Tragedy and a pastor’s death shock a congregation in the Illinois farmlands.
By John Harris (Church Executive Magazine, Aug. 1, 2010)
Pastor Fred Winters was shot by an intruder into the services nearly 18 months ago at First Baptist Church in Maryville, IL. The shooter was subdued and later judged mentally unstable.
This account is from John Mark Harris, who was being voted on that same Sunday by the congregation to become the adult pastor. It is a riveting account that reminds churches everywhere that they are not immune anymore from violence in the sanctuary. If you have thoughts you want to share with Harris, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a “Pastor Fred” page with much information on the congregation’s website, www.fbmaryville.org.
The shooter, Terry Sedlacek, had no apparent connection to the church or to Fred Winters, news sources said at the time. Harris says that Sedlacek tried to turn the .45-caliber Glock handgun on himself, but it jammed after the fourth shot; he had more than 30 rounds with him. He then pulled a knife and tried to stab himself in the neck, but church members stopped him. Two men, the ones who subdued him, were injured by the knife but recovered. Harris’ account:
I had worked in pastoral ministry for a while and in several different churches; it was more than 14 years ago that I became a minister of the Gospel. In that time I experienced a wide variety of circumstances, both opportunities and setbacks, some scary and others so shockingly unpredictable they seem more like a bizarre kind of dream rather than reality.
All of these pale in comparison to when my wife, daughter and I came to Maryville, IL in view of a call on March 8, 2009. Plans were destroyed, our hopes would be left unfulfilled, the life of a faithful man of God was cut short as a congregation was tested, and we began a journey of blessing on which God would show himself to be greater than any circumstance.
In September of 2008 life was going pretty well. My wife and I were expecting our first child, I was on staff as an associate pastor at a great church, I had graduated from seminary for the second time a few months before, and God just seemed to be blessing us. That’s when I first came in contact with Fred Winters. He had received my name through a friend and he wanted to know if I might be interested in a position that was open at his church.
I was not in the market for a new job, especially not one at a church built in the middle of a corn field, but over the course of several conversations I began to realize that Fred was a uniquely gifted pastor who I wanted to work with. He was a chess player — both literally and figuratively — who thought several moves ahead, and had a talent for developing a staff team as well as leading the flock.
Heart for evangelism
He was a young leader who had taken this small church of 30 people and guided them to grow into a congregation of more than 1,200 in attendance every week. With a heart for evangelism and a passion for God’s word, I knew that Fred and I would get along well.
Through a series of long conversations with Pastor Fred, other pastoral staff, and various leaders in the church, and after several months of prayer, intense contemplation, and seeking advice of those that I trust, my wife and I decided that we were willing to go if we should receive that call. Every trip up to Illinois from Texas was an absolutely positive experience and we were extremely excited about the possibilities of starting a new adventure. This was an opportunity that God had brought to us and we were going to walk through that open door.
The original plan was for me to travel by myself, but my wife wanted to show her support and excitement for this occasion as well, so my wife and I, along with our not yet three-month-old baby girl, flew in to St. Louis early in the morning on March 8, 2009. All of the work was done on the front-end and the church was prepared to cast its vote to bring me on staff. Everyone was thrilled and happy that this day was finally here.
We arrived at the church just as the 8:15 a.m. service was beginning. The plan was to go into the sanctuary and sit at the front so that we could be presented to the church in each of the services. However, we had an infant with us who needed to eat, so my wife took our daughter into the nursing room next to the auditorium where the worship service was taking place. The children’s pastor and I took this opportunity to go around and greet the adult Sunday School classes that I would have responsibility for. Then it was time to go in to the service, so we went on our way to gather my family.
Gunshots were heard
On our way to the nursery, through the glass windows at the back of the sanctuary, I could see Pastor Fred preaching. That picture plays in slow motion in my mind to this day: He was animated and smiling as he spoke to his people, and I could not have been more energized to become a part of a church like this. Halfway between the main sanctuary doors and the entrance to the nursery we heard something muffled that sounded more like the kind of noises most church A/C units make than what the were — gunshots.
We stood stunned for a brief moment as people began to move out of the worship service. The children’s pastor and I began to move towards the sanctuary when someone came out and told him, “He’s been shot, someone’s shot Fred.” We looked at each other and he said, “Go to your family,” and I replied “Don’t worry about me, go.” We turned our separate ways and I walked, not so fast as to run or add to the mounting panic, but quickly, to my wife in the nursing room.
Along the way I was taking in other people’s reactions as they heard the news, more than once I heard the phrase, “Is this real?” My mind was racing and my heart was pumping as scenarios were playing out in my head: “Could the bullets have hit my wife through the wall?,” “What would I do if the gunman came towards my family?,” and, “Am I ready for that?”
I reached the door and went into the room; my wife greeted me with a smile and said “we’re all done, ready to go in.” Her usual bright face and glowing smile quickly dimmed as she looked at me. I waited for her to say it, because I knew she would, “What’s wrong?” “The pastor’s been shot, I replied, “just stay in here, I’ll come back for you.”
Shot through the heart
It was all over quickly. There were no security staff on campus (we didn’t have any), but several church members subdued the assailant after he had fired four shots, one of which went right through Pastor Fred’s heart. Security was an issue that the church had recognized as a need to be addressed, but it never made its way to the top of the list; there was always too much going on. Since then we’ve established security policies and personnel second to none, but the reality is, there simply isn’t anything reasonable a church can do that would stop something like this from happening.
We should have been scared, and I suppose an event like this would discourage some from accepting the position, but both my wife and I felt as though the church needed us now more than ever. The next Sunday night the church voted almost unanimously to bring me on staff.
We must realize that there are no safe places. If this could happen at a church built in the middle of corn fields located in a quiet village of only 7,000 people, it can happen anywhere. We learned to balance the concerns of security with the power of prayer and an absolute reliance on sovereignty of God.
Churches need to be diligent to do all they can to protect their people, but not at the expense of the Gospel. The fear can be paralyzing. I still remember the first time I stood behind the pulpit of the church to preach after Pastor Fred was shot. I was scared for about 15 seconds, but I had a job to do, I was called to preach God’s word. Churches need to develop teams of security and medical personnel who are well trained and know how to respond in bad situations. By doing this, the pastoral staff is free to focus on what is really important, the ministry of the gospel.
Plans for growth
Pastor Fred envisioned a church that continued to grow. In fact, the Thursday before the shooting the staff put down on paper a seven-year plan of development relating to people and facilities. It had been talked about before, but never recorded to this degree of detail. Even though he is gone, we knew exactly what to do, and we’ve had to move-up the plan.
We baptized more than 100 people in 2009 and are on pace to exceed that this year. We continue to have more attending our services and we increased our operating budget by 10 percent from 2009 to 2010. Our giving receipts exceed our budget almost every week and we have begun a $3 million building expansion to handle the growth that God continues to provide.
It is very easy to allow our circumstances to dictate our actions, but we cannot permit events in our lives to distract us from the goal of reaching the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Security is an issue that must be dealt with and covered in every church to the best of your ability, however, it should not be a distraction for the staff and lay-leaders involved in the ministry of the church week-in and week-out. It is all a part of planning.
As a leader I have learned that planning is critical, vision is essential, and we follow in the footsteps of Jesus when we realize that true leadership can outlive the leader.