Too long ago I offered my first reflections on my first church security conference, the 14th Annual National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management (NOCSSM) National Church Security Conference held in early August in Frisco, Texas.
(As a reminder, this field trip was part of a church security collaborative inquiry team I will be involved with for next 18 months.)
I concluded my first reflection wondering what, if anything, was different about church security than other forms of armed self-defense? There was (surprisingly?) very little theology at the conference, and only one speaker really set his comments in the (unique?) context of religious organizations.
That speaker was Jeff Kowell.
Kowell is the retired Director of the Life Safety Ministry at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. This is significant. He was elevated to the position in February 2008, just months after the infamous December 2007 shooting at New Life (as well as the nearby Youth With a Mission training center) and the famous armed response by Jeanne Assam.
Frequent mention was made at the conference of Assam and New Life, which makes sense because it represents one of the few instances – if not the only instance — of a church shooter being stopped by a member of a church security team. Although armed church security is older than New Life – indeed, it goes back centuries on the American continent – the efficacy of Assam’s action in shooting the attacker stimulated considerable interest.
Enter Jeff Kowell. His website biography reads:
I retired as a First Sergeant from the US Army in 2004 with 20 years of service, and I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, received the US Army Combat Action Badge and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. I have served in Kosovo, Panama and Honduras. After retiring from the US Army, I worked as a Program Security Manager protecting a large classified government contract.
Prior to the shooting at New Life Church in December 2007, I volunteered as a Team Leader with the Security Team at New Life Church. As a result of the tragic shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado and the security teams ability to respond quickly, I was called to serve on the ministry staff of New Life Church in February 2008 as the Director of the Life Safety Ministry, overseeing the security of the 10,000+ member church.
I retired from New Life Church in August of 2017. As the Director of Life Safety, I led the New Life Church Security and Medical Teams. The Life Safety Ministry touched all activities at New Life Church as we served the body of Christ. I feel that Life Safety is a “priestly duty” and that we serve God’s people body, soul, and spirit to create a safe environment where everyone can worship, fellowship and draw near to our Lord Jesus without distraction.
New Life Church is not exactly typical of American congregations. According to the National Congregations Study, the median congregation in the United States had just 70 regular participants in 2012 (down from 80 in 1998 and 75 in 2006).
New Life Church has 10,000 members who take advantage of 350,000 square feet of building space on 42 acres of property (including 5,000 parking spaces). Even the 75 member church security team Kowell assembled was “not enough by any stretch of the imagination, especially since they are volunteers and not all of them are there at the same time.”
But the size and scope of New Life allowed (required?) Kowell to elaborate the structure and process of church security teams to a “very granular level.” It was that knowledge that he was asked to share in his presentation at the NOCSSM conference: “Church Security Ministry: Foundation, Formation and Training.”
Unlike the previous speaker, or those to follow, Kowell began his presentation by highlighting the Bible-based theme for his church ministry, found in Nehemiah 4:9: “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” In Kowell’s words, “They prayed and they posted a guard. Same thinking.”
His first principle for church security ministry, then, is: “Ministry first, security second.” Meaning, “Church security is more about ministry than it is about security.”
Church security is more challenging than other types of security because it operates under more constraints than the police or commercial security “because what are we trying to do?
We’re trying to spread the word of God, we’re trying to bring people to Jesus, and we’re trying to minister to the sick and the poor and the disenfranchised. When you’re saying, ‘Come,’ you get what you’re asking for. And they’ve got a lot of baggage. So you have to take the extra time. If you’re walking a beat in a park somewhere and you’ve got to roust somebody out, you do it. But if you’re in church, it doesn’t work that way all the time. . . . So this is a ministry. . . . [Church security] should share the goals that your church has, whatever they are.
Among Kowell’s handouts was a “Code of Ethics” to which each church security team member is expected to adhere. It begins with the following statement:
“The members of the New Life Church Life Safety Ministry serve in order to: Pursue the lost, Disciple believers, Equip leaders and Build the community of the Body of Christ, the Church.”
Which is not to say that having strong security skills is unimportant, including SOME (but certainly not all or even most) team members having “A” Badges which designate them as ARMED. (And which require them to pass a weapons skill qualification and undergo additional firearms training at least three times per year.)
But Kowell repeatedly highlights the fact that “church security is NOT about establishing a SWAT team.”
If you have a SWAT team in your church, you’re going to waste a lot of money and you’re going to have a lot of bored people. Because SWAT teams do one thing; they’re point and shoot. Everybody’s worried about the shooting, and we had a shooting, so I understand. And we stopped the shooter. . . . But most of the time we’re doing other things.
He adds, “You don’t want a guy who says, ‘Oh, I was a Navy SEAL and this is what we did for church security when I was in the Navy.’ Well, all [Navy SEALs] do is kill people. OK, good, but what else do we do?”
The reality of church security ministry teams, Kowell asserts, is that “95% of the time a team member is in a position to minister to others.” Most often it is not even about any physical intervention at all, armed or unarmed.
To the extent that church security ministry devolves to a variant of armed security in general, it will fail in this broader mission.
Kowell’s presentation at the NOCSSM conference is part of a his broader ministry-focused approach to security and safety in churches called “FaithShield.” More information on his website: https://jeffrykowell.com/