What Leaders Can Learn from Violent Incidents at Churches

What 2016 statistics about violent incidents at churches reveals about the issue of domestic violence in communities.

In 2016, violent deaths were more frequent at faith-based organizations than at schools, and in comparing 2016 to the most recent 10 years, it was the second in the number of violent crimes with deadly potential (with 246 deadly force incidents, following 2015 at 248). Year after year, domestic abuse spillover—when a fight at home comes to church—is one of the three most common killers at faith-based organizations.

In 2016, 65 violent deaths—defined as homicides, suicides, and aggressors killed in action—took place at churches or ministries. In the same 10-year comparison, 2016 rated fourth in total violent deaths (behind 2012, 2014, and 2015).

Of the 65 violent deaths in 2016, 52 were murders, 7 were suicides, and 6 were aggressors killed in action. As is the case with most years, the aggressors killed in action were all violent criminals who chose a ministry as their “last stand” and were killed by pursuing law enforcement. This year, none of those operations resulted in any ministry staff, visitors, or responding officers being killed at the ministry.

The 52 murder victims were the result of 47 attacks. Not one time in 2016 was the killer stopped by law enforcement or others after they had attacked. In every case, the killer only stopped when they wanted to; two of the killers subsequently committed suicide. Most of those attacks had only one victim, but four had two or more victims.

In 29 of those 47 attacks, we know the “triggers” (some might call them “reasons” or “motives”):

  • In 11 of the 29 known reasons, the trigger for the attack was domestic abuse that spilled over into the ministry or into the home of the senior pastor (which is often church property). Thirteen of the 52 murder victims—25 percent—were killed as the result of domestic spillover.
  • In five of the known reasons, the trigger was a personal conflict between two or more people.
  • In four of the known reasons, the trigger was a robbery that ended in a victim’s death.
  • All other reasons accounted for one or two attacks each.

In reviewing these statistics, ministry leaders of all denominations should recognize domestic abuse as the serious issue that it is.

In 2016, 8 of the 11 domestic abusers who were involved in deadly incidents were affiliated with a ministry; three were in leadership at those ministries. Every one of those domestic abuse killers in 2016 was a male.

While church leaders spend a significant amount of time, money, and thought preparing for intruders or outside attacks, they should also remember this grave danger facing their churches. When leaders see familial relationships in stress—be it an angry spouse, sibling, or child—they should take notice and act accordingly. Early prevention is key in domestic strife, as well as in most other threats—and perhaps the best way to see signs of domestic abuse is to have an intentional group of people looking for it.

In November of 2016 in Jamestown, New York, the estranged husband of 36-year-old Shari J. Robbins confronted her in the parking lot of New Creation Assembly of God Church, where she often parked to work for Heritage Ministries. He shot and killed her there in the parking lot.

This is a model repeated every year on church and ministry grounds. In the case of Shari Robbins, a restraining order was in place, but there didn’t appear to be anyone who knew of it or who was watching for her safety. In contrast, in a recent incident at the Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, an estranged husband with a restraining order showed up at the church but was quickly recognized and escorted out by security. His wife went home safe that day.

Carl Chinn helps prepare churches in the realm of security and advises law-enforcement groups on the subject of ministry security. He helped implement the security program at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2005—two years before he personally responded as part of a team that stopped an active shooter there. He is the author of Evil Invades Sanctuary: The Case for Security in Faith-Based Organizations . You can find out more on his website, https://www.fbsnamerica.com.

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