Jesus may have taught his disciples to turn the other cheek, but these days some churches are hiring armed security teams–just in case that whole forgiveness thing doesn’t work out.
A flurry of violent crimes in churches has shaken the image of houses of worship as safe havens. In October a priest in New Jersey died after being stabbed 32 times in his parish rectory. In May an abortion provider was shot in the head inside a Kansas church. A Maryland woman was killed in February by her spurned husband in her church’s parking lot. And that was all just this year. After a gunman killed two people and wounded seven others at a Tennessee church in the summer of 2008, conservative Christian outlet OneNewsNow polled 4,000 churches and found that three-quarters had no security plan. Houses of worship have long prided themselves on keeping their doors open to all. And many have assumed that respect for their sacredness–and perhaps fear of divine retribution–would keep them safe from crime. But as schools and businesses use more-sophisticated security systems, churches are becoming the soft targets in some communities. Although slayings are still rare in houses of worship, security experts say churches are increasingly vulnerable to less violent crimes such as burglary, robbery and theft. So far this year, the Christian Security Network has tracked more than 1,000 crimes against churches, including 40 violent incidents, 86 arsons and more than 700 property crimes, resulting in more than $25 million in losses. Jeffrey Hawkins, the group’s executive director, has spent nearly three decades in law enforcement and security services. He says many religious leaders fear that obvious security measures, like guards and surveillance cameras, will make a church seem unwelcoming. “It’s a paradigm shift that has to happen,” says Hawkins, who works with churches to assess risk and develop security plans. After a church security guard in Colorado Springs engaged in a shoot-out with a gunman who had already fatally wounded two people in 2007, the switchboard was flooded at Guide One, an insurance company that has worked with churches on security issues since the 1960s. Says senior risk manager Eric Spacek: “We heard from a lot of churches wanting to know if they should arm their security teams.” That still strikes many congregations as extreme. A common first step is to improve security outside. One of Hawkins’ clients is Houston’s Berean Baptist Church, which had its moment of truth about security needs when the senior pastor’s car was stolen as he sat just a few yards away in his office. “Cars were stolen from the parking lot all the time,” says executive pastor Hutson Smelley. “And the burglaries got to a point where it was more than once a month.”