It can happen in a second. Just a single moment where everything is changed forever. Ben O’Neal knows this is true, and that’s why he does what he does.
According to the FBI, there were 28 active shooter incidents during 2019 in the U.S. Between 1999 and 2015, 1,198 deadly force incidents took place in churches or faith-based operations. About 364 of these incidents resulted in deaths.
O’Neal is the security director for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. The statistics show that churches are not immune to acts of violence and moments of tragedy. His goal is to help equip and prepare churches to prevent and/or respond to security threats.
While he supports GBMB events and properties, the largest portion of his job is dedicated to providing security training and implementation for any Georgia Baptist church. O’Neal travels to individual churches to help set up a team or improve an existing security program. His goal is to ensure each church’s program is effective and proactive.
“Many times when talking about security, the default answer I get is, ‘We have an off-duty police officer in our church,’” O’Neal explained. “They don’t see the bigger picture of what that means. They don’t know who has responsibility for doing different things in the event of an emergency.”
O’Neal said building a security program is a massive, but crucial, undertaking. It involves budgeting for security, recruiting volunteers, examining children and youth areas, developing response plans, and even understanding Georgia law on guns in churches. O’Neal said many churches are unknowingly breaking the law when it comes to carrying guns in the church.
“I conduct training seminars and provide people in the training with a packet that outlines all of the information they need to have a healthy program that operates legally,” O’Neal said. He provides these packets to all the attendees, and then walks through the process of building a team with churches individually.
Brannen Smith volunteers as the head of the Safety Team at First Baptist Church Statesboro. Smith said he met O’Neal in 2019 at the annual meeting in Statesboro. They maintained contact and worked through a complete safety team policy for the newly formed security team at the church.
“Ben has come back to Statesboro to continue safety team training that includes the Georgia Weapons Law, situational awareness and scenario training,” Smith said. “He has been extremely helpful to me as a team lead. I’m able to reach out for advice, help or opinions from him, and he’s always helped however he could.”
Smith encourages churches to go through a similar training.
“I would highly recommend this training to any church safety team or even just an interested person in the congregation,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, we live in a time where one must always be aware of their surroundings – even in a house of worship – for their personal safety and the safety of others. Thankfully there are people who desire to be a protector, and Ben’s training is paramount to this.”
A common objection to putting a security program in place is that a church is immune from a crisis taking place.
“I’ve heard some church leaders tell me, ‘We’re just a small country church, so we don’t need all this,’” O’Neal said. “In response, I show them the statistics.”
The most recent active shooting involving a church happened in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which is a town of only 600. A gunman killed 26 people, wounded 20, and then committed suicide. The ages of those killed ranged from 18 months to 77. It’s categorized as the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the U.S.
“I provide case studies and data in my training so they understand why we’re doing this and why it’s important,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal said many churches make the mistake of trying to protect church attendees’ feelings, so they avoid putting safety parameters in place.
“They may want to protect one person’s feelings in a situation, but they don’t think about the other 150 that may never come back if something isn’t handled well,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal encourages church leaders to visit gabaptist.org/churchsecurity. They can then fill out the interest form. He also asks that people attend his regional training seminars.
“If churches don’t do this, they risk being on the other side of a tragic incident,” O’Neal said. “Our churches can’t afford to go through that kind of crisis.”
Major Ben O’Neal: Husband, father, Army veteran, church security consultant
Growing up in Lawrenceville, Ben O’Neal said he became active in the local church when he started attending Hebron Baptist Church in high school. This is where he was baptized, and he continued to attend after graduating high school. At this time, O’Neal worked odd jobs and took a few classes in Dekalb.
After O’Neal’s brother joined the army, O’Neal got a first hand look at his brother’s military base, and he saw a military policeman waving people through and checking ID cards.
“I looked at my dad and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,’” O’Neal said.
Two weeks later, in February 1996, O’Neal joined the army and became exactly what he said – a military policeman. His Army career spanned 23 years, during which time he met his wife Christy, welcomed two children, and finished his college and graduate degrees.
O’Neal and his wife knew each other from middle school, but their paths took them in separate directions after they graduated high school. He joined the Army, and she attended Truett McConnell University. While on leave, O’Neal reconnected with Christy while attending a college Bible study at Hebron. The pair started dating before he returned to Panama for six months. When he was later stationed at Fort Benning, they got engaged and have since been married for 22 years. They have two children, Will (17) and Mattie (14).
O’Neal earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Saint Thomas Aquinas College in New York (2002) and later his master’s degree in security management from Webster’s University in Missouri.
O’Neal’s training and experience include:
- Warrior Leaders Course
- Military Police training
- Combat Life Savers courses
- Air assault
- Personal security
- Sniper and marksmanship
“I had a lot of nontraditional type jobs in the Army,” O’Neal said. “I was a military policeman, which meant I patrolled, pulled people over, and responded to incidents like assaults and murder.”
Throughout his career, O’Neal traveled to 39 countries. While in Germany, he was selected for a special job that included serving as personal security for a three-star general.
He then was assigned to West Point, N.Y., as a staff sergeant. He oversaw physical security and asset protection, which included alarm systems, arms rooms, etc. He was also selected for Officer Candidate School. He became a commissioned officer after the 14-week course.
“From there, I came to Fort Stewart in Georgia where I was a company commander twice, a platoon leader, and multiple other jobs,” O’Neal said. “I was deployed four times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq.” During one deployment to Afghanistan, O’Neal was a company commander leading 153 soldiers. He achieved the rank of major in 2017.
O’Neal finished his career in the army in 2019 as an assistant professor of military science at the University of North Georgia. He received a number of awards and decorations including the Bronze Star Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Valorous Unit Award, Army Superior Unit Award, Overseas Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal and more.
With over two decades of training and experience, O’Neal joined the mission board staff full time in March 2019.
Published July 11, 2022