Church leaders in Minnesota: 'We can't be naive anymore'

First Baptist Church opens to public, week after mass shooting
A rose is left in the fence surrounding the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

As church bells called worshipers together across Minnesota on Sunday, the First Baptist Church in Sutherland, Texas, was on the minds of many church leaders.

"It feels like the kind of thing that you know, it could happen anywhere. So I think that it's really hit home for people," said Larry Wohlrabe, bishop for 228 northern Minnesota congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The 26 deaths in Texas raise the sense of urgency around church security, said Wohlrabe, who believes many churches have created security plans, but in some cases never finished the plan or implemented it.

"Churches, pastors — they're busy, they've got a lot of things going on," said Wohlrabe. "But this incident has, I think, led a lot of pastors to look in the bottom of piles and bring some things up to the top of piles."

Shootings in places of worship are not new. There have been more than a dozen in the U.S. over the past decade.

And while security may be a newer challenge for many Christian churches, especially those in small rural communities, mosques and synagogues across the region have steadily increased security measures for years.

"It's probably been a fairly long period of time since the Jewish community had a laissez faire attitude towards communal security which includes the synagogues," said Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas executive director Steve Hunegs. "I think we accept the fact, God forbid it should happen, that it's possible. Therefore, vigilance is critically important."

Hungegs said his organization shares what it has learned about securing a place of worship with other religious organizations that ask for advice.

"We can't be naive anymore and I think maybe that's a little bit of what Sutherland and other recent shootings are teaching us," said Carl Nelson, who is president of Transform Minnesota, an evangelical organization that works with about 300 churches across the state.

Nelson estimates about half of those churches have a security plan in place.

"We live in a society where we have people who suffer mental illness, or people who are angry. Combine that with fairly free access to guns and you end up with a deadly cocktail," said Nelson.

A half-dozen pastors who spoke with MPR News all said they were concerned about security. Some have well-established plans in place, but others feel unprepared. All declined to be identified or have their churches identified for this story.

Some churches hire professional security. Some rely on law enforcement professionals who are church members. Others train volunteers to recognize potential signs of trouble.

"More and more I hear from congregations and I know of instances where they are relying upon their volunteers who have conceal and carry permits to be there and to be armed," said Nelson. "So they may not be visible, but they are there."

Wohlrabe said companies that provide insurance for churches offer assistance in developing security plans, and churches are sharing their plans with others.

In Minnesota, there are a handful of small companies the specialize in security consulting and training for churches.

While many churches have long had plans for floods or tornadoes, Wohlrabe said violence and bloodshed in a church has long been seen as a societal taboo.

"I'm afraid this is one of those instances now where we see another thing we thought we could count on no longer holding true," said Wohlrabe.

And questions raised by security concerns can challenge the very faith that brings a congregation together for worship.

"It impacts the mission and ministry of the church," said Wohlrabe "Will we express the love of God to all of our neighbors? Will we start second guessing who we smile at, who we invite to church, who we welcome in?"

Wohlrabe said he intends to see that church leaders he serves have access to training and the tools to make security a priority.

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