget of $100,000 to $150,000 annually for security.
“The building is 24-hours monitored, using the closed-circuit cameras. There’s a team that monitors that continuously,” Siddiqui says. “Then, we have a very good working relationship with Homeland Security and the Plano Police Department. The police department police officers, they work with us … providing us with officers patrolling the area especially during special events like Friday prayers.”
Siddiqui says the mosque increased its security after recent mass shootings.
“We have procedures recommended to us by professionals, and what we do is, every so often, we perform a drill on a smaller scale to keep the people informed on what to do if an incident were to happen,” Siddiqui says.
He says the drills are meant to remind worshipers to not panic during a real emergency.
Lake, the security consultant, says some churches are resistant to addressing security or planning for incidents of violence. But he says with those churches, he reminds leaders about what happened at Sutherland Springs.
“Churches have historically been extremely soft targets,” Lake says. “I still feel like a lot of churches feel they are a safe environment and they are protected, and God’s going to take care of them.”
But he says a lot of other churches are starting to accept the risk of violence after Sutherland Springs pastor Frank Pomeroy shared his story.
“He obviously had a total paradigm shift after the event at his church, and I think other churches are waking up as a result,” Lake says.