On March 27th, the Covenant Presbyterian School in Nashville, Tennessee, fell victim to a tragic shooting that claimed six lives: Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all 9 years old; Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher; Mike Hill, 61, a custodian; and Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school. This devastating event has prompted many houses of worship to reevaluate their security measures, and again ask themselves the question: are we truly prepared for such unthinkable incidents? Having worked with thousands of churches for over a decade across many of the different faith denominations, my experience tells me that the reality is most are not. We still have denial of danger, security is still not considered ministry by most, and even the largest churches rely on volunteers to invest their own time and money to keep their church safe. However, with each mass shooting in a religious environment safety and security is gaining traction and churches start to make the change.
Context and Impact
My friend and fellow British American Dr. James Densley of The Violence Project, along with Dr. Jillian Peterson have researched every mass shooting in America since 1966. At the time of writing, there have been 188 such incidents where four or more people have been killed at the hands of predominantly male assailants. Although mass shootings are relatively rare Dr. Densley told me, compared to the approximately 17,000 annual gun-related deaths in the U.S. each year, they are becoming more common and more deadly.
The Nashville Presbytery, deeply affected by the recent tragedy, contacted me last week to counsel with local churches and address their concerns. As a father of two young boys, ages nine and twelve, I feel heartbroken knowing that children the same age as my youngest son did not return home that day. In light of this tragedy, churches are reviewing their security, but many are still asking what is the destination and how do we get there?
In 2019, I was working with a mega church in California when I had my own personal breakthrough in church security. For a church to be successful they need a structure, a program to follow that lays down a comprehensive and roadmap to follow. So, with the Nashville Presbytery, I revisited my plan for enhancing security in houses of worship, which I outlined in my best-selling book “Securing Church Operations: A Seven Step Plan for Church Ministry and Safety Leaders”.
Securing Church Operations – The 7-Step Plan
The plan comprises seven essential steps: establishing a robust security culture, forming a threat assessment team, securing the perimeter, conducting a security risk assessment, developing emergency operation plans, training staff and volunteers, and implementing a dedicated safety team. Let’s dive into each step in a little more detail to give you the blueprint to enhance your churches security.
Step 1: Create a strong security culture. A security culture is crucial in identifying and reporting suspicious incidents, securing entry points, and engaging newcomers to maintain a safe environment. Encourage community members to unprop insecure doors and approach unfamiliar faces with a helpful attitude, fostering a culture of safety and vigilance.
Step 2: Establish a threat assessment team. Develop a system for evaluating and responding to potential human threats, such as those communicated via social media, texts, emails, or online manifestos. This team should be equipped to analyze potential risks and coordinate appropriate responses to mitigate them.
Step 3: Protect the perimeter. Implement physical security measures to prevent unauthorized access and contain potential threats. Focus on securing entry points and creating barriers that delay or deter intruders.
Step 4: Conduct a security risk assessment. Identify vulnerabilities, develop appropriate mitigation strategies, and create a project plan to address security gaps. Security risk assessments can also help qualify for grants, such as the FEMA Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which offers up to $150,000 for security enhancements.
Step 5: Develop emergency operation plans. Implement, train, and test emergency plans to ensure preparedness and responsiveness during crises. Understand that security is an ongoing process; no location will ever be completely safe, only safer. The Covenant School’s lockdown serves as an example of a preplanned response that saved lives.
Step 6: Train staff and volunteers. Educate team members on how to respond to emergencies, prioritizing the most likely scenarios first, such as lost children, medical emergencies, domestic disputes, and severe weather events. Also, prepare for low-probability, high-impact incidents like active violence.
Step 7: Create a safety team. Establish a trained team to respond to various situations, from medical emergencies to high-stress incidents, providing support and assistance when needed. A safety team’s role extends beyond preparing for deadly force and encompasses a range of preplanned responses to ensure the well-being of the community.
The Way Forward
In the wake of any act of violence that takes lives, it’s crucial to reflect on what worked, what can be improved, and whether a comprehensive plan is in place. The 7-step plan I have presented has been the proven blueprint for thousands of churches making religious groups safer. As we remember the lives lost in the Nashville shooting, let us be guided by 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have.” My hope is that by working together we can create a safer world. We can strive to keep God’s children safe in both schools and places of worship, even if it requires us to all dig a little deeper to find the solutions.
Simon Osamoh is one of the country’s leading experts in securing houses of worship. He is a British American and founder of Kingswood Security Consulting and the Worship Security Academy. Simon spent 14 years as a Detective in England working serious and organized crime. He moved to the United States to Head Counter Terrorism at Mall of America, Minnesota. Simon is a Christian and has spent over two decades helping non-profits stay safe and secure. He is the author of two bestselling books 10 Powerful Strategies for Conflict De-escalation and Securing Church Operations. He is the host of the Church Security Made Simple Podcast and a member of the Worship Facility Editorial Advisory Board and has served Westwood Community Church as Security Advisor since 2014.