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story.lead_photo.caption Travis Story (second from left) of Story Law Firm in Fayetteville speaks during a question-and-answer panel at the church security preparation seminar hosted by the Arkansas Baptist Convention at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock on Monday. Story, along with the convention’s assistant executive director Greg Addison (left), Sherwood police officer Jeff Hagar and North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis, each led topic sessions at the seminar. - Photo by Francisca Jones

About 250 pastors, staff and members of Baptist churches attended a seminar Monday devoted to church safety and security -- hosted by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention -- at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock.

Greg Addison, associate executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, said seminars have been held in the past but that there has been a surge in interest since the mass shooting in November at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The shooting left 27 people dead, including the shooter and an unborn child, and injured another 20.

"Church folks love church folks, and so they always pay attention when [it's] church folks," Addison said. "But when it's your tribe it hits even deeper, closer to your heart. ... That church in Texas was a Southern Baptist church, and so all of our churches are even more aware of the need [for security], because that was one of our tribe."

While there is the need to address safety with regard to medical response plans, fires or natural disasters, if a church has to choose only one area in which to enhance its security, its focus should be on the children, according to Travis Story, a lawyer with Story Law Firm in Fayetteville. Story's practice specializes in church law and reducing church liability.

"It's one of the easiest places to get a win, and it's one of the places that's most fraught with [possible situations] that can hurt your church," Story said of such security measures.

Story recommends a name-tag system such as the one used at Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas, where he is a member. Parents and guardians must have a tag that matches their child's in order to retrieve them after group meetings or services.

"It doesn't even have to be a system with name tags. It's just about getting the right kids in and the right kids out," Story said.

PREVENTING SEXUAL ABUSE

Addison spoke about another aspect of child safety -- preventing sexual abuse.

"Let me tell you, we're not going to have an active shooter this week in Arkansas, but somebody is going to call my office because somebody touched a kid in Arkansas Baptist churches," Addison said.

In his nearly four years with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, Addison said there has seldom been a week when he hasn't received a phone call reporting abuse of a child. The convention partners with Ministry Safe, which focuses on child safety in churches and will be included in future seminars.

North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis led about 60 attendees on a walk-through of Park Hill, where he is a member, to review exterior and interior safety measures.

Stopping in a hallway splashed with oversize depictions of greenery and flowers, Davis recommended background checks for any staff or members involved in child care.

"A lot of these places do background checks -- Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts -- and the churches have to do that now as well. [Because] the predators, they say, 'Well, I can't be in the Boy Scouts and I can't be in the Girl Scouts, I'm going to come join a church," Davis said.

OPEN, WELCOMING PLACES

Jeff Hagar, an officer with the Sherwood Police Department, reminded the audience at a sanctuary safety session that church security members concerned about active-shooter situations should still help their houses of worship remain open, welcoming places.

"We need to remember that we're just an extension of the staff, we're an extension of the congregation," Hagar said. "Our job is to be friendly and to greet people and to be helpful.

"If a worst-case scenario comes to play, then we need to be able to deal with that, but worst-case scenarios are not normal. ... The reality is those are very, very rare instances. I think we should be proactive, and I think we should have a plan, but we can't let that influence the way you treat people."

When discussing the topic as a church, Addison advised leaving politics out of the talks and consider what parishioners will be most comfortable with.

"We're not politicians. It's not a political thing," Addison said of the decision. "We are gospel preachers. Our church is a part of the Army of God. ... You have to know the personality of your church and [choose] the plan that's best for your people and that they can be comfortable with the most and bring them together. So it's going to look different in every church."

ACTIVE SECURITY TEAM

Mike Lefler, an associate pastor at Central Baptist Church in Conway, said the church's security team is active and that he and another person from the church attended the seminar to ensure they have their security points covered. Lefler said those who carry a weapon into Central Baptist must have a letter of approval from the church.

"We've had to revisit that just because of Texas, because we're sort of a soft target," Lefler said, referring to the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs.

"I was at an intense security class last week that I went through, and I was just trying to keep up with the laws, make sure our church is doing everything according to the law, and state laws are hard to keep up with," Lefler said. "They're always changing."

Tammie Fitzgerald attended as part of a group from Galilee Baptist Church in El Dorado, along with Clay Dickson, the church's pastor, and his wife, Sue Dickson. Part of the motivation in coming, Fitzgerald said, was the increase in the number of children the church looks after -- 27 on a Wednesday night, which is up from five or six. She said the church also has struggled with keeping certain doors locked during services.

And although Fitzgerald was married in the church decades ago and four generations of her husband's family have been members of Galilee, she said she's ready to move forward with changes the church will make to become a safer place to worship.

"You want the church to be an open invitation to visitors, but it makes you think nowadays, just like that [shooting] in Texas," Fitzgerald said. "Who would've thought somebody would just come in and kill a whole lot of people?"

"It's not Andy Griffith. It's 2018."

More information on future seminars will be available at absc.org.

Photo by Francisca Jones
Church security seminar attendees look on Monday as North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis opens a defibrillator during a walk-through security check of Park Hill Baptist Church in Little Rock on Monday.
Photo by Francisca Jones
Arkansas pastors and church staff walk through the nursery area of North Little Rock’s Park Hill Baptist Church.

Religion on 03/17/2018

Print Headline: SAFE and SECURE

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Comments

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  • RBear
    March 17, 2018 at 8:24 a.m.

    Leave it to the Baptists to leverage an agenda of fear to promote another agenda of guns. It's a part of their congregations' culture and maybe it's merited when many of your members are gun nuts. After all, many of the recent shootings in churches were a result of domestic issues.

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