MARYVILLE, Ill. (BP)–A Southern Baptist pastor was killed during a morning worship service March 8 by a gunman who reportedly suffered from mental illness caused by Lyme disease.
Fred Winters, 45, was preaching in the 8:15 a.m. service with about 150 people in attendance at the St. Louis-area First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., when the gunman, identified in media reports as 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek, walked down the aisle, exchanged some words with the pastor and opened fire, shooting Winters four times in the chest.
When the gunman’s .45-caliber semiautomatic weapon jammed, he drew a knife and slashed two church members as they wrestled him to the ground, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The attacker stabbed himself in the neck, and he and one of the church members were in serious condition after surgery. The other injured church member was treated and released.
Winters, meanwhile, staggered about halfway down a church aisle before collapsing and dying of his injuries at a local hospital, the newspaper said. He is survived by his wife Cindy and daughters Alysia, 14, and Cassidy, 12.
“In this day, where uncertainty seems to abound, creating an environment in which people are vulnerable in doing things they might not do otherwise, one thing is certain, we, as human beings need a foundation upon which we can live our lives,” a statement posted on the church’s website said.
“We at First Baptist Maryville, along with other Christian believers, share this conviction: that foundation is God’s Word. In the pages of the Book we call the Bible, we find the pathway for peace, hope, and a quality of living life despite what circumstances we find ourselves in,” the statement, which also requested prayer, said.
A graduate of two Southern Baptist seminaries, Winters served as a two-time president of the Illinois Baptist State Association beginning in 2006 and served on the SBC Committee on Committees in 2004. His church has been one of the top Cooperative Program supporting churches in Illinois, giving nearly a quarter of a million dollars last year.
“We’ll not know in this time why a man unknown to the congregation walked into the worship center and took such drastic measures to end a good and godly man’s life,” Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, said in a statement to Baptist Press. “Dr. Winters was a powerful preacher who loved to reach souls for Christ and minister to those who were hurting and struggling. In his 22 years there, he built a great witness for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In 1987, when Winter began as pastor of First Baptist Maryville, the church averaged 30 in attendance, and since then it has grown to more than 1,200 members. The church, with a 500-seat worship center, sits on a rural road in a growing community.
“Fred Winters loved Jesus and loved the people of his church and community,” Chapman said. “I had the privilege of preaching in that church in March 2002 while Bro. Fred was preaching elsewhere. His congregation and family were a joy to meet. … I know Southern Baptists throughout this country will pray for his wife and two beautiful daughters in this time of great sorrow and grief. Their lives will never be the same again, but God’s Spirit will be with them each step of the journey.”
Last August, the Post-Dispatch ran an article about Sedlacek’s struggle with Lyme disease, which he supposedly contracted from a tick bite after spending time on a family farm in the late ’90s. He had taken several medications that did little to help combat the effects, and in 2003 he nearly died from the disease. The newspaper said Sedlacek suffered from lesions on his brain related to the illness.
The Post-Dispatch reported that Sedlacek, who had no prior criminal record, was charged with murder and aggravated battery March 9. Detectives had not identified any connection between the gunman and the pastor other than Sedlacek had some friends who attended the church.
Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, expressed sentiments on behalf of thousands of Illinois Baptists who knew Winters from his leadership positions in the state convention.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to Fred’s family and the church family during this time of great grief and loss. He was a wonderful, gifted, leading pastor in Illinois and a dear friend. His ministry and mentorship will be missed sorely by so many,” Adams said.
“Of course our great God is not surprised by this, or anything. That He allows evil and free will to have their way in tragedies like this is a mystery in many ways,” Adams said. “But we know we can trust Him no matter what and draw close to Him in any circumstance. Let’s draw closer to Him and to one another during this terrible tragedy and renew our faith and obedience to His purposes for however many days we have remaining to serve Him.”
Kevin Kerr, president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and pastor of First Baptist Church in Machesney Park, Ill., said Winters had been a friend for 25 years.
“I’m most concerned for his family and for the church family. This changes their whole world and everything that is familiar to them,” Kerr said. “This tragedy also makes every pastor think about how easily they could be a victim of the same senseless type of tragedy. I think many church members don’t realize how vulnerable pastors and their families are.
“Churches by their very nature must be open and inviting to those we are attempting to minister to,” Kerr said. “We can’t build walls around the church and lock out the very people we are called to reach. Churches, generally, take seriously the safety of children in our care but probably need to think more about other areas of security.”
Winters earned a master of divinity degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., in 1991 and served as an adjunct professor and national alumni president. R. Philip Roberts, the seminary’s president, called Winters “an extraordinarily gifted and effective pastor.”
“Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary extends its heartfelt and Christian condolences to the Fred Winters family and the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill.,” Roberts said. “Fred Winters was a genuine, gifted, committed and courageous Christian pastor. His love for God, Jesus, the Gospel and people was vibrant and dynamic.
“… We trust God to turn this terribly tragic event for good and believe that His promise in Romans 8:28 will prove true in Pastor Winters’ seemingly untimely death,” Roberts added.
Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, had Winters as a student when Rainer was dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“He was also a friend and co-laborer in ministry,” Rainer said. “I am grateful that I got to spend time with Fred on Feb. 24, where I was speaking at a meeting in Naples, Fla., for large-church pastors.
“We spoke one-on-one for several minutes, and I could tell that he was rejoicing in his ministry and life,” Rainer added. “My heart breaks for Fred’s family, and I am already praying for them in this time of shock and grief. We also pray for First Baptist Church of Maryville. They have lost a great pastor and a dear friend.”
Chuck Lawless, the Graham School’s current dean, also expressed condolences.
“Fred Winters was already a seasoned pastor when he entered the doctor of ministry program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” Lawless said. “Still he wanted to continue learning, growing and pushing himself to be the best pastor he could be. That kind of leadership will be missed. We are praying for his family and his church.”
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach with reporting by Marty King of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.