Long before a man took aim at the congregants of a small Texas church, Tim Miller, a former U.S. Secret Service agent and founder of a national security consulting firm, preached the need for armed protection in houses of worship.
“After yesterday, it’s becoming an easier sell,” Miller said Monday from the offices of his other job: chief of security at the Palm Beach Gardens-based Christ Fellowship Church.
“The church can only do what it’s supposed to do if they have a safe environment for people to come to. If people don’t feel safe coming to church, they’re likely not to come,” Miller said.
While Miller’s church, one that draws 40,000 to its nine campuses, has its own security team and augments those people with hired police and trained volunteers, there are simple measures he said he believes could curb the deadly toll right away.
“Having people on duty in the parking lot. That’s something every church in the country could do this Sunday,” Miller said. Give that person a way to communicate to the inside. “The most important thing you must have is time – time for police to come, time to plan, time to escape. If you don’t have time it goes very, very horribly.”
The Texas shooter was unchecked on his way in and killed 26. It was the latest of more than 10 mass shootings this year and comes just six weeks after another gunman stormed a Tennessee church, killing one person in the parking lot and injuring seven others inside before shooting himself.
One tally of deadly incidents on church properties counted 67 deaths from January through August of 2017, according to the non-profit Faith Based Security Network. That was up from 65 all of the year before, but down from 77 in 2015 – the year a white man went into a black church in Charleston, S.C. and killed nine people who were there for bible study.
Churches are considered soft targets, unlike so-called hard targets such as courthouses with limited access points and a regular police presence. They also come packed with emotional ties to family and beliefs – traits that make them both comforting for worshipers and potential targets for others, Miller said.
Armed security, however, hasn’t always been embraced.
In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, an editor at Christian Today wrote, “But buying guns for armed guards? There’s something in most Christians that recoils at the idea. We are servants of the Prince of Peace. We struggle with the idea of violence at all, regarding it as at best a necessary evil. Importing the tools of death into a place where the gospel of abundant life is preached seems profoundly wrong.”
The writer, Baptist minister Mark Woods, noted that the number of deaths in proportion to the tens of thousands of churches with millions of adherents was still “vanishingly small.”
The approach to security at local churches varies.
The Catholic Diocese leaves decisions to its various parishes. No rules or policies demand or prohibit armed security, a spokeswoman said Monday. Meanwhile, the ADL publishes a wealth of advice including, 18 Best Practices for Jewish Institutional Security, which suggests appointing a security manager and practicing evacuations and lockdowns but makes no mention of arming security.
A cottage industry seems to have cropped up to supply the ecumenical world with guides to everything from de-escalating someone who is verbally disruptive to responding to active shooters.
In the shadow of mounting fatalities, it did not surprise Miller when about 10 churches sent representatives this past month to talk safety at the first gathering of a group called Secure Church Florida.
“We’ve had private security guards for as long as I’ve been here and I’ve been here 23 years,” said Rev. Gerald Kisner of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach. Are they armed? “Sometimes,” he said.
The weekend shooting and the one in September has nonetheless put churches on a higher level of alert.
The Tabernacle, which claims a congregation of 300 to 400, sent representatives to a recent security seminar, Kisner said. In addition to hired security, Kisner suggested some congregants are likely armed, “We don’t really talk about that a lot,” he said before launching into a reminiscence, “My old pastor in Ohio years back, we were talking in a meeting back when we were seeing churches getting robbed for the Sunday offering. He said, ‘I pity the fool who comes to rob us on Sunday. They’d be in for a great surprise.’”
The collection of neighborhood churches under the Family Church umbrella, including the church on West Palm Beach’s waterfront, pays for local police to patrol each of its 10 campuses on Sundays and during certain events, Pastor Kevin Mahoney said. In addition to that uniformed presence, there are also plainclothes patrol, he said.
“We have established security plans for our ushers and greeters to be alert to any suspicious activity,” Mahoney said. The work comes when balancing the church’s mission to welcome all while still protecting those within from babies to senior citizens, he said.
The layers include security in the parking lot and added eyes in places where children are cared for, Mahoney said. Family church turned to Christ Fellowship Church for that model.
“We need real security with the number of people we’re bringing in,” said Miller, counting 40,000 congregants over nine campuses and weekend events like their fall festival that drew almost 12,000 to the property “That’s a big responsibility.”
The church has its own security and augments that with paid deputies and trained church members.
In his past life as a Secret Service agent, Miller’s job was to keep trouble far away from what he was protecting. But securing a church — a sanctuary of the ages for the troubled and sick, is a more complicated mission: “The church is a hospital. We don’t want people who are hurting not to come.”