After Shootings, Middle Tennessee Houses of Worship Balance Open Doors With Safety | Nashville Public Radio

After Shootings, Middle Tennessee Houses of Worship Balance Open Doors With Safety

Nov 10, 2017

As at many churches, Wednesday night is fellowship night at the Brentwood Hills Church of Christ.

Up to 300 worshippers mill through the church gymnasium during the evening meal — a line of women in autumn-themed aprons serves spaghetti, salad and sweet tea to retirees, children and parents fresh from work.

They're here for a quick meal before heading off for Bible study, but back in a conference room, two volunteers aren't wrestling with the writings of the Prophets or St. Paul.

Instead, Don Barker, a retired deputy with the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, and Dick Garner, a former high-ranking agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, are hammering out how to keep these people safe.

"What I’m proposing is that we put together the options to present to the (Board of) Elders," Barker explains. "I don't think we need to not inform people what we're doing and why."

The mass killing over the weekend at a Texas church has some people rethinking how congregations approach security. Should doors always be kept open to anyone? Or is it time to post armed guards?

But behind the scenes, many church leaders have actually been confronting those questions for some time.

At Brentwood Hills, the security discussions have been going on for more than a decade. As a result, the church has put in security cameras and started locking doors. A traffic officer keeps watch during services.

Now, it's discussing hiring a second officer to patrol the grounds. They've even talked about banning large bags, says Jonathan Seamon, the church's executive minister.

"I hate to say that we've come to that," he says, "but we're just trying to do what is best to make the place safe for those that are there."

Each event like Sunday's attack in Sutherland Springs — as well as last month's shooting in Antioch, the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, S.C., and even the 2008 shooting at a church in Knoxville — sends jolt of renewed urgency, much as the clergy sex abuse scandal caused many churches to add background checks and other safeguards for people who work with children.

"Each time there's one of these episodes, it causes you to bring a few more things to the table," says Seamon.

The chances of a shooting at any particular church are slim. Brentwood Hills' location near Interstate 65 and the Radnor rail yard means that an industrial explosion or chemical spill are more likely scenarios than a gunman.

But the consequences of an attack are high enough that church leaders say it must be considered.

"It just has to happen once to destroy this whole church," says Barker.

Long history as targets

Houses of worship have long been targets for attackers, for reasons ranging from the ideological to the personal. One expert who trains churches to prepare for the possibility of violence reports that there have been more than 1,600 such incidents since Jan. 1, 1999, including 453 that resulted in deaths.

Robberies were the main motivation for attacks, followed by domestic disputes and other personal disputes.

The challenge is how to create spaces that are harder to attack without turning them into fortresses. In Nashville, many churches have turned for advice to a Jewish house of worship, Congregation Micah in Brentwood. 

"I think most synagogues, unfortunately, have been thinking about it for maybe hundreds of years," says Celia Lerch, Congregation Micah's executive director. "What we want to try to create are communities that are very safe and very secure but yet still welcoming."

Perhaps the thorniest question is guns. For some congregations, nonviolence is a bedrock principal. And there are practical risks, like the risk of lawsuits and accidental shootings.

But many pastors also feel a duty to protect, says Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm.

"I don't think there's a gun control policy outlined in Scripture," he says. "There is a commitment to human life and to the protection of human life, but I think Christians can disagree on what the specific policies ought to be to get there."

Loving in a 'risky way'

"The call to love my neighbor in a risky way, to me, is a stronger priority than the call to defend myself or to protect myself," says Jeff Brown, lead minister at the Woodmont Hills Church.

The congregation is located just a few miles up Franklin Road from Brentwood Hills. It's part of the same denomination and roughly the same size.

Woodmont Hills, too, has been revisiting safety policies. So far, that hasn't meant locking down during services or adding guards. But Brown says some members of his church's safety team are armed, a bit contrary to his own preference.

"You know, there's a fine line," he says. "We want to be welcoming. We want to be wise."

A dilemma that houses of worship are increasing forced to wrestle with.