The parish secretary at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in High Point isn’t allowed to open church doors for strangers when the Rev. Ken Kroohs is out of the office.
After a break-in a month ago, the Rev. Vernon King had security cameras installed at St. James Baptist Church.
“I’m of the posture to praise God with one eye and watch people with the other,” said King, whose own grandmother Alberta King was killed by a deranged gunman in 1974 while at church in Atlanta.
With increasing incidents of crime aimed at houses of worship, church security has become a theological issue — balancing the vulnerability of ministry with real-world sensibility.
In January, a man attempted to abduct two children from a Boys and Girls Club program at Rankin Memorial United Methodist Church in High Point.
In June, a man was charged with breaking into Bethel and Springfield Baptist churches in High Point and with setting Springfield Baptist on fire.
“I think there’s a paradox, a kind of tension here, because on one hand churches want to be vulnerable to the community in ministry and make sacred space available to people who need that space — as places of prayer,” said Bill Leonard, the dean of Wake Forest University’s Divinity School.
“On the other hand, they have to follow Jesus’ words and be wise as serpents,” he said.
St. Christopher’s, for example, doesn’t hand out any money or food on site. That doesn’t mean the church turns its back to those in need; it works with agencies such as Open Door Ministries.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s life,” Kroohs said. “We’re a small church, and we’re fairly isolated.”
Even as clergy seek new ways to make connections with people, especially those at crisis points in their lives, they are attending security conferences and looking for ways to be proactive in response to property crimes, child safety and the proper way of handling money.
So, what of that biblical forgiveness that’s supposed to be practiced among brothers when it comes to a person’s past?
It comes with a background check.
“There’s a real conflict point on forgiveness and redemption and how society, or ultimately a jury, would view it,” said Eric Spacek, an expert in church safety at GuideOne Insurance.
“If they’ve got something in their background ... it doesn’t mean they are excluded from the life of the church, but you don’t put them in a position of trust — for example, involving children.”
Spacek urges places of faith to view security measures as a ministry.
“We try to get them to embed safety as part of their culture,” Spacek said.
Often, there are no boundaries between faith-related institutions — churches, synagogues and mosques — and the corner convenience store or bank.
The results can be sobering.
After a worker was killed and five others were injured when a man with a gun barged into the office of the Seattle Jewish Federation, “we at Temple Emanuel have tightened security greatly,” Rabbi Fred Guttman said.
The security team there is coordinated by a 20-year veteran of the Secret Service and involves off-duty uniformed Greensboro police officers.
Even with security on duty during services, children who leave for the rest room during worship at First Baptist Church must be accompanied by a parent. It’s one of a laundry list of measures implemented in recent years to promote child safety.
“I think the issue is this: The church is typically a soft target,” said the Rev. Ken Massey, the senior pastor at First Baptist. “Church people trust and welcome newcomers. We are eager to believe the best about someone. And when someone volunteers to work with children, we think they are a god send.
“We have started doing a background check on anyone, not just paid workers , who works with minors.”
Some newer facilities have security plans that include glass walls in children’s areas.
When it comes to financial security, more houses of worship are making sure the person who keeps the books isn’t the same person writing the checks.
“Whether it’s spoken or unspoken, we get the attitude it can’t happen,” Spacek said. “We see so often that it’s someone who is a longtime, trusted employee, and no one’s taking a second look at what they’re doing.”
“We urge ... a balance between faith and works,” Spacek said.
Contact Nancy H. McLaughlin
at 373-7049 or nmclaughlin