Hundreds of church leaders from across the United States and from all over the denominational spectrum filed into Pastor Jack Graham's Prestonwood Baptist megachurch in Plano, Texas, on Tuesday for a free seminar on church security, a conference that was in such high demand they had to schedule more than one.
Mike Buster, Prestonwood's executive pastor, told The Christian Post in an interview that his church was expecting as many as 700 people to show up for Tuesay's seminar and that the church had to schedule a second seminar for next Tuesday, Dec. 12, because of the great demand in the wake of the deadliest church shooting in American history that took place about four hours down the road in Sutherland Springs in early November.
"We have never done this before. This is obviously a response to what had taken place in South Texas and we always had churches wanting to know how Prestonwood does what we do. We just wanted to be a resource," he said.
"We are partnering with the Texas Southern Baptist Convention in this but this is not just for Baptist churches. We've got Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Spanish, Korean and different language churches. We wanted to do something to help the thousands of churches that are needing help in this area. Although most [small churches] never think about it, what happened in Sutherland Springs shows that small churches are being targeted."
Buster explained that church leaders came from as far as North Carolina and New Mexico, with several coming from other states in the southeast region such as Arkansas and Louisiana, to get advice on how to better secure their congregations.
While many smaller churches may not have the size or the budget to implement many of the security strategies that Prestonwood does, the seminar's goal is to share how churches can better secure their premises without taking on any extra costs.
"We realize that most churches can not do what we do. They don't have the resources," Buster said, adding that security is a necessity "for all churches" today. "But there are rings of protection that most churches can be aware of and train their volunteers in."
"A lot of these churches are just soft targets," he continued. "It really doesn't matter what size church it is. We realize that most churches — probably 80 percent of our churches — run 100 or less. We have churches that are coming to the conference that have 10,000 members and some churches that have 50 members but there is something that all churches can do to help protect their people."
Prestonwood, which has over 40,000 members and is headed by Graham, the former Southern Baptist Convention president, takes many different steps to ensure that the church property and congregants are safe.
Buster explained that the church hires local police officers to secure the premises during Sunday and Wednesday worship services and special church events. There is at least one uniformed officer standing guard at the church at all times when the building is open.
In addition to the multiple uniformed officers and police vehicles present, the church hires a contracted security team that is present at the church 24/7. The church also has 24/7 surveillance.
While many small churches can't afford to hire contracted security or pay for police protection, Buster said there are other ways for churches to take a proactive role when it comes to security.
One is to have a well-coordinated volunteer team that communicates with security during worship services.
"Here at Prestonwood, it all starts out here in our parking lots. We have a volunteer team out there that is watching, observing and helping and are in constant communication with our security team. We have people at every door," Buster stated. "We have people at every door, people who are doing more than just opening doors but watching and looking and observing. We have all of our ushers who are observing and helping find their seats and are in communication with security."
Prestonwood's volunteer team is comprised of former police officers and others with formal training. The megachurch also has volunteers willing to look after individual sections in the church, meaning that they have about four or five rows in which they keep tabs on people sitting in them.
According to Buster, it is crucial that churches do their background checks when it comes to people who are attending the church.
"The threat is not just from outside but also from the inside," he stated. "We want to share how to screen and check and do background checks."
Buster said that Prestonwood also plans to "take the show on the road" and host security seminars in South Texas, East Texas and West Texas.
"We are trying to help churches that don't have the resources and can't even send somebody to a conference in Dallas. So we will go to them," he assured.
At least one other church in Texas has also held security summits.
Last month, about 1,000 people attended a security summit at Celebration Church in Georgetown, Texas, that was organized by the Williamson County Sheriff's Office.
"After the tragic mass shooting in Sutherland Springs we felt the need to educate churches and people on how to protect themselves," Patricia Gutierrez, a spokesperson with Williamson County Sheriff's Office, told CP. "Celebration Church is in our county and it is a large church. Pastor Joe Champion did not hesitate to allow us to use his facilities."