Attacks Force Churches to Boost Security
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 7:00 AM
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- When a black-clad gunman walked into New Life Church on Sunday and started shooting, he was met with the church's first line of defense: a congregant with a concealed-weapons permit and a law enforcement background.
The armed volunteer, Jeanne Assam, shot the gunman, who police said may have committed suicide. New Life's pastor credited her with saving dozens more lives.
Churches want to present an open and welcoming image, but in an era of mass-casualty shootings and terrorism threats, the violence at New Life highlights a new emphasis on security. Some of the nation's estimated 1,200 megachurches _ places where more than 2,000 worshippers gather each week _ have been quietly beefing up security in recent years, even using armed guards to protect the faithful.
Meanwhile, many more, often smaller congregations typically don't have detailed security plans because they don't have the money or don't want to risk turning people away.
At Potter's House, a Dallas megachurch led by star pastor T.D. Jakes, a private security company employs a team of armed, unarmed, uniformed and plainclothes guards that keep watch over crowds in the thousands. Under a new Texas law, all nonprofits must use licensed security guards, and the church hired Classic Security in response, said Sean Smith, who formerly led the church's security detail and now works for the company.
For the past three years, Potter's House has hosted a church security conference, drawing more than 400 people this year to sessions on surveillance, background checks and other issues. Although precautions can be costly, money spent on security can end up being far less than liability and lawsuit risks if no action is taken, the church says.
"You see (security) anywhere but churches," Smith said. "You see it in malls, at banks, at concerts. Somehow, at churches we feel immune to violence. But it's been proven not to be the case."
Even without a security department, churches can train volunteers to keep watch for suspicious behavior, such as a visitor dressed in a long coat in summer or not making eye contact with anyone, Smith said.
The security plan at New Life Church may seem extraordinary. The church's volunteer security force is stocked with people with military or law enforcement experience, they carry radios and weapons, and there are evacuation plan calls for hustling worshippers into "secure zones" in the case of emergencies.
But charismatic New Life, Colorado's largest church with about 10,000 members, is no ordinary church.
Even before the founding pastor, the now-disgraced Ted Haggard, became a player on the national political stage, the church endured death threats against him. There were bomb scares and vandalism, including animal blood being splashed on the walls, said Patton Dodd of Colorado Springs, a former New Life Church staff member and editor with the Web site Beliefnet.
"Even back then we had people undercover in the congregation who were armed," Dodd said. "It was a big church at the time, it was Christian, and some people really hate that stuff.