First Baptist Church shooting: One year later

| March 7, 2010

An entire church lost its senior pastor and its sense of sanctuary and security in a single, violent moment one year ago.

Despite the overwhelming loss, the First Baptist Church of Maryville has moved forward and begun healing after its senior pastor, the Rev. Fred Winters, was shot to death in front of his congregation about 8:30 a.m. March 8, 2009.

And of all the changes, one thing has remained the same and grown stronger: faith.

"There is no doubt in my mind that an event like this rocked some people's faith to the core. I know it did something inside of me to take nothing for granted," said the Rev. Mark Jones, the worship pastor and co-pastor at the church. "I think more people started to be proactive in inviting people to church. There was a kind of sense of immediacy: Live now, live today, there won't always be a tomorrow. There is no way I could have known that was my last high five with Pastor Fred. There was no way he could have known, as he walked up the stairs, that he was moments away from seeing God fact-to-face."

Winters' widow, Cindy Winters, took a devastating time in her life and turned it into a new ministry to help others who are facing life-changing challenges or questioning their faith.

Through her Grace and Hope Ministries, she shares her story and how God has given her and her daughters grace and hope to get through the death of a husband and father.

"The last 12 months have been the most painful days that I have ever had to face," she said. "But they, in many ways, have also been filled with the most beauty and joy. My heart has ached, and my family, church, community and I have grieved and cried a thousand tears. Disbelief and shock have worn off, and I have been left to ponder many issues of the heart and do this without my best friend at my side. I wish my children weren't suffering. I wish life was easier for us. I would love for there to be a day not filled with struggle."

Cindy Winters is speaking at two special services today to remember and honor Fred Winters.

"The services, 'Remembering and Reflecting,' we are hosting (today) is a time for the entire community," she said. "I won't be sharing great theological knowledge, but rather, I will be opening my heart in a honest, transparent way. I hope that in doing so people will be strengthened, filled with hope and encouraged to seek healing for their own hearts if necessary."

In the year since Fred Winters was gunned down, the congregation of First Baptist Church has grown, the preschool and Christian school have seen an explosion of students, the lay and pastoral leadership of the church were forced to look at how to organize its hierarchy without a central leader, and changes were made to increase the security throughout the entire facility.

"What do you do when suddenly the leadership is removed?" Jones said. "Pastor Fred never established a number two — he had a team of No. 2s. There were no manuals written in the seminary on how to handle the murder of your pastor and the instant vacancy."

But first the team of No. 2s had to cope with the grief of dozens of people who had the image of Winters being shot burned into their memories.

"There was overwhelming grief," Jones said. "How do you handle that? How do you handle your pastor suddenly, violently being gone? We held many, many grief sessions. We are still holding grief sessions. We have people who are still hurting and struggling. Some have had to work through their fear of not feeling safe at church."

Terry Sedlacek, 27, of Troy is accused of fatally shooting Fred Winters. Sedlacek attempted to plead guilty March 26, but a judge refused to accept the plea. In October, Madison County Circuit Judge Richard Tognarelli found Sedlacek mentally unfit to stand trial in the shooting death of Winters. He is being treated in a mental health facility for schizophrenia. No court date has yet been set for Sedlacek to face first-degree murder charges in the shooting of Winters.

According to prosecutors, Sedlacek had marked March 8 as "death day" in a day planner, and police found an index card that had "last day will" written on it along with a voice recorder. Police have not released the contents of what the voice recorder contained.

Two congregants, Keith Melton and Terry Bullard, subdued Sedlacek after he shot Winters. Both men were injured during the struggle. Sedlacek stabbed himself in the throat as the two men were subduing him.

Cindy Winters said she often thinks of Sedlacek and his family.

"Whenever I'm feeling sorry for myself, I think that they are suffering, too. I hope ultimately he finds peace in his life and peace with God," she said. "I think of his family and of the pain they are experiencing as well. It's not just my pain in this situation, a lot of people are hurting. But, in the midst of pain, I have seen how God is strengthening us, providing for us and ultimately rebuilding our lives. Death and tragedy have a way of putting life in proper perspective and making what's important rise to the top. For that I am grateful"

Since March 8, 2009, the church has baptized 100 people, a goal Fred Winters set. The Sunday morning average attendance has grown from 1,100 to 1,500.

"When March 8 happened, we had a huge influx of people," Jones said. "We had people here to show their support and others who were curious. It tapered off a bit, then it jumped again, and we saw a 15 percent increase in parishioners in the second jump."

The Rev. Tom Hufty was selected to serve as the interim pastor to lead the congregation while they grieved. Hufty drives two hours, one-way, once a week to preach three sermons every Sunday.

A team was established to start working to find a permanent senior pastor, but Jones doesn't expect one to be found anytime soon.

"It takes about three years for people to emotionally say goodbye to someone," Jones said. "But Pastor Fred didn't just retire, he was brutally, abruptly taken away. There is a lot of grief and healing that goes along with that. If we bring in someone new too soon, we are setting him up for heartbreak and we are setting up the congregation for heartbreak. We believe God is calling one person to be that leader and we will know when it's time."

The group assigned to find a new senior pastor expects to receive several hundred resumes when it actively starts looking.

"Dr. Hufty is with us for the long haul," Jones said. "He knows what it means to us, and he knows it takes the pressure off for the urgency to find someone else. The church needs to be ready to embrace a new pastor before we bring someone else in."

The preschool is at capacity, and the kindergarten through eighth-grade students are shoulder to shoulder. The increase in students is what prompted the church to move up a $3.3 million expansion. The 40,269-square-foot expansion will include preschool space and church offices and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The expansion is part of a seven-year plan Winters had for the church.

"The philosophy around here has been build and grow," Jones said. "That is one of the last legacies that Pastor Fred gave this church — to make people feel welcomed here."

After Winters was killed by someone who just walked right in and down the sanctuary aisle, the church was forced to examine its nonexistent security procedures.

"We aren't a military installation, and we aren't a government establishment: We are a church," Jones said. "We had to figure out how to handle security in that kind of situation. God gives us a brain so we do what we can do to provide security while also relying on the power of prayer and asking for God's protection."

Visitors to the church are now required to sign in and wear a visitor's badge. They must also sign back out. Every week, the visitors log is examined to look for any discrepancies or seemingly odd visits, Jones said.

"People can't just come and go in this facility any more," Jones aid. "There is now accountability, and our school is 100 percent locked down. Nobody comes in without being questioned and escorted."

On Saturdays, the gym hosts a variety of activities and more than 2,500 people come and go in a 12-hour period.

"The gym is now locked off from the rest of the church," Jones said. "People can't go into the sanctuary or other parts of the building from the gym, and that's a change for us. We now have it where we can partition off the building, and that just makes sense."

While those attending Sunday services don't have to check in and out, they are worshipping under much more secure conditions than they did a year ago.

"We have a full-fledged team of people in various locations, and we are able to respond very, very fast," he said.

That team includes security personnel, emergency medical technicians, nurses and doctors who are ready to respond to any kind of emergency, Jones said.

"This past year was a year of a horrendous amount of work to make sure we would never be caught off guard again," Jones said. "Some people have said they wished we didn't have to have security. Others are very thankful and have expressed a feeling of security and safety knowing the team is there."

Jones misses Winters and his guidance, but he said the legacy he leaves behind in the church he served for 22 years is a constant reminder of what a unique, rare individual Winters was.

"Pastor Fred said in one of his sermons before he died that he would gladly give his life to see just one person come to God," Jones said. "For God to have allowed Pastor Fred's life to be cut short, I believe something huge is on the way. I'm of the persuasion that something is going to take place of a huge, huge scale. I think there is something of an unimaginable good that will come from this unimaginable violence."

Jones said he knows of two young men who chose to go to seminary after Winters was killed because they felt a calling.

"God lost one pastor," Jones said, "but he has gained at least two because of this."

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