The 26 lives taken in an act of evil at a Sunday morning church service on Nov. 5 at Sutherland Springs, Texas shocked the nation. It was the largest mass shooting at a church in the history of the United States, but sadly, not the first. And it happened at a Southern Baptist Church, one named First Baptist, like so many around the country.
Still, many believe it won’t happen “here.”
It could and it already has. In March 2009 Pastor Fred Winters was shot and killed while preaching from the pulpit at First Baptist Church Maryville.
The Illinois Baptist interviewed Rich Cochran, director of leadership development at IBSA, who was minister of education and children at FBC Maryville that tragic Sunday morning.
“We ignore reality because we don’t want to face it and don’t know what to do,” he said. “We’d rather keep our heads in the sand.”
Cochran was just getting ready to enter the sanctuary when the shots rang out. The church had a security plan, but the gunman who was also armed with a knife and stabbed two church members who tried to restrain him, still managed to fire four shots before he could be subdued. The killer, who had no known connection to Winters or the church, was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Remembering that morning, Cochran said, “I don’t think there was a whole lot of second guessing. We had a plan and [after] we created a more detailed plan. There was a tornado threat that day and that was the plan that had been reviewed that morning.”
The repercussions are lasting, taking an emotional toll on the staff and congregation. “There are still dreams about and emotions from what happened,” he shared.
Cochran referenced Tom Hufty’s message at the IBSA Annual Meeting on Nov. 8., when Hufty said he “still runs into people with strong hurts that don’t go away.” Hufty took Winters place as pastor of FBC Maryville.
Hufty noted the different emotional responses that occurred within the congregation. According to Hufty, some said, “I can’t come back to that place. Others closed ranks — we’ve got to stick together we can’t let Satan win. And others needed a new start.”
When asked what advice he would give to pastors and staff thinking about putting a church safety plan together, Cochran said it’s important that pastors and staff process and walk through mentally and verbally would what they do were such a thing to happen.
“Review your risk, take an assessment, know where your vulnerabilities are, minimize those vulnerabilities, live out your mission,” those are the key things they can do.
He also noted, “It’s important congregations be extremely friendly, engaging everyone. Then, you can notice when something isn’t right. Then, it doesn’t seem like you have the National Guard in your lobby. The best way, is to train people to be nice and to welcome everyone.”
There is a danger in letting fear take hold he cautioned. “If we pat our heads and build mega-forts around ourselves we do a disservice to missionaries. If we protect ourselves so much it disrupts our mission we’re out of whack. There is a constant tension.”
Prayer does play a role. “We need to pray, yes, we need to prepare,” he nodded. “Yes, we need to live by faith. We live in a world where evil is present. Even Jesus said there would be troubles.”
In the simplest of terms Cochran urged, “Prepare, prepare, prepare. Then you have to walk by faith. We’re called to illuminate the darkness.”
– Lisa Misner Sergent