Pastors, are you prepared for a mass shooting in your church… | The Better Samaritan starring Jamie Aten and Kent Annan
On Thursday, June 16, a lone gunman attended a potluck dinner at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and shot dead three church members. All succumbed to their wounds.
While gun violence is a historic problem within Birmingham’s city limits, the Cahaba Heights neighborhood in the suburb of Vestavia Hills is often considered one of the safest in the entire state of Alabama.* Gun violence simply doesn’t happen in this suburb. Until the time came. If church shootings can happen in Vestavia Hills, that kind of violence can happen anywhere. Also in your church.
A common pastoral response to gun violence in a neighboring church is to reach out to the other pastor with thoughts and prayers, perhaps a moment of silence during the sermon that follows, and offering a graphic or two on social media. Maybe send food or flowers. And then quickly on. There are just too many difficulties in the world and pastoring is difficult enough in the stressful post-pandemic world without adding additional concerns to the daily mix of counseling, preaching and leadership.
But counselor, those whom God has given into your care need more than just your thoughts and prayers for others. They need you to simultaneously ponder, pray, and prepare for worst-case scenarios in the particular denomination to which you have been called.
Many organizations offer formal training opportunities for faith leaders working to respond to threats of gun violence. Guardian Defense and Full Armor Safety Solutions have comprehensive training programs available nationwide, as do many denominational governing bodies.
In addition to structured training through these organizations, all pastors should consider the following preparation steps:
Connect with trauma counselors near you.
Now is the time to start building relationships with local care providers before you need those relationships. The St Stephen’s congregation returned to their building to pray three days after the shooting. A team of local counselors, including trauma rehabilitation specialists, therapy dogs and others, were on hand to support parishioners and visitors from the community between and after morning services. Plans to support families with young children, youth and others were already in place and announced during the services. Pre-planning similar support systems with caregivers in your area can set the stage for an appropriate and timely crisis response after traumatic events.
Work with your local police department.
If you don’t already have one, develop a relationship with the local police chief and discuss crisis response. Questions to ask yourself: How long will it take for police to respond to a shooting at your church? What steps does the boss want you to take in your building to reduce the threat of gun violence? How often should church workers be trained in active shooter prevention techniques?
Train your lay leaders.
This is essential at all levels. The St. Stephen shooting happened at a Thursday night potluck dinner, an atypical time for the attendance of trained first responders. It’s becoming more common to have trained security professionals available for Sunday morning services or other busy events, but churches rarely engage this type of help for smaller events like Bible studies or potluck dinners. Take the time to train everyone leading groups of any size in your building how to recognize the signs of impending violence and what to do if it happens in their presence. In addition to hands-on training, invest in a biblically-based and science-based Spiritual First Aid Certification for each lay leader. In the aftermath of a crisis, trained and equipped lay leaders can help bear the burdens of their fellow citizens and pastoral staff, whose attention is inevitably diverted in these circumstances.
Strengthen your communities.
Resilience begins before the crisis begins, and all congregations deserve leaders who will help them be resilient and faithful in times of violence and uncertainty. Exactly what that looks like in your church depends on where those you minister stand in that moment in terms of living in strengthened faith. Each assembled group of believers deserves a specific plan that depends on leaders who prayerfully seek God’s will in this area. However, there are general guidelines that can provide a helpful starting point as these plans develop:
- Preach the whole Bible, including the so-called horror texts and the often difficult to read Lamentation Psalms.
- Wean the congregations of the toxic positivity that so often creeps into the pulpit and onto the church pedestals. The world is not as it should be, and that fact needs to be acknowledged on a regular basis.
- Remind everyone often that all emotions are created by God and confirmed by Scripture. Jesus wept, Jesus sweated blood, David was touched all over, and Paul’s letters are filled to the brim with sentiment about all sorts of things.
Proactively reach out to church neighbors.
Get a picture of their contingency plans and the type of support they need from you in the event of a traumatic experience in their building. Help make contacts, invite your managers to attend training sessions in your buildings,
Gun violence continues to increase. In 2022 there were more than 250 mass shootings in the United States. Nearly 700 in 2021, up from 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019. **As much as we’d like to think our churches are safe from these statistics, recent events in Alabama show that simply isn’t the case anymore is. It’s time to soberly face the responsibility of caring for those around us as we hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
* “Safest Cities in Alabama”, Alarms.org https://www.alarms.org/safest-cities-in-alabama/
** Data from Gun Violence Archive https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/
Christa Cordova lives just a few hundred meters from St. Stephen’s Church. She is a Bible coach and ministry effectiveness consultant who works with individuals and pastors to examine their lives, leadership, and work practices through the lens of the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Christa holds degrees from Fuller Seminary (M.Div., 2018) and the University of Kansas (Journalism, 2003).