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Sat. Oct. 25 8:13 pm
Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 2:44 PM
Updated Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 10:12 AM

Church shooting prompts security concerns

Staff Writer
JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
Joel Danko, a volunteer member of the church security team and narcotics investigator with Richmond County, stands guard as two men sort cash, checks and tithing envelopes after receiving the offering during the Sunday night service at New Life Christian Center. Because of his employment, Danko is permitted to carry a firearm in a place of worship and escorts the offering from the sanctuary to a secure location. It is one of many safety precautions the 15-person, volunteer security team uses at the Augusta church.
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It was once unthinkable.

An armed gunman on a church campus?

“That didn’t happen. Messing with the church back when I was younger was taboo,” said the Rev. Phillip Maxwell, the assistant pastor over security at Augusta’s New Life Christian Center. “Not anymore.”

The fatal shooting at a College Park megachurch two weeks ago reminds pastors that their churches are uniquely vulnerable.

Addicts, the homeless, sex offenders and the mentally ill walk though their doors.

On Sundays, hundreds to thousands of dollars are collected in tithes while parking lots are filled with unattended cars.

The churches themselves are targets for anti-religious sentiment.

Any given weekend, there’s a new, unknown face in the crowd.

New Life Christian Center tries to be prepared. Forty-eight security cameras dot its Wrightsboro Road campus.

“Every time we have an activity with kids, we have someone monitoring those cameras,” Maxwell said. “That was one of our first priorities when we moved onto this campus six years ago.”

IT WAS ABOUT that time that Maxwell visited World Changers Church International, where, on Oct. 24, police say a former maintenance man walked calmly into the chapel and opened fire, killing a prayer leader.

Maxwell was on a mission to learn about how other churches were taking care of their flock. He also visited renowned pastor Rick Warren’s megachurch – Saddleback Church – in Californ­ia.

“Church security – any kind of security – is about presence. If people know there are security teams walking the hallways, it serves as a deterrent,” Maxwell said. In light of the World Changers shooting, “We’re going to start retraining ourselves. In security, nothing happens for months on end. You have to stay on your toes.”

More than a dozen incidents have occurred at places of worship in Georgia and South Carolina this year. Nationally, there have been more than 100 this year, according to Carl Chinn, who tracks violence at U.S. churches and faith-based organizations.

The former engineer for Focus on the Family has recorded hundreds of “deadly force incidents” on his Web site since 1999. He counts more than 600 such incidents, including abductions, attacks, suspicious deaths, suicides and shootings, from 1999 to present day.

At 16 percent, more incidents are related to domestic violence than any other cause. Personal conflicts and robberies trail behind, with a handful of incidents also being traced to robberies, gangs, drugs or mental illness.

The shooting at World Changers Church is the sort of incident that prompts concern but rarely change, said Jacob Malone, the minister of church administration at First Baptist Church of Augusta.

“While in seminary in Louisville, my wife and I lived in a mobile home park. If a mobile home burned in another city or another part of town, there was no one at my door,” he said. “One day one burned in our park and for the next week we had insurance people trying to sell us trailer insurance. The sales people knew that, until it hits close to home, it is only a momentary blip.”

The same rule applies to churches’ security efforts.

“I have gotten some comments but few are willing to pay the price to make things secure,” he said.

SECURITY IS A CONSTANT process of refining what’s working and isn’t working, said the Rev. Kyle Poole, the pastor of Midland Valley First Church of the Nazarene in Clearwater.

A few weeks ago, five of the church’s HVAC units were stripped of copper, causing thousands of dollars of damage. The church already had security measures in place to address the safety of kids who attend school on campus and church members who come to worship on Sundays. The incident, however, prompted staff to re-evaluate its anti-theft systems.

“We had to install security in all our units. We didn’t want our church members to be vigilantes, running around trying to protect the place,” Poole said. “The reality is it is sad we have to protect our facilities like that. We live in a broken world.”

In addition to the security upgrades, Poole said he was inspired to try another approach as well: Prayer.

“The initial response was anger. Why would someone do this to a church?” Poole said. “But then we realize Christ loves us all. He can change the heart. I was convicted to pray for those who had done us harm.”

Awareness of security gaps – and resources to help churches meet their unique needs – is growing.

Insurance companies like Brotherhood Mutual offer a church security training kit, with sample policies and plans and emergency scenarios.

National Organization of Church Security & Safety Management hosts annual conferences on the topic.

A RECENT WORKSHOP on church security in Augusta was attended by representatives of more than 30 local churches and law enforcement agencies.

Still, the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, which hosted the workshop at First Baptist last month, says 75 percent of churches in North America have no real security plan in place.

The Rev. Oscar Brown is pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, which sits outside of Edgefield on U.S. Highway 25.

The workshop taught him that small churches aren’t immune to risk. Rural churches aren’t either.

“It’s a volatile world we’re in,” he said. “No one is prepared for what might come up.”

Like Midland Valley, the church’s AC units were stripped of copper over the summer.

“We’ve have an alarm system which helps, but we have a small and elderly congregation,” he said. “There’s only so much you can do without creating this fear. If they’re fearful, they won’t come.”

The congregation, which numbers fewer than 100, is elderly and not all efforts to improve security would be welcomed, Brown said.

“We could do security cameras, but cameras didn’t stop that fella from going in and shooting their prayer leader,” he said. “You have to draw the line someplace. It’s a church. You don’t have to make it Fort Knox.”

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