I recently sat down for a discussion with Eric Williams, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) from Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Mississippi. He offered his perspective on best practices for safety and security in houses of worship.
Tell us about Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Mississippi
Brown Missionary Baptist Church was established in November of 1882. Today, it boasts a membership of over 15,000 families, celebrating 141 years as a guiding light in the Southaven, Mississippi community. Our Senior Pastor, Dr. Bartholomew Orr, has been with the church since 1989. He’s deeply involved in our community, serving on the boards of the Baptist Memorial Hospital and the Memphis Police Department Community Advisory Board. Dr. Orr leads the Mid-South Genesis Community Development Corporation, dedicated to strengthening families and promoting economic development in Memphis.
What is your role at the church?
As the COO for the past three years, I manage the daily operations encompassing Security & Risk Management, Insurance, Campus Care, Transportation, Sports, Building and Grounds, and Information Technology. My tenure at the church began in 2006 as a volunteer security officer. This experience as a volunteer instilled in me the belief that safety and security is everyone’s responsibility and is crucial to ensuring that your congregation feels secure enough to attend worship.
What proactive security measures have you implemented to enhance safety and security at the church?
Our security approach is about empowering our staff and volunteers to handle any emergency situation effectively. We’ve significantly invested in training our teams over the last 18 months and have developed a multi-layered security strategy. This includes training our parking lot attendants, greeters, and ushers in recognizing suspicious behavior and understanding how to report it, in doing so this creates a cultivating and vigilant security culture under the term “See Something, Say Something.”
Can you share an incident that the church has experienced and how you resolved it?
In June 2022, we received a threat against the church that someone was coming with a gun. Recalling similar violent incidents in other churches, we took immediate action by enforcing our lockdown procedures and collaborating with law enforcement. At the time, there were nearly 200 children in our building. The incident highlighted the need to enhance our threat procedures, particularly in training those who manage our phone lines on how to handle such threats effectively.
In 2016, we dealt with a trespasser armed with firearms and explosives on our property. We involved The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Shelby County Bomb Squad to help resolve the situation. The trespasser, who was mentally unstable, believed the church was encroaching on his land. This event taught us the importance of building strong relationships with law enforcement and being prepared for mental health crises.
How do you balance a welcoming atmosphere with the need for security?
For us, security is a form of ministry. Our security team prioritizes their ministry role, and we ensure that everyone is trained in hospitality. We find that a genuine approach to caring for our congregation is key to maintaining security discreetly.
Could you highlight some best practices or strategies that other churches can adopt to improve their security protocols?
Comprehensive training is vital. We encourage churches to conduct critical discussions on their readiness for potential incidents. We use decision decks with critical thinking and judgment cards to prepare our teams for a variety of scenarios, which helps us identify any program gaps. Adapting to new methods and maintaining open communication with insurance carriers are also practices I recommend.
What technological tools or systems have you found most effective in safeguarding your church?
We employ CCTV and access controls, as do many churches, but we also recognize that technology cannot replace the human element in security. For instance, an access control system is only good until someone forgets to close a propped-open door.
You were successful in obtaining a Homeland Security grant through the nonprofit security grant program (NSGP). Why do you recommend this program to other churches?
The nonprofit security grant program helped us address security vulnerabilities for which we lacked funding. It’s a valuable opportunity for churches to enhance their security measures, despite the extensive paperwork and adherence to strict rules. Simon, we used your free webinars on how to apply for the grant and the practical advice that you gave. Helped me to navigate the application process successfully.
Eric Williams serves on the Worship Facility Advisory Board and contributes his extensive experience in church operations and security management. He is the Chief Operating Officer at Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Mississippi.