“You can’t prepare for something like this,” the Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt says matter-of-factly. He’s referring to the Jan. 2 Kentucky plane crash that killed four but left young Sailor Gutzler, 7, the sole survivor.
National media covered the story of the Friday evening twin-engine aircraft crash and the family members who were killed: Marty, Kimberly and Piper, 9, Gutzler — father, mother and daughter — as well as Piper and Sailor’s cousin, 14-year-old Sierra Wilder.
The Gutzlers were known and well-loved in their community, small-town Nashville, Ill., where Wietfeldt served as Marty’s pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church.
The Gutzlers were returning home from a holiday trip to Key West, Fla., when their Piper PA-34 Seneca crashed near rural Kuttawa, Ky. Sailor made her way through the woods in the near-freezing temperatures to find help despite a broken wrist, bloody nose and scratches. She was only wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt and no shoes. Authorities are investigating the cause of the accident.
The crash “was a complete shock,” Wietfeldt explains. “Marty was a member who was kind and gracious to our congregation and our school. He gave very freely of himself, especially when it came to our school.”
Marty Gutzler’s father also is a member at Trinity. “I’ve prayed with him, and I’ve just listened,” Wietfeldt says. “I’ll continue to meet with him and pray with him and discover how pastorally to take care of young Sailor,” who is currently in the care of family members.
What does he say to the elder Gutzler? And what will he tell little Sailor? “The Lord is in control, and He provides in your time of need,” Wietfeldt says.
Comforting a congregation
Trinity Lutheran’s congregation is struggling as well.
On Sunday morning, Jan. 4, during Wietfeldt’s preservice announcements, the congregation “prayed for our community and our church in the midst of this tragedy. It also gave us time in the midst of a horrible situation to talk about the fact that this is exactly what the Church is here for, and that this is exactly what your pastor is here for: to comfort you, listen to you, give you a shoulder to cry on, to preach the Gospel to you when all you’re feeling is the weight of the Law through death,” he says.
Wietfeldt says his personal prayers for his flock have changed and morphed through this tragedy as he observes the toll Sailor’s loss has taken on the family, their friends and people who simply knew the Gutzlers.
“My prayers have moved from the norm — the regular issues a congregation faces — to this specific situation,” he says. “This has really changed the focus of my prayers, being able to lift individuals up in the midst of their sorrow. Plus, in a situation like this, people are coming to you out of the woodwork — people who had a connection or who feel very impacted by this tragedy — and it’s a joy to be able to be very specific in my prayers for the needs of my flock and these people.”
But it’s not just Wietfeldt who’s caring for the hurting. Others are reaching out to him with concern and prayer, realizing the immense challenge of offering Christ’s words of comfort and peace to so many hurting so profoundly.
“I can’t express the immense gratitude I have for [Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.], the pastors who have taught me, the teachers who have trained me over the years,” he says. “If it weren’t for faithful men as pastors, and men and women in lay situations, I would never have been at all close to being prepared for a situation like this, as prepared as one can be.”
Wietfeldt’s district president and circuit counselor “have both reached out, letting me know they are here for me in whatever pastoral capacity I need,” he says gratefully, and he has “a wonderful father confessor who is praying for me. When things simmer down and smooth out, I’ll work through this with him as well.”
It’s also been comforting that “many people have reached out — congregations, pastors, pastors’ wives — letting us know that they are praying for us. Being in the communion of the saints in prayer,” he says simply, “provides us comfort, as well.”
But there’s one group whose love and cares stands above the rest.
“It’s been just wonderful to have my parishioners say, ‘I know there’s a lot on your plate and that you couldn’t have prepared for this. We’re praying for you,’” he says. “It’s one of those things that, in a time like this, helps everything makes sense. Pastors take care of and pray for their flock. And then the flock, knowing that their pastor is only one individual and that he’s a sinful human, cares for and prays for their pastor too.”
A private funeral service for the Gutzler family and close friends is set for Jan. 9 at Trinity Lutheran Church, Nashville, with Wietfeldt officiating. Sierra Wilder’s funeral took place Jan. 7 at a funeral home in Nashville.
Wietfeldt says he has seen firsthand how the Gospel offers rich comfort in the midst of what seems like hopelessness. But he’s also seen that hope outright rejected.
“Dealing with the national media has taught me that they want sound bites. They don’t want to hear the Gospel,” he explains. “Out of all the things I’ve said, only one or two of the local stations . . . have used anything of what we’ve been saying as the Church: preaching the Gospel and comforting people in the midst of tragedy.”
“The Church doesn’t deal in pithy little sound bites that have nothing to do with the Gospel,” Wietfeldt says. “That weighs heavily on me. It perpetuates the sorrow. The media is taking solace in the fact that one person survived, when we in the Church take comfort in the fact that Jesus really does take care of His people through His Holy Spirit, and that as a community, we’re going to make it through this, not because of our resilience or ourselves, but because of Jesus.”
The way forward
And so Wietfeldt continues his steady drumbeat to anyone who will listen: Pray for Sailor, and trust that the Lord is good, despite how it seems and feels.
“Lift Sailor up in your prayers,” he encourages. “She’s lost her parents, sister and a cousin. She is desperately in need of prayer.”
And then, he urges, know that the Lord is in control, even in the midst of situations over which no pastor or congregation has any control.
To his brother pastors facing similar situations, Wietfeldts reminds, “Know that He’ll give you the words to speak and more often than not, ears to hear.”
And to parishioners? “Never stop praying for your pastor,” Wietfeldt urges. “Pray for those affected by tragedy. Pray for your brothers and sisters in the pew, whether you like them or not. Because the Lord really does provide.”