(TNS) — A shooting in a small-town Texas church in November left 26 people dead and opened the eyes of many area faith leaders to a grim reality:
It can happen anywhere, even in their own sanctuaries.
This week, the Dodge County Sheriff's Office met with area faith leaders to address security in places of worship. Church leaders, who commonly welcome everyone with open arms, were urged to maintain their friendly atmospheres, but with a layer of security.
"It really didn't come up until Texas," Dodge County Emergency Management Director Matt Maas said. "Churches have to look at it in a completely different way. We've had discussions with schools and workplaces; we haven't had any with those based in faith communities."
The forum was originally going to be held in the county board room in Mantorville, but Sheriff Scott Rose had to move it to Kasson-Mantorville HIgh School when more than 100 people planned to participate.
Participants, many representing area churches from West Concord, Dodge Center, Stewartville, Rochester and Albert Lea — took notes and discussed their concerns over protecting their congregations.
"There's a need to address this (and) we want to be a resource for them," Rose said. "We want to talk about it, and we're trying to raise awareness. This is the first step. (The Texas shooting) happened in a town of 600. … It very well can happen here."
Rose said that the training and open dialogue with places of worship could ultimately save lives. The training outline is the same as that used in schools and workplaces: Run. Hide. Fight.
Rose said that the next step would be a site visit, where Sheriff's Office personnel would check out church layouts and establish individualized plans for safety procedures.
The Rev. Dean Gunn of Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kasson said his congregation has around 130 members, and attendance averages around 70 people per service. He said he wanted to attend for forum to prepare himself with information before addressing training his own congregation.
"The Dodge County Sheriff's Office does a really good job with presenting this information, and we are addressing it," Gunn said. "It was really helpful to plan a presentation to the congregation without scaring them."
'We have to plan and be prepared'
The Nov. 5 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, left 26 dead and 20 injured.
Churches have regular schedules and multiple entrances, making them likely targets for a shooter intent on killing as many people as possible, Maas said.would choose to target a place of worship.
Because a shooting happened in a town hundrds of miles away, it doesn't mean that a similar-sized church in Dodge County or anywhere in rural Minnesota could be immune from a seemingly distant incident.
"We have to plan and be prepared," Maas said. "You have a chance to see these warning signs. It's everyone's due diligence. They (Sutherland Springs) didn't think it was gonna happen to them. … we have to get away from that mindset."
Some key points presented to church leaders:
Be alert to signs of potential trouble.
Help ensure the safety of yourself and your colleagues with appropriate intervention.
Reach out for help if you're concerned with someone's behavior to help mitigate risks, and point them to resources.
Some leaders said that their churches already have extensive security measures and safety plans in place. However, smaller congregations have limited resources, Rose said.
Participants discussed limiting the number of open doors to the church, placing more ushers near the entrance to the sanctuary and determining the legalities concerning church members who have a permit to carry a firearm.
The training provided through the Dodge County Sheriff's Office can be applicable to other parts of the community such as theaters, schools and workplaces.
"Doing this type of training helps (the public) make a difference," Maas said.
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