POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Following deadly church shootings in several areas of the United States over the last few years, church leaders across West Virginia are beginning to be proactive when it comes to securing their places of worship.
Leaders from 48 different churches packed Grace Baptist Church near Point Pleasant last week to hear a three-hour seminar from West Virginia State Police Sgt. Jim Mitchell called “Securing the Faithful.”
“We are here to talk about stopping the threat,” he said. “To stop evil from hurting innocent people.”
Mitchell, the state police chaplain and himself a pastor, shared facts and figures about deaths at faith-based organizations throughout the U.S. since 1999.
“Places of worship are no longer off limits,” Mitchell told the crowd that numbered close to 300, some traveling from as far as 90 minutes away to hear the presentation. He said there’s been 884 deaths at faith-based locations since 2014.
“These are not shootings, these are mass murders,” Mitchell said.
Pastors and their leadership teams are seeking a balance when it comes to security, Grace Baptist Church Pastor Jonathan Pinson told MetroNews.
“It’s hard to focus on the Bible, it’s hard to focus on worshiping God, if you’re concerned about your own safety,” Pinson said. “It shows the leaders of churches, pastors and church leaders, are aware of the need and are willing to respond to that need.”
Mitchell’s presentation dealt with obstacles to church security including the ‘bury your head in the sand” attitude. He went as far to say that if church leaders take no action to secure their buildings and protect their congregations they are being negligent.
Mitchell later told MetroNews he understands why some are a little apprehensive because churches are supposed to be welcoming places.
“But yet they understand there is a need for it. So what they are wanting to do is balance the two and so that’s why I developed the course this way to help churches understand it’s okay to do this. It’s necessary to do this and they do this in a way that it’s still welcoming and loving to the community,” Mitchell said.
During his presentation Mitchell repeated again and again for churches to take the simple step of locking their church doors after the church service begins. He also focused on other approaches including forming a security team that would come up with a church policy and even conduct active shooter drills.
Mitchell doesn’t shy away from suggesting churches have certain members of their congregations armed for security reasons but he stressed that’s not the only step.
“We always think of firearms but there are so many other things we can do like physical security measures, lighting, securing the doors, having people posted to observe and to watch—sometimes that’s the most important things we can do,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell told the crowd it’s not about having a shootout inside the church but the goal is always to attempt to defuse the situation first and foremost. He said a security team made up of trained church members could take care of that.
“A safety team is a ministry,” Mitchell said.
Pastor Pinson agreed.
“I think it just starts with a handful of people getting a burden to want to make the overall ministry safer,” he said. “Just having a handful of people who are willing to put together a think-pool, if you will, and just recognize that ‘no action’ is not going to work. We have to have some action present.”
Mitchell announced for the first time at the Point Pleasant meeting that the state police will send a representative to churches upon request to make safety assessments. He said only those churches serious about addressing the issue should contact the agency.
“If they take it serious, develop a safety team, start their policies, then the state police will provide someone to come and do a building assessment for them to help guide them a little bit in things they need to look for,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell has held a handful of the seminars in different parts of the state in recent months. He usually does them on Tuesday nights and they last about three hours. Pastor Pinson, who spent seven years as a police officer, said Mitchell’s presentation was a great way to get started.
“He understands it from the law enforcement dynamic in how not to be a victim. But he also understands it from the pastor’s perspective of the fact that we’re not trying to assemble teams of vigilantes,” Pinson said. “So he understands the balance that needs to be there and that’s why I think he’s key. The Lord has blessed him with the ability to speak with pastors because he is one.”