By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
MILLINGTON — Andy Willis knows something about security. As director of security for Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, he is in charge of the largest Baptist church facility in the state of Tennessee — over one million square feet sitting on 300 acres. He also oversees the safety of the about 15,000 people who gather there each Sunday morning.
Willis led the breakout session, “Security Warning: Churches a Rising Target for Attack,” during the annual meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention Nov. 10-11 held in Millington.
He proposed security measures, but added that they should be conducted as part of “the ministry of security.”
The mission of the organization, in this case the church, should come first in a security program, said Willis. As an example, when a man who was found in his car in the church parking lot asked for a minister, Willis and other security officials of the church called a minister though the man was not making complete sense. They tried to minister to him, said Willis, but they also called the police.
“You have to balance what the threats are against the people who are hurting,” he said.
He explained that the three huge crosses which mark the site of the Bellevue Baptist, Cordova, are “magnets for good people and bad people.”
Security personnel at some churches may range from unpaid volunteers working in the parking lot, men who are licensed security personnel, and men who are protecting a guest speaker. However, this kind of unorganized approach should be reconsidered, recommended Willis.
All people functioning as security personnel at churches, whether armed or unarmed, paid or unpaid, must be licensed with the state, said Willis.
These licensed guards also should be trained, he added. Churches can find more information about training, which is provided in most communities, from the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
But even before considering security guards, a church should get to know the county sheriff and his staff and other local law enforcement officials, Willis said. They are professionals in the area of security, they can be relied upon, and they may be a source of security workers for the church. Law enforcement personnel have many skills needed in churches, including crisis intervention training, he added.
Another important resource for churches are insurance professionals, said Willis. Insurance coverage is necessary for every church and covers security personnel working in a church, he added.
Most churches think they face more risk from an active assailant, but instead it is the sexual predator of children, observed Willis. He recommended the screening of workers, use of cameras, especially in areas where there are children or others who can’t speak for themselves, and a check-in/check-out protocol.
Churches also must develop policies concerning whether members can be armed at church. Willis said then the church should post the sign, “No Guns Allowed” or “Guns Allowed Only With Authorization.”
If they allow guns, first a member must be licensed, then apply for authorization with the church, said Willis. He suggested that many church members who wish to carry a gun be discouraged unless they have a very good reason such as protecting their family in their neighborhoods. The risk is that if an incident occurs and a church member is holding a gun when law enforcement arrive, the person might be shot by law enforcement because of their training. Willis is a police officer who has served in Memphis.
Finally, Willis explained that when confronted by a protestor or disruptive individual during a service, the pastor or another person, usually a staff member who is the officer of the incorporated entity, should say something like, “We love you, we want you here, but you must sit down and be respectful of our worship.” Also law enforcement should be called immediately whether or not the person obeys.
If the person does not obey, then the pastor should say, “Since you have not complied, you must now leave the property.” At that time, the person should be encircled by security personnel of the church until law enforcement arrives. The person should not be touched. If touched, the person could claim he was assaulted. These steps also should be taken if the disruptive person is a church member, added Willis.
These actions protect the church in several ways, including from the damage which can be done by a video of the incident posted on YouTube, said Willis.
“You really want to let the community know that you’re a hard target rather than a soft one,” said Willis.