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It’s been 10 years since the murder of Maryville First Baptist’s Pastor Fred Winters. Illinois Baptists were shocked when the beloved pastor was gunned down while preaching the Sunday morning message from the pulpit.

Serving on the IBSA staff, I first got to know Pastor Fred when he served two terms as IBSA vice president and then another two as president. He was always easy going and willing to answer questions for articles in the Illinois Baptist. I remember running into him and his wife, Cindy, one year at the Southern Baptist Convention where they were planning to hand out water to gay rights supporters protesting the convention. He talked about how it would be a good way to show Christ’s love.

First Baptist Maryville recently held a memorial service to mark the anniversary of his death. I was among the hundreds who attended the service, looking on as old friends came together to remember the pastor who grew the church from 35 to over 1,200. Illinois pastors have often said how Pastor Fred’s teaching from his experience “breaking the barriers” enabled them to grow stronger churches. Fred was always willing to share of his experience and himself.

In video testimonies, friends, church members, and former staff bore witness to the difference Pastor Fred had made in their lives, how his burden for the lost became their burden for the lost, how his vision became their vision.

The most poignant moment of the evening came when Cindy addressed the assembly. She shared how she and her daughters, with God’s help, journeyed through their grief and continue to do so. Their faith has been made stronger having learned not to give up.

Still, she likened the evening to biting into a chocolate tomato—“sweet at first on the outside and kind of sour and bitter on the inside.” Such a strange comparison and yet, such a truism. Isn’t that how we all feel in some way? Not only about Pastor Fred, but our own lost loved ones remembered? Whether through death, divorce, separation, or other kinds of loss, what a taste remembrance can leave in your mouth.

Winters’s life and legacy of faith was worthy of celebration. At the end of the service, it was easy to imagine Pastor Fred among the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12, cheering Illinois Baptists on as they run the race sharing Christ with their friends and neighbors just like he did.

Can it happen here?

ib2newseditor —  November 18, 2017

church pews

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