Thefts at Williamson County churches hinder open-door policies

| September 10, 2010

FRANKLIN — St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Franklin has been keeping its doors locked a lot more since staff members say a man stole from the church twice in one week.

On Aug. 11, a staff member told police that a man who left the church after asking to borrow money returned minutes later and stole her purse, which was near a doorway. On the morning of Aug. 16, staff members arrived at work to find the church ransacked. Computer equipment, money and credit cards were stolen. The suspect is still on the run. Church members and staff have been on edge since the thefts.

"It's hard because our initial approach has to be trusting and open and welcoming to anybody," said Bob Cowperthwaite, rector of the church. "Somehow, having had this experience, we are having to consciously overcome some distrust because we don't want to all of a sudden turn to any stranger and say, 'Here comes a thief or potential thief.' That's not the way we want to live ourselves or be seen in that kind of light. But it's a little hard right now."
Gun taken at Brentwood Baptist

Brentwood Baptist Church experienced a disturbing theft just a few days later.

Police say on Aug. 22 someone stole a .22-caliber handgun out of a file cabinet in a church office. A minister returning from a hiking trip told church officials that he forgot he had the gun in his bag when arriving for church, according to church spokesman Steve Smith. The minister locked the gun in the cabinet for safety reasons. But during service, someone broke into the cabinet and stole the gun.

"I think the bottom line is that we are all going to have to be more aware," Smith said. "Even though we feel like we're in a safe community in Brentwood and we are in a very secure — generally secure — facility with a lot of people around, we can never be too careful. We must all be much more aware of the need to do that."

Both churches are now revising their security plans. The five doors leading to the outside of St. Paul's were usually left open so those wanting a moment of prayer, peace and reflection could come by and spend time in the sanctuary or seek help from staff members. The open building also made it easy for numerous church committee and special group meetings and rehearsals to be held throughout the week.

Staff members are now left grappling with the question of just how open and accessible the church property should be.

"We've got so many groups using the church. It's not the kind of thing we want to do — tell people they can't meet here any more. So we are trying to make the offices more secure," Cowperthwaite said.

Brentwood Baptist was already in the process of beefing up security. The August incident catapulted those plans to the forefront, according to Paul Morris, hospitality director.

Morris, who is head of church security, said the new plan is in its final stage, awaiting approval from church officials. Before submitting the plan, Morris said he got input from church members and sought advice from the Brentwood Police Department.

Already, the 6,500-member church has Brentwood police officers on staff during service hours. A receptionist desk in front of Baskin Chapel is open to the public during the day. Also, security cameras monitor activity as well as security personnel, who watch the church late in the evenings.

"Brentwood Baptist is right off the interstate. It makes us very sensitive and it makes us more vulnerable. We want to make sure the people that attend our church are safe and that we have a plan in place because of that," Morris said.
Church was site of security seminar

The church in May hosted a seminar for church security, presented by the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, based in Washington, D.C. About 20 churches from Middle Tennessee attended the company's one-day seminar.

The company sends presenters around the country to host presentations about workplace and school violence. In 2007, the company launched a church component, specifically designed to offer churches security tips and to teach them how to respond should violence break out.

"Not even the church is a safe place anymore. They had to face very seriously the reality that violence in our culture has spilled over into our most sacred arena," said Jerry McConnell, director for ministry outreach for CPPS.

"Every church, regardless of the size, needs to address the issue that churches have become targets for bad guys. They look for soft targets and the church is a soft target. That opens it up to all sorts of people who take advantage of nice people."

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