Church violence is a matter of not if, but when, after New Life incident

Churches now have a national association for training and information to deal with threats.

By Ronald E. Keener

On the Sunday morning of December 9 last year a man walked into an office of Youth With a Mission in Arvada, CO and opened fire, killing two staff members and wounding two others.

Jeff Kowell, a volunteer security person at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, 80 miles away, was notified early that morning of the YWAM shooting. In charge of the security inside the church, he says, “I stationed security team members at a central location by the Information Desk so a watch could be maintained over the three main entryways to the main building.”

Satisfied with the coverage and with no indication that the church was in danger, Kowell left the building at noon and took his family home. There he saw the news flash that a gunman had come to the church at about 12:30 p.m. and shot two church members to death and injured three others as services were concluding.

Eight months later, and with the realization that the megachurch needed to be better prepared for such possibilities, Kowell is on staff with the church as life safety director.

That Sunday morning when shots rang out, New Life Church went into lockdown and every church in the city went into high alert, reported a news service. Senior Pastor Brady Boyd said at the time that the church “had a very detailed plan in place that we put into effect immediately” to evacuate people. The church has about 11,000 members and some 7,000 people reportedly were on the church grounds at the time of the shooting.

Churches are finding, regrettably, that they need to be better prepared for the possibility of such incidents, especially when they are of a high profile like New Life Church. Evangelical leader Ted Haggard had been pastor there until he resigned two years ago in disgrace.

At the time of the shooting, John Casey held the voluntary position of director of security at the church. Casey is a former California police officer and for 20 years was in law enforcement, security, and anti-terrorism in the military. Today he is executive director of Security and Safety for Colorado Springs Christian Schools, and president of Paragon Training Group that trains law enforcement, military, medical, church and school agencies.

The National Association of Church and School Security [], which Casey founded with Tim Priebe (see sidebar), was born out of the New Life shooting, has local chapters where law enforcement and security people can come together, and has a Web site where security and medical personnel and others can talk about threats in a secure environment. A church security conference is scheduled at Heritage Christian Church in Denver, Nov. 6-8, where experts will talk about predicting violence and aggression, responding to threats against churches, and featuring a panel on the New Life Church incident.

Church Executive posed questions to New Life’s Jeff Kowell, director of Life Safety Ministry, who is a 20-year Army veteran and was corporate security manager for ITT Corp.:

Before last December, what approach did the church take to security?

We had a small life safety ministry team that was all volunteers. We covered the interior of the church and the exterior parking lots on Sundays and for special events. I was a team leader for the interior security. A lot of the people had prior military or law enforcement backgrounds, although it wasn’t necessarily a requirement. We did everything from search for lost children to handling medical emergencies and coordinating with police and fire departments.

Has that operation become more sophisticated than it was?

I’m on the verge of upgrading our radio system and portable hand held radios that we carry to a digital system with building mounted repeaters. That will extend our range. The problem that we have had is that because the New Life campus is large, it’s made communications in certain areas problematic.

Shootings are the exceptions, thank God. What does security do on the average Sunday?

Lost children and medical issues are a part of the work, but it is also active security. We wear plain clothes and we try to blend in with everybody else. We have people sitting in the church during services and people wandering the buildings and hallways and in the children’s areas. Obviously, from the events of Dec. 9 the role is more than just finding lost kids.

How did the Dec. 9 incident change everything?

The thinking from the security standpoint was to be able to stop anybody who came here with an intent of harming people. Today from the viewpoint of a law enforcement or security person on something happening is not a matter of if, but a matter of when. I wouldn’t say that we were expecting [the Dec. 9 incident], but it was one of those things that we had on our minds.

Because the church being as large and well known as it is?

It’s large and very well known, and people like the senior pastor are very well known to the media, so it represented a target for someone looking to make trouble. We’ve had threats against the church and there was a robbery awhile back. We have one of our team members monitor the Internet, and we work with the police intelligence unit to make sure there are no threats in the area that we don’t know about.

You are tasked with what role?

My charter is to create and maintain the life safety ministry, which is more than just security. We have a medical team, ushers, and an incident command team. So my job is to train, resource and empower them to do their jobs.

What’s the incident command team?

They are volunteers and are trained in the National Incident Management System, setting up an incident command post. If we have a fire or tornado we have representatives from all of the key areas on the staff who set up a command post. That way we can direct our efforts during an evacuation or a lock down.

We have plans that tell the teams where to go and what to do, like the ushers, hospitality staff, and those responsible for different zones of the building.

Have you expanded the volunteer group?

We expanded our security team by six people, and we have an usher group of some 50 persons who serve in the traditional usher role. But we’ve trained them in being a little more intentional in helping us maintain security and safety in the sanctuary when the service is going on. We have a medical team of a couple doctors, nurse and and EMT every Sunday. They sign in and we know where they are sitting in church if there is a medical situation. We do a lot of first response stuff until the emergency services arrive.

Putting the matter in perspective, there are more lost kids than violent situations that church security confronts?

When churches come to us, I ask how many have had a shooting in their church, and everybody says no. Then I ask how many of them have had a medical problem, and everybody says yes. I tell them they need to focus their efforts where they’re going to be the most valuable, especially smaller churches. I jokingly say that if they have a SWAT team in their church, they’re going to be really bored and you’re spending a lot of money and effort for very little return. You want to focus on serving people.

A lot of security is best done by people who care and just take the time to approach someone who looks out of place and ask them if they’ve been helped.

They don’t have to be security people, they can be volunteers who wear a vest and have a flashlight and nameplate that says greeter or usher.

It’s more about helping people in distress than a possible violent situation?

Right, we’re going to do both — be prepared for the worst but be capable of doing the everyday, taking care of people stuff. When you have a lot of people in one place, you’re going to have lost kids, hurt people, medical problems, someone who forgot their medicine, agitated people with problems — they come to church to be ministered to so you have to do more than just plain security.

What few things should churches be thinking about in providing security?

First, I think they need to look at what they already have. Churches may have more than they think, and the main resource is people rather than going wild in getting all the specialization. Be clever about how you can harness resources that God’s given you in volunteers.

Second, think about how to use your volunteers without burning them out. They have families and jobs and are usually willing to serve, but if you tap them too hard they get tired and burned out and you end up hurting yourself that way. You can over task your volunteers and they’re going to cause a diminishing return on the service that you get from them.

Third, the person in charge of the ministry has to be willing to educate the church staff because it [a security focus] is a change of culture. They are not used to thinking in terms of security and safety. Even Jesus talked about the sheep and the watchman who lets him in, and the sheep recognize his voice, but outside the sheep pen are the wolves.

Churches and schools were happy, safe places where people went to learn  or relax and have fun and be blessed. So it’s a matter of a very long process of trying to change or broaden horizons.

We try to educate and train the staff so they see with another set of eyes.

Security Group Borne from church incident

The National Association of Church and School Security (NAOCSS) was founded in December 2007 after the shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO. The two founders, John Casey and Tim Priebe, were on New Life’s security team at the time of the shooting. Casey had for three years previous to the shooting been the volunteer head of security at New

Life and was instrumental in developing the team and policies that were in place that day.

After the shooting, New Life was inundated with questions and requests from churches across the nation. Seeing a need,
Casey and Priebe started the association to assist churches with training as well provide information. Combining both founders’ past law enforcement experience, Casey’s extensive military security experience and Priebe’s 14 years of legal practice, the association is uniquely posed to handle the issue of security and the church.

Churches can become members through the association’s Web site, The association provides training and information to assist all types and sizes of churches. The training covers how to start a security team through how to maintain and train experienced and established teams. Members can sign up for instant electronic notification of events or threats that could be taking place in their city or state. Members can also communicate with one another to inform and discuss local issues that affect them.

NAOCSS has teamed up with Paragon Training Group Inc. to assist those members that want hands on training in their area or church. NAOCSS and Paragon will be presenting the first annual security conference at Heritage Christian Center in Denver, CO on Nov. 6-8. Further information can be obtained from Tim Priebe through the Web site,, at (719) 573-5531 or (888) 573-5531, or by e-mailing


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