There are many things that are not covered in the seminary curriculum, as any clergyperson can attest. One of these is how to respond to the possibility of gun violence in houses of worship. Yet in recent years, an increasing number of shootings occurred as communities of faith were going about doing what they had been doing for generations —gathering for prayer, for studying sacred texts, even for potluck dinners. No faith group, it seems, is exempt from gun violence: Sikhs, African-American Christians, Jews, white Evangelical Christians, Muslims, AAPI Protestants and Catholics, among them. As sacred spaces have been desecrated by bloody expressions of racial, religious or ideological hatred, faith leaders have had to contemplate this statistically-rare but horrific possibility: How do we think about the meaning of security, not only theologically but logistically? What can we do to stay safe in ways that draw on and honor our faith traditions?
In 2018, fellow-sociologist David Yamane and I received a grant from Louisville Institute to research this question with congregations in two regions, East Texas and Metro Philadelphia. Although we had expected to visit both areas twice within two years, the pandemic intervened, upsetting our well-laid plans, even as it had disrupted and redefined religious life in congregations since 2020. But it also created an added dimension to our research design; we could now study the impact of the pandemic on congregational concerns about security. So our research was conducted in two waves — before the pandemic (2019) and then after the initial shutdowns as congregations were returning to their buildings (2022). In each stage, we interviewed leaders (mainly clergy) in Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities, both individually and in focus groups in each of the research areas.[i] When possible, we revisited the same sites in the second wave that we had interviewed in 2019, but new congregations were also included during the spring and summer of 2022. We were careful to maintain diversity in terms of congregational size, racial demographics, theological traditions and urban/suburban/rural contexts. Interviews were recorded with permission to assure accuracy, but our interviewees will remain anonymous. The data from the second wave is still “fresh,” and we are still analyzing the findings. Although we will present the findings in more detail in the future, at this point, some dominant themes have emerged.
Clearly, the pandemic had a dramatic impact on congregational life.[ii] Communities of faith pivoted and adapted, as did all sectors of society. But even when returning to some semblance of normalcy, congregations have not been left unchanged. Beginning in March of 2020, they quickly began adapting their ministries to online platforms; for many, this involved a steep learning curve. Some taped services, releasing them on YouTube, so that viewers could access them at any time. Others live-streamed their services with a range of interaction capabilities by worshippers (including “Zoom coffee hours” and sending in prayer requests through the “chat” function). Many were surprised at how many people not only joined worship online but came to prefer the convenience of staying at home to worship, particularly elderly members. Clergy were further surprised at how many new people from outside the area were attracted to the online worship. Consequently, most reported that they were going to continue with “hybrid worship,” both in-person and online, whether they were returning to their worship spaces after a few weeks, months, or in one case, two years.
The move towards hybrid worship was not embraced by all, however. One Protestant minister had “unplugged” out of a belief that corporate worship, by its very nature, is a physical gathering in shared space. A rabbi kept streaming as an option but was working hard to resume worship in person, including having a large tent outside. (“Judaism is a face-to-face endeavor.”) Two other congregations had also taken their worship outdoors, with one pastor from Texas reporting that they liked it so much they had made it a permanent arrangement. “We’re never going back inside!”
As congregations have returned to worship in person, all reported that the attendance was lower than before the shutdown, by about half in most cases. Most of the failure to return was not out of health concerns, but because “they had lost the habit” of coming to worship, one minister felt. Faith communities had also lost members to Covid. One church with an older membership in an economically challenged neighborhood had lost “35 to 40 members” to the virus; while others had had fewer Covid deaths, the trauma of the whole ordeal has stayed with congregations. As our interviewees talked about their experiences of the pandemic, there was a mixture of loss and change, grief and hope. They had had to learn new ways of staying connected and worshiping together, and in the process, they began to reimagine what it means to be a community of faith with a weakened tether to a building.
Prior to the pandemic, we found that both in Texas and Philadelphia, there was a high concern for safety and security in congregations. The Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey of more than 15,000 congregations in 2020 showed that in the months immediately before the pandemic, a little more than half of congregations of all traditions said that they were concerned about safety and security, with Muslim, Jewish and Baháʼí religious communities having higher levels of serious concern, as did congregations of color.[iii] This heightened concern for security was evident in the first wave of our interviews in 2019. Images from the mass shootings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 (in which nine people, including the pastor, were killed during a Bible study by a white supremacist) and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017 (in which 26 people were killed during Sunday worship by a man motivated by a domestic dispute) were seared into people’s consciousness. For most, it was the first time they could imagine a shooter violating their sacred space. “It could happen here.” They did not have a language or a toolkit for responding to what had been unimaginable.
We found that there was a range of responses in the congregations we studied in 2019 — from relying on God’s protection to openly carrying guns in worship. Most, however, were organizing security teams, getting safety training and implementing security measures in their buildings. The FACT data show that 2015 (the year of the Charleston shooting) was indeed a watershed year. For example, only 13% of congregations had organized security teams before 2015, but 40% did so after; only 13% had installed security cameras prior to 2015, but then 25% did; after 2015, the percentage of congregations that had safety training jumped from 23% to 33%; and prior to the year of the Charleston shooting, only 9% of congregations locked their doors during worship, but 30% started doing so afterward.[iv] As concern for safety and security was rising prior to the pandemic, and faith communities were looking for resources, “church security training” businesses became a growth industry to train congregational teams. Further, religious organizations and denominations began to offer security training, and local police offered security audits and active shooter training. Even the federal Departments of Justice and Homeland Security were providing training.
However, as congregations moved away from their buildings, concerns about security dropped off noticeably. (This began soon after the shut down, and was evident in the FACT surveys that were submitted later in 2020.[v]) For example, a member of one congregation which had given a lot of thought and energy to developing a security team earlier, reported in 2022 that “It just sort of fell off the radar. “We were more afraid of a virus than a bad guy.” Indeed, their security team had largely unraveled. The primary organizer said that he really wasn’t patrolling the halls and watching the door once they came back to in-person worship. Their large signs stipulating that guns were not allowed in the building (required by Texas law at each door — one for open carry and one for concealed carry) had been replaced with more subtle decals with the same wording but more aesthetically pleasing. The focus of anxiety had shifted — something we heard in other interviews as well. When we asked faith leaders about safety and security concerns, several responded first by talking about their Covid protocols, rather than the threat of violence. The size of their security teams had shrunken in size, and yet people reported feeling safer when they came back to services. They were just glad to be back in the pews.
But there were other reasons besides anxiety-overload that contributed to a sense of safety from the threat of those who would do them harm. Several of the congregations had used the time when their buildings were vacant to install new security systems. The new lighting, automatic locks, fobs and security cameras were reassuring. Several were contemplating installing panic buttons in the building, including on the pulpit. Funding had come from capital campaigns, private grants and public funding, as security systems can be expensive.
There were other dynamics that have to be taken into account. During 2020, there was an unprecedented spike in gun sales in the country, along with a surge in gun violence. The two trends are interactive: the more new guns circulate, the more they are used in crimes. Rising crime fuels gun sales as new gun owners want to protect themselves.[vi] More people in the country are carrying firearms, and this extends to worshippers. Not only was gun ownership more prevalent in congregations; the increase in the comfort level with this reality was evident.
We asked clergy in both waves to guesstimate how many people in their congregation might be carrying weapons during services. Several of the same clergy who had said, “I would be surprised if we had anyone carrying,” three years later said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were” armed worshippers. For those who had acknowledged that there were congregants carrying in 2019, the number or percentage they guessed had increased. Yet to a person, the clergy we interviewed said that they didn’t want to know who was carrying and operated on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The seeming acceptance of guns in the sanctuary could reflect willed blindness or a sense of resignation, or it could indicate a shift to reliance on the very weapon that presented the original perceived threat in the hands of an active shooter.
An example of this change emerged in our interviews with the security team of a large suburban church which was predominantly African-American. In 2019, their pastor and team were unequivocal in their opposition to any sort of armed security and were investing a lot in technology. They had installed state-of-the-art security systems and protocols (including automatic blinds in classroom doors that could be shut remotely). Yet by the second wave, while the chair of the Board of Trustees reiterated their commitment to unarmed security, her three other security team members indicated they weren’t so sure. When asked about whether anyone in the congregation might carry a concealed gun, she said, “If they do, I would want to know about it.” One of the other Trustees said, “Then we should talk.”
Although most of the congregations in our study had come out of the pandemic feeling safer, there were notable exceptions. Some felt more vulnerable to the threat of physical violence. The African-American congregation in Texas that had transitioned to drive-in worship soon realized they were more exposed — “We went from invisible to visible” — and so their security guards began to openly carry their guns as they patrolled around the parking lot and took the offering. One week during worship, they were harassed by a couple of white supremacists in a pick-up truck festooned with Confederate flags who drove up and down the block, blowing their horn. The congregation kept singing. But the next week, the pastor reported, everyone brought their guns to church with them (“even the women.”)
A focus group of African-American clergy serving smaller, independent churches in the inner-city also reported in 2022 that going online during the shutdown did not create a respite for them from a sense of physical threat. As gun violence escalated during the pandemic (going from around 400 gun deaths per year to 550 in Philadelphia in 2021), these pastors were nervous about entering and exiting the building and being alone in the building when they came in to record services. As unrest erupted during the summer of 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, they worried about their empty buildings and whether they would attract vandalism. They spoke about the desperation they saw in the neighborhood as people were increasingly challenged by economic hardship and mental illness during the pandemic. They told stories of threatening encounters. Without the resources for sophisticated security systems, they found training events offered by their denominations about how to organize security teams. They referred to a recent event of a pastor in New York being robbed of his jewelry while he was preaching, which contributed to their sense that the church is no longer considered sacred. “I’ve never been skittish about arms,” one pastor said, “but I do think we need to reconsider what security looks like, so that we can keep our people safe and make our sanctuaries actual sanctuaries.”
For one rabbi, a sense of threat had not abated but had been sustained throughout the pandemic, despite moving to online worship and taking the time away from the building to enhance security systems through a DHS grant. It was the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh in October of 2018 that “shook people.” Motivated by antisemitic hate, a gunman had killed 11 Jewish worshippers, most of them elderly. The rabbi went on to describe how this had impacted the congregation and him personally. “There were strong ties with (Tree of Life and with) people here, so it felt like it was an attack on us. … It made us think differently about security than we had. … People had felt safe here before Pittsburgh. All our doors were unlocked on Shabbat. … All of sudden everything changed. … The risk (of an active shooter) is very small but it exists.”
Eventually, they decided to hire an armed security guard for Shabbat, although feelings in the congregation are far from resolved. The rabbi struggled with the decision because it went against the tradition’s teaching about Shabbat as a time of rest and freedom, especially from technology, and that there should be nothing to deter people from coming to services. In the first wave of interviews, he had been unequivocal in his resistance to the idea of armed security. But he was moved by the Pittsburgh rabbi’s decision to carry his cell phone as he led services — a decision he had made reluctantly, but after using it to call 911, one that saved lives. In Philadelphia, the rabbi reasoned that rabbinic tradition also teaches that if there is a possible threat to life, then laws can be violated.
Then in January of 2022, a rabbi and several congregants were taken hostage during Shabbat services in Colleyville, Texas. Their recent security training had enabled them to stay calm and safely escape what was a life-threatening situation. Although the event “touched a nerve” with the Philadelphia synagogue, the rabbi was troubled by the Texas rabbi’s response that if the same thing happened again, he would again welcome in the man. But in three years, the rabbi’s beliefs about Shabbat and armed security and “welcoming the stranger” had changed. “It’s changed me in ways I’d rather not be changed. My antennae are up. I’m wary … .” The two high-profile events and the rise of antisemitism (and all hate crimes he would be quick to add) had transformed his understanding of security.
This time of Covid has changed congregations. For some, the shift in focus from physical to viral threat has resulted in relaxing the concern about active shooters that animated their fear in 2019. While security teams might have shrunken and trainings become less prevalent, congregations have leaned more into security technology. At the very same time, we found that what also seemed to be relaxing was a taboo against guns, with more resignation if not acceptance of their presence among congregants. But the pandemic also heightened a sense of insecurity among some, perhaps because they do not have the resources for security cameras, lighting and automatic locks. More pointedly, as animus has increased because of racial, religious or ideological hatred, come congregations have come out of the pandemic feeling more vulnerable. Indeed, religious communities have been changed; but with the rabbi, we ask: “Is it in ways we would rather not be changed?”
[i] We are grateful to local clergy who helped to organize focus groups: Rev. Kyle Childress in Nacogdoches, Texas, and the Revs. Mark Tyler and Eric Goode in Philadelphia.
[ii] A major research project of this is being conducted based at Hartford Institute, “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” https://www.covidreligionresearch.org/
[iii] Faith Communities Today https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/
[iv] Faith Communities Today https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/
[v] Faith Communities Today https?//fathcommunitiestoday.org/
[vi] The Trace https://www.thetrace.org/2021/12/atf-time-to-crime-gun-data-shooting-pandemic/