March 22, 2011
Confronting Violence at Church
Maryville shooting, Texas murder underscore need for preparation.
The current issue of Leadership Journal revisits the fatal shooting of Pastor Fred Winters as he preached one Sunday morning at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois. The piece recounts—in chilling detail—his final moments on March 8, 2009, as the suspect approached the pulpit while hiding a .45 caliber Glock pistol underneath a church bulletin:
Pastor Fred Winters was in the early moments of his sermon. He looked at the man standing in the aisle and asked, "May I help you?"
At that moment the stranger removed a church bulletin covering the gun and began shooting. The first shot hit Pastor Winters's Bible, shredding it into what people perceived as confetti. The reality of what was happening didn't register with anyone yet, in fact some later commented they thought it was a drama sketch.
Pastor Winters yelled, "It's real, this is real!" and moved toward the side of the stage.
The second and third shots each missed Pastor Winters. He jumped off the stage toward the gunman and grabbed the gun. It was there the fourth and final shot hit the pastor in the chest, piercing his heart and killing him."
The article goes on to share how the church has worked to heal from the trauma in the two years since, including interviews with the church's ministers of worship and pastoral care, as well as Winters' wife. While the suspect remains in custody awaiting trial, one disturbing fact remains:
To this day, there is no understanding of why the shooter picked this church on this day. He had no prior connection with First Baptist. No motive has been discovered. It was a random act of violence.
Considering the number of Christian churches in the country (most estimates usually put the figure at about 300,000) and the number of services that take place every week at those churches, random acts of violence like this one are a rarity. These incidents serve as reminders that, though rare, church leaders still must work to prevent them—or know what to do if a potential situation begins to unfold.
Sadly, another such reminder arose earlier this month.
On March 3, police say two men entered the offices of NorthPointe Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, where Pastor Clint Dobson and his office assistant worked.
They began to rob Dobson and his assistant—and then did the unthinkable.
According to a police report, the suspects murdered Dobson, 29, by suffocating him with a plastic bag. They also attacked his assistant, seriously injuring her.
The suspects were arrested a few days later, thanks to a tip from two women who said they heard the men "laughing and making inappropriate comments" while watching news reports of the pastor's death, according to a report by KTVT, the local CBS television affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth.
In both the Maryville and Arlington stories, we see the ongoing challenges churches face when it comes to safety and security. Openness and accessibility, essential qualities for any church that wants to reach out, can be used by individuals who wish to do harm. The thought of pre-screening people before they attend a worship service seems absurd; many churches offer benevolence—frequently involving food and money—throughout the week as people in need show up at their offices looking for help.
What can be done? A pastor and office assistant I recently spoke with say they may consider installing security camera systems at their respective church offices as a way to keep their building secure throughout the week (and create a possible deterrent by showing a would-be attacker that their face will be recorded before they enter).
What other steps are worth taking? For help on this question, our sister site, ChurchSafety.com, offers the following electronic training resources for local churches:
How is your church addressing this question?