God and guns: Texas pastors undergo security training a month after Sutherland Springs

Pastor Jack Graham. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

PLANO, Texas (RNS) — Shooting holes in a “paper bad guy” during target practice? That’s easy.

Defending a house of worship against a real gunman? That’s a whole different story.

As he led a security training on Tuesday (Dec. 5) at a Dallas-area megachurch, Sgt. Mike Gurley warned against thinking that worshippers licensed to carry handguns can offer reliable protection.

“To assume they’re going to be effective in an active-shooter situation is comparable to giving me a set of golf clubs and expecting me to win the Masters,” the retired Dallas policeman told the crowd of 650 pastors and other church leaders.

The event, titled “Church Security in the 21st Century,” was held at the 42,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church exactly a month after the worst church shooting in American history.

That mass shooting occurred about 300 miles south of Plano at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5. Twenty-five members ages 1 to 77, including a pregnant woman, were killed.

RELATED: Could it happen here? How churches are preparing for a mass shooting

Gurley, principal of the security firm Teamworks Consulting Inc., said even people licensed to carry firearms need specialized training to be able to respond to active-shooter situations.

He urged churches to develop policies for minimum training and qualifications for anyone armed with a gun and to consider involving members with law enforcement and military experience. Helping with the security team requires just as strong a calling and “God-given talent” as any other service, he said.

“Sutherland Springs was not a gun control issue,” he added. “It was a sin issue. We have to safeguard the body of believers.”

The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which has 2,600 member congregations, co-sponsored the event at Prestonwood.

The Rev. Jack Graham, the megachurch’s pastor and a former president of the national Southern Baptist Convention, said God put the idea for the free seminar on his heart.

“One of the things a pastor is assigned to do is to guard the flock, and that includes spiritually and biblically to guard the flock,” he said. “But I also take very seriously the assignment to watch over the flock, God’s people, in a physical way.”

When registration for the first seminar quickly filled up, the church scheduled an identical second one for a week later, said Mike Buster, Prestonwood’s executive pastor. Already, 500 pastors and church leaders have signed up for the Dec. 12 event. Additional seminars are planned all over Texas.

Pastor Mike Buster. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

“Obviously, it’s on the minds of every pastor and staff across the country,” Buster said of church security. “In nearly every church, they’re looking for ways to better secure their congregation and to … develop some emergency plans, to build relationships with local law enforcement agencies as well as to have this culture of awareness with their people, and to be ready for anything that might happen.”

Prior to the Sutherland Springs massacre, church volunteer Stacey Bottolfson said her family’s Pentecostal congregation — Life Central Church in Plano — had been lackadaisical about security.

“I know that at our church, there are several people who carry in church, but we need to get a plan together in case something happens,” said Bottolfson, who came to the seminar with her husband, Tim.

What happened in South Texas inspired similar soul-searching by the Rev. James Jenkins, senior assistant pastor of Friendship Baptist Church of The Colony, north of Dallas.

The Rev. James Jenkins. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

“It was emotional, especially when I heard about the young people, the babies, that got killed because of this craziness,” said Jenkins, explaining why he chose to attend the seminar. “And being a father and a grandfather, of course, that really hit home with me. So it even made me want to move even further … to make sure the people who are entering our church … can know that they are entering into a safe haven when they come to worship.”

Michael Gossett, campus pastor for New Beginnings Baptist Church in Longview, 130 miles east of Dallas, said he immediately started praying for the families when he heard about the First Baptist Church shooting.

“It’s just — it’s tragic,” Gossett said. “Because you think about, ‘Man, how would I respond if I was the pastor at that church? How would I respond if I was the dad to one of these kids?’ It’s just heartbreaking.”

In response, the East Texas congregation is beefing up its own security team: “We’ve been more diligent in our preparedness, because the truth is, you become somewhat complacent in your approach, and unfortunately, a tragedy such as that serves as a reminder that we do have to be diligent in being prepared.”

At the one-day seminar, topics ranged from “How to Incorporate Your Parking, Usher and Greeter Ministries into Your Security Plan” to “What You Can Do Right Now to Formulate a Security Plan and Assemble a Safety/Security Team” to “Creating an All-Hazards Approach to Managing Incidents.”

The more time that passes, the easier it’ll be for church leaders to move on from the Sutherland Springs tragedy, Gurley told seminar attendees.

“It’s human nature to let this go because it hurts,” he said.

But he begged: “Please don’t let this feeling pass. The people on Nov. 5 were only doing one thing: They were gathering to worship. But they became the victims of a warped and twisted mind. We cannot let those people die in vain.”

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.


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  • Statistics show that many more mass shootings are stopped by unarmed good guys. Those CCL people often fear being identified as the shooter. The good guy with a gun may not have been the person who stopped the church shooter. In fact there were several armed people in the church. But the confusion and chaos, smartly, kept them from drawing their guns.


    In the Oregon college shooting there were 5 armed individuals in the school (not a gun free zone). All of them kept their weapons bolstered for fear of being mistaken for the shooter. In the Colorado Christian terrorist attack on a planned parenthood clinic it was an unarmed veteran who stopped the Christian terrorist.
    According to the data cited in the article 21 of the mass shootings between 2001 and 2013 were stopped by unarmed civilians and 5 were stopped by armed civilians.

  • I’ve always found it confusing not living in the USA, perhaps you can help. Where would you find your theological backing for protect your flock with a gun? So without American law, rooted only in theology, how does that work with a God who calls for turning the other cheek, loving enemies, not resisting an evil doer, etc.

    It’s honestly always been confusing to see. The idea of armed people and security to protect a church is so outside the relm of normal here its interesting to see.

  • Great question Philip. Let’s start with this. A man enters the sanctuary and starts killing everyone: from the babies to the adults. What would YOU do? Would you just sit there and let him kill, knowing that some of them may not even be ready to face their Maker. WWPD. What Would Philip Do??

  • Well there is a HUGE gap between I’d shoot him and I’d sit there and do nothing.

    So I would attempt to stop the shooting, but however I do that would need to be consistent with Jesus and his teaching, yes? To me Jesus teaches nonviolent resistance so I would do that. I may die, but if I don’t trust Jesus and his way when its really difficult do I really trust him and his way?

    For me opening the door to force, especially lethal force, is not consistent with Jesus teaching.

  • If you claim to be Christian and commit an act of terrorism you are a Christian terrorist. Anything else is a no true Scotsman fallacy. But i never expect Christians to take responsibility for the actions of other Christians. Even though everyone else is expected to.

  • It is clear you don’t have enough faith in your god to protect his flock so you need a gun. That means you place your faith in a gun over god. But you go ahead and enjoy your idolatry.

  • No it isn’t ignorance. My whole point is that there is no deity, Allah, God, Krishna or what have you protecting you. That is why you need a gun.
    Furthermore, bringing more guns inti churches increases the likelihood of gun violence. It is perpetuating the culture of gun violence. The notion that the only way to protect yourself is to commit violence. And as I understand that was one of those things your deity’s avatar railed against.

  • “Protect the innocent” because your goddy boy ain’t there to do it.

    Guns guns guns you love your guns. That’s all your belief really consists of.

  • Your god doesn’t exist, but guns don’t make the situation worse. See Australia. If you don’t get it, see Australia again. Rinse and repeat. Gun control is the only way to go.

    Speaking of stunning ignorance, that’s you in a nutshell!!!!

  • In other words, your god isn’t there and you love your guns guns guns. Try eating a few of them.

  • Its the way in which Christians are taking precautions. Those precautions need to be in alignment with Jesus and his teaching. So use of lethal force doesn’t seem to align.

    Jesus and his teaching appears to me to be clearly non-violent, so we need to model that in all we do.

  • Places of worship should never have to be in fear of attack by anyone, this is completely unacceptable. You go to a place for worship to rid yourself of fears, not to be in fear.

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