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‘Calculated risk’ of ministry once again discussed after latest church threat

Church security protocols recommended by experts include: Limit access to the sanctuary during worship, secure the children’s area, have eyes everywhere. BP photo

WAYCROSS, Ga. (BP) — Ben Smith expects a meeting soon with his church’s security team after news broke this week that an armed man made online threats before being stopped short of entering a Virginia church’s worship service.

“It’s one of those areas where you always you feel like you can do more,” said Smith, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church. “And yet, we’re trying to balance the responsibility of planning and implementing procedures with the understanding that we’re a church and want to be open to the community.”

Smith understands that tension personally. On Sept. 15, 1999, he was a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth. He and his wife, Dana, had planned on attending Wednesday night services like always but were running late and decided to just go out to dinner.

That’s why they weren’t at the church when a gunman opened fire, killing seven.

It was a chaotic night, he remembered. “People were trying to get in touch with each other, figuring out who was at church and who wasn’t,” Smith said.

“It was long ago, but it changes you. You think and function differently,” he added. “There’s some lingering anxiety that goes with the calculated risk of doing ministry.”

Smith finished his degree and entered the pastorate. A few years ago during worship, Dana noticed someone unfamiliar enter the back of the sanctuary and make his way to the far right side of the front row. She was in her customary spot on the front row of the far left.

The fanned layout of the seating gave her a distinct view of something that troubled her – the man wore a hoodie and, more to the point, did not take his hands out of his pockets.

“Nothing happened,” Smith said. “On the way home, I asked her that obligatory question pastors ask their wives – ‘How was the sermon today?’

“She said, ‘I have no clue.’ She couldn’t stop watching that guy.”

Church security experts spoke to Baptist Press following a deadly weekend of shootings in May 2022. Planning and preparation for the unthinkable have become a necessity and carry importance for many areas of ministry.

“It’s a matter of scope, of scale,” said Mike Everett, director of security services for Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis. “With churches it’s the same way. We all face the same issues, whether it’s budgetary or congregation size or the number of people you have to serve on your security ministry.”

“It protects your growth and gives you credibility,” said Ben O’Neal, a 23-year Army veteran who through his position at that time with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board provided training for more than 600 churches.  

“It communicates that when you bring your family to that church, they’re going to be safe,” said O’Neal, who is no longer with the GBMB but still provides security training. “You have somebody looking out for you so you can freely worship and learn.”

Smith’s church uses many of the same protocols experts recommend. Limit access to the sanctuary during worship. Secure the children’s area. Have eyes everywhere.

One incident from a few years ago caused a stir. Two travelers stopped by during worship and asked to use the bathroom. Moments later, they were unable to be located. Security team members moved about quickly, but couldn’t find them. Security footage later showed them leaving a few minutes after arriving.

It was simply someone who needed to take a restroom break before moving on. But some church members wanted to significantly tighten accessibility to the church and basically shut it down to members only.

“Their heart was in the right place, to protect our people,” Smith said. “But we’re still going to invite the community to hear the Gospel preached even if it brings an inherent level of vulnerability.”

Central Baptist has several members who are in law enforcement, and security measures on the premises lay strictly under their purview. However, Smith knows where he ministers. Bad guys should, too.

“This is South Georgia,” he laughs, “half of my senior adult ladies may have weapons in their purses.”

He’s kidding, of course. Then again, there was the time when one of those senior adult ladies – now with the Lord – came by his office years ago to show off the tiny revolver she had just purchased and that fit perfectly in her purse.

“She sang in the choir,” he said, “and told me with a wink, ‘If anything goes down, I’ve got your back.’”