CLINTON — When DeWitt County Sheriff Jered Shofner and Clinton Police Chief Ben Lowers began talking about hosting a seminar on security in the wake of church shootings, they imagined talking with about two dozen area church leaders in a small classroom in a local church.
On Tuesday night, more than 200 people attended a program at the First Christian Church in Clinton designed to get people thinking about how to keep churches and the people who use them safe.
"The stunning thing about this is that once we announced it and the word got out, we had responses from church officials from 100 miles to the south and 100 miles to the north that wanted to come," said the Rev. Greg Taylor, pastor at the church. "It proves how big of a crisis this has become."
The three-hour seminar was designed for church leaders, employees and volunteers, but law enforcement officials also attended.
"There are bad people out there," said featured speaker Ron Coventry, a security consultant and founder of the Shooter School Weapons Training Site in Atwood. "We have to prepare for them."
In 2015 alone, there were 248 violent incidents in churches and the trend is continuing, he said.
Taylor said church security is an important topic these days as they balance access with safety.
"The church is considered the last safe haven," he said. "It is harder to get inside a school now. I think that is why we are seeing more of these incidents now."
Brett Mason, a church leader at the First Nazarene Church in Decatur, said it is more than just Christians who attend church-sponsored activities.
"We have support groups and counseling sessions and sometimes more than 150 people attend some of those events," he said. "What we sometimes see is the drug dealers in our parking lots, looking to get their clients back. We have to be aware."
Shofner said that even in church settings, those responsible for safety need to start thinking differently.
"We have to think about security," he said. "Most of us are blessed and walk around without thinking about security issues. But that's not the case anymore. Evil is real and we have to protect our flock."
Lowers said the seminar was the first step in an ongoing process.
"We have to gather the information and take that back to our churches and organizations and prepare safety plans," he said. "I don't think you can over-prepare. I think we have to get beyond the fact that it won't happen here.
"We want to open people's eyes, and more importantly, just get people thinking."