Following opening remarks by U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon, Jr. and Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman, and presentations on “Law Enforcement Support to Protecting Houses of Worship,” the public seminar on “Protecting Houses of Worship” sponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina concluded with “Local Area Houses of Worship Discuss Security.”
Jason Kellhofer of the U.S. Attorney’s Office staff moderated a discussion with a lay security team member Gordon Sutton and two pastors, Chris Harris and John Ormond of Mt. Pleasant Church in Greenville.
Kellhofer began by noting that safety is not a novel concept for houses of worship. Gun violence is an old wrinkle that has taken new urgency today.
He then walked the three panelists through a series of questions eliciting information about their congregations and their major security concerns. The issue of resources was readily apparent as both Harris and Ormond pastor congregations with around 80 members (average for US congregations), while Sutton attends a congregation with nearly 600 weekly attendees.
Pastor Harris major priorities in hardening his church were fixing the exterior doors (which they don’t current have enough money to do) and having someone monitor their security cameras during services. Pastor Ormond began responding to security concerns this year by installing a door bell security camera, changing out doors to have windows and key card access, and upgrading their alarm system.
Sutton spoke to the church “safety” team he leads. (He doesn’t call it a “security” team, as he associates security with law enforcement.) Everyone on the team must have a concealed handgun license, go through a background check, have AED training, attend other regular training sessions, and “be of good spirit and of service to the Lord. You must have a serving heart because at the end of the day it’s just like teaching Sunday school. It is absolutely what I consider a service for God.”
How does this translate to smaller congregations, though? Pastor Ormond said you have to work with what you have. His church board designated one person the safety team leader and that person recruited what they call “the magnificent 7.” Recruiting safety team members rather than taking volunteers is important. Members of the safety team have to have a concealed handgun license and be of good moral character.
He suggests including someone with law enforcement experience because they will bring up things that a regular civilian won’t think about.
They must also be dedicated to the team. The team meets once a month for training and Pastor Ormond joins them in their training. The team members must also be “willing to be trained. Because if you grew up in the country like I did you pretty much learned how to shoot a squirrel and this-that-and-the-other thing. But this is not about shooting. This is about keeping people safe, knowing what the rules and laws are, and a dedication to doing it the proper way.”
The safety team has become a “brotherhood,” but the pastor can see a time when there could be a female member down the road. This could be strategic because most people will not look at “this nice looking lady there with this nice handbag being on the security team, yet she may be packing a Glock in her purse. She may have brought a Glock for the Flock.”
For his part, Pastor Harris says there is no formal training for his safety team. “Basically, we’re a country church . . . We just have people with guns and if someone comes walking in, somebody’s going to get shot. We all might die together, but someone’s getting shot. That’s kind of where we are, unfortunately, in a worst case scenario.”
Building on Pastor Ormond’s comment about shooting, Harris notes that being able to shoot a squirrel or a bird and be proficient with a gun is “a good thing. But that’s only the beginning. I’m very confident that I can hit what I shoot at. Very confident. But when should you shoot and when shouldn’t you shoot? When should you engage and when shouldn’t you engage? Where should we sit? . . . There are so many questions that need to be addressed by a professional. . . . If you want to learn how to pray, I’m a professional. But if you want me to teach you all the things on how a safety team should function, I don’t have the answer to that.”
Moderator Kellhofer then directed the conversation to the issue of guns specifically, noting that congregants, boards, and pastoral staff could all have different views on the issue. He asked Pastor Harris to comment on whether there has been resistance to armed people in the congregation. Harris said there had, including one congregant who said he would not attend a church where people had guns. In response, Harris told the same story from Nehemiah that Jeff Kowell told in his presentation at the NOCSSM national conference: “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (4:9).
He concluded, “So I have to go to the Bible and say it’s not my opinion, what I know. Because my opinion doesn’t matter. God told us to pray to him first, and then let him tell us what we should do, and he told Nehemiah to post a watchman . . . and when the enemy comes to be prepared.”
Gordon Sutton continued the discussion asserting that “there have been guns in church forever. And the people that were in church had no idea they were there.” His security team tries to be as low key as possible because they don’t want to do anything to disrupt the services in any way. If anyone asks, they just say they are there to provide for the congregation’s safety along with the medical team.
Pastor Ormond has had some people ask questions, but no active resistance. His church is the kind of church “where people don’t get greeted, they get hugged during the service when you’re leaving or coming in. What’s funny is when some of these older ladies grab the preacher and they wrap their arms around they go [making gasp of surprise] and they look at you like [expression of surprise] and I’m like, ‘Yes, ma’am, that’s what it is.’ . . . And I said this is here for our safety.”
To those congregants who ask, “Is this really necessary?” Pastor Ormond responds, “Look at the news.”