Church split may have torn Ratzmann

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/March 14, 2005
By Laurel Walker

It has been 10 years since David Fiedler pastored to Terry Ratzmann.

The last time he saw him was when the church they both belonged to fractured in a doctrinal split that church leaders have likened to "Dodge City at High Noon" and a "nuclear explosion."

The church lost 40% of its members, dropping to 60,000.

Fiedler went one way. Terry Ratzmann went the other.

Saturday, Ratzmann suffered his own meltdown.

Police are wondering now whether it was his relationship with his church and fellow members - not a job loss as some had theorized - that caused the 44-year-old New Berlin man to shoot 11 of his fellow churchgoers, killing seven and himself.

"All I know is that Terry Ratzmann was a very gentle-spirited man," Fiedler said. "I just can't imagine him doing anything like this."

Fiedler, of the Town of Waukesha, was "relieved" with the changes in his Worldwide Church of God in 1995. He is now district superintendent, overseeing 30 pastors and 50 congregations in Wisconsin and six other states.

But Fiedler said his local church members who meet in Milwaukee now number only about 75, compared with the 500 or so - Ratzmann, too - who used to meet at the Waukesha County Expo Center and then at Whitnall High School.

Ratzmann turned to the Living Church of God - a splinter organization that carries on much of the apocalyptic and Old Testament bent of the original church founder, H.W. Armstrong.

About 50 to 60 members were attending a regular Sabbath meeting at a Brookfield hotel when Ratzmann opened fire, reloaded and fired some more - 22 rounds in all.

No warning. No explanation.

Police are trying to understand why Ratzmann walked out of a service two weeks ago, even though he was to give the closing prayer that day.

Fiedler said his church abandoned Armstrong's "prediction addiction" and "fear approach" long ago.

"I assume that's still continuing over there," he said. "That kind of thinking and that kind of approach can be very unsettling."

In a promotional video for the Worldwide Church of God, leaders say that the church has moved "from cultism to Christ."

They say Armstrong would preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, using current events to shore up his dire world prophecies.

If the turmoil of such a church split was nagging at Ratzmann, as at least one e-mailer to this newspaper said it had nagged at him for so long, Fiedler can't really say.

Some people were so unsettled by the church's doctrinal change that they stopped attending altogether. Some turned to other churches.

"Some people seem to carry a lot of hurt with them and have been unable to deal with it," he said, "whereas Terry just continued on with the same belief system that he had in the past.

"I don't think the changes affected him because he didn't go along with the changes."

Fiedler knew six of the eight killed Saturday because he had been their pastor from about 1991 to 1995. He said he did not know the current pastor, Randy Gregory, or his son, James, both of whom were shot and killed by Ratzmann.

Like the rest of us, Fiedler struggles for answers. He remembers that when he first moved to the Town of Waukesha from Michigan, Ratzmann was among those who welcomed him. He brought pears to share.

"It's just so unthinkable and so unreasonable and so unlike who he was. He must have snapped."

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