Praise the Lord & Pass the Ammo

Volunteer security guards like the woman who confronted the gunman at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., this weekend are part of a growing trend at houses of worship around the country.

More of the country's 1,200 megachurches — places that attract more than 2,000 parishioners per week — are hiring guards or assigning armed parishioners to patrol, according to insurance executives and church officials.

"We urge every church to form a security and safety team," said Eric Spacek, the senior church risk manager at the GuideOne Center for Risk Management, which advices houses of worship on security procedures.

"Some churches have their own volunteers doing security, some contract it out to a security company, others hire their own guards like off-duty cops. We see controlled access, keyless entry doors, video surveillance and other measures taken by congregations."


Yet, violence remains a small part of claims made to the firm, according to Spacek. Five percent of church claims are crime-related and of those 80 percent are for theft and burglary with less than 1 percent related to violence on church property.

Jeanne Assam, a former cop in Minnesota, killed Matthew Murray, 24, in the hallway of the New Life Church, Sunday. The 42-year-old parishioner was hailed as a hero by the church's senior pastor, the Rev. Brady Boyd. "She probably saved over a hundred lives," Boyd said, adding that Assam had used her personal weapon.

Normally, Assam was Boyd's personal security guard but due to reports of the shooting at a Christian ministry near Denver earlier in the day that left two dead, she was reassigned and stationed in a rotunda of the church.

"That's the reality of our world," Boyd told reporters Monday. "I don't think any of us grew up in churches where that was a reality, but today it is."

The stationing of an armed guard and the presence of a few dozen other guards patrolling the church, which contained 7,000 congregants at the time, helped prevent a bigger tragedy, according to experts in church security.

"They handled it real well," said Chuck Chadwick, the founder of the National Association of Church Security & Safety Management. "So thankful that they had the foresight to have armed people there. It's a Godsend this happened, that she was able to head it off."

Chadwick says that he was working in corporate security when the Dallas-based Fellowship Church recruited him soon after Sept. 11 to help protect its congregation. Over the next few years, as the church grew from 6,000 to 20,000 congregants a weekend, Chadwick started meeting with a few other local church security experts to trade ideas. He eventually formed the Gatekeepers Alliance, which has since been renamed to NACSSM.

Over the last few years, his membership has mushroomed and now includes 230 churches around the country. Chadwick has also formed his own company, Gatekeepers Security Services, which provides licensed guards and video surveillance to more than a dozen churches in Texas.

"We think that any church that has at least a couple of thousand congregants a weekend should have at least one armed guard," said Chadwick, who says that some churches have been slow to take precautions because they feel that they're immune from violence.

Though churches are considered peaceful places of worship, they occasionally attract violence because they sometimes draw people who are troubled and prone to act out.

After a series of fires and burglaries at Baptist churches in Greenville, N.C., influential pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes organized an annual security conference three years ago to help churches deal with danger.

"It appears that evil and wickedness is abounding in an unprecedented way," Jakes said in a statement on his Web site announcing this year's conference. "It seems to be aimed at those of us who seek to do God's will. "

The conference also deals with other church-related crimes like embezzlement and child sexual abuse.

The government has also stepped in with the U.S. Homeland Security Department recently creating a grant program of nearly $50 million to improve security for religious and secular nonprofits considered at risk of terrorist attack.

And don't expect to see metal detectors in churches yet. "Unless a church gets blown up, we're not going to see that," said Chadwick.