Churches need to recognize the symptoms of avenger violence

By John Nicoletti and Sara Garrido

Author writes about the harassment of her parents in their parsonage and the violence it led to 40 years ago.

“To an outsider, the actions of Mr. Watts during church might have appeared eccentric at worst, the ludicrous yet harmless actions of someone who wasn’t right in the head.  But to those who knew the man, it was evident that Mr. Watts wasn’t a changed man. He still paced at night.  He still glared at us with a smoldering disdain that, like hot lava, would inevitably surface.  Somewhere, somehow, he’d strike again. It was just a matter of time,” writes Rebecca Nichols Alonzo, author of The Devil in Pew Number Seven.

Today she relives the years of harassment she and her family experienced at the hands of H.J. Watts, a disgruntled member of their church community in Sellerstown, NC. Unfortunately, her story is not unique.

In the past 40-plus years since the Nichols family was terrorized at their parsonage, there have been numerous church-related shootings and other acts of violence. What is essential for church communities to understand is that many of these violent acts are preventable, given what is now known about those who engage in this type of violence.

The Nichols family and their church community were the victims of what is called “avenger violence.” Those who perpetrate this type of violence can be identified by several characteristics:

  • The Avenger experiences a perceived injustice. Keep in mind the key word here is “perceived.” This injustice may seem inconsequential or even ludicrous to others; however, because of its importance to the Avenger, it cannot be ignored
  • The Avenger feels victimized by the church or its members
  • The Avenger tends to externalize responsibility for his or her own actions, projecting blame onto others
  • The Avenger begins to ruminate on the perceived injustice which then leads to the development of  a grudge, causing the Avenger to become obsessed with revenge
  • If the Avenger is not disrupted, the potential for him or her to engage in vio-
    lence increases sharply.

Watts was a wealthy man, quite accustomed to having power and control over most everything in Sellerstown, including church business. Soon after Pastor Nichols arrived, it was his opinion that mattered most to the congregation and Watts felt rejected (an injustice).  In addition, Watts’ wife was voted out of two positions she had held for years within the church (the victimization). It was clear to Watts that his family’s standing in the church had weakened substantially and he blamed the new pastor for this (externalization of responsibility).

One lesson that is critically important for church communities to understand is that an Avenger will always make clear ahead of time that they are a threat. The key to averting a tragedy lies in church communities taking an Avenger’s “broadcasting” seriously. Broadcasting can occur in a number of different ways, including verbal and written threats, videos, Web pages (Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, etc.), and practice sessions and boundary probing.

Of course, at the time the events occurred in Sellerstown, the Internet was not an avenue available to Watts; however, it is certainly a resource used quite frequently by Avengers today.  For example, in December 2007, Matthew Murray went on a shooting rampage at two Colorado churches. Of note, this was not an unforeseen attack.

In the months leading up to the shootings, Murray broadcasted his plans to kill Christians by posting several threats to online forums. In Sellerstown, the threats came in the form of threatening phone calls and letters. As Rebecca Alonzo recalled, “One letter stood out. After suggesting Daddy take a leave of absence, the writer promised we’d be leaving Sellerstown one way or the other — crawling or walking, running or riding, dead or alive.”

In addition to the anonymous phone calls and letters, Watts also engaged in practice sessions.

Avengers always engage in practice sessions, involving what are known as boundary probes, which allow an Avenger to gauge the church’s response to behaviors that are inappropriate.

Alonzo recalls many such behaviors in which Watts engaged. For example, “Like some sort of clown with a bad sense of timing, Mr. Watts made obnoxious faces in the middle of the service.  Bringing hand to mouth, he’d clear his throat with gasps, coughs and grunts as if he had swallowed dry bread, and for variety, he’d suck his teeth and smack his lips as if savoring the last morsels of a steak dinner.

“Toward the end of the sermon, Watts pointed at his watch, arm raised, signaling that Daddy had preached too long, at least too long in Mr. Watt’s view. And if that grand display didn’t prompt Daddy to wrap things up, Mr. Watts would rise from his pew and make a sudden, noisy exit, slamming the front doors so hard the frame rattled,” she writes.

These behaviors are common examples of boundary probes and must be taken seriously.  All too often, bad behavior is ignored with the excuse that the individual is “just obnoxious” or “just venting.” The word just serves to minimize boundary probing behavior.

What this tells the Avenger is that if and when he or she acts badly, it will be tolerated.  It is essential that behaviors be disrupted at this level because if they are not, they will almost always lead to attack behaviors.

In Sellerstown, the slammed doors and obnoxious faces gave way to 10 bombings at the Nichols’ parsonage and the church itself over a two and a half year period.

There are a number of preventative measures that church staff can put into place to disrupt boundary probing behaviors, which will make it clear that they will not be tolerated. It is also important to include the entire church community in identifying these types of behaviors since they will be the early “detectors” of the concerning behaviors. Once the concerning behaviors have been detected it is up to the  church leaders to both be aware of what is happening and take steps to disrupt the actions.

The author, despite the regrettable personal circumstances, has contributed to making the church a safe and comfortable sanctuary. Her book is valuable for sharing her family’s experiences so that others might be educated in preventing similar acts of violence from occurring in their own church communities.

John Nicoletti is a clinical/police psychologist, and Sara Garrido is a police psychology intern, at Nicholetti-Flater Associates, Lakewood, CO. [ ]


Heartache, but forgiveness nevertheless

“A church should be a safe and inviting place to worship God and spend time with fellow believers. But what if the church you attended was the center of a violent war between a disgruntled man who was faithful to sit in the church pews every Sunday with a relentless passion to destroy your devoted pastor.”

Suppose that man lived across the road from the parsonage, and suppose that devoted pastor was your father, as was the case for Rebecca Nichols Alonzo. Some 40 years later she has written a compelling book, The Devil in Pew Number Seven. (Tyndale Books, 2010)

Alonzo takes up the theme of forgiveness in telling her personal story, and you can read her comments, exclusive to Church Executive, by going to


One Response to “Churches need to recognize the symptoms of avenger violence”

  1. Churches are idea breeding grounds for hate and hostility. After all, for the past two millennia, the bread and butter of preachers is railing against Satan. Quite often, they churches are also training grounds for broader ambitions. Many a secular singer began a career singing solos in church. Likewise, churches also serve as de facto training colleges for the politically ambitious.

    Not a mile from where I live, there is a large respectable church in a rather small North Carolina town. Pulling in a reported $200,000 or more in annual salary and benefits, the preacher is reputed to be little more than a pawn. One of the hands pushing him around on the ecclesiastical chessboard is both wealthy and politically successful.

    Although the rich man in question didn’t know me from a church mouse, I met him in the parking lot of a farming supply store about four towns removed from the church where he pulls the strings. Recognizing him as I exited my quarter century old but reliable pickup truck, I struck up a conversation with the latter day DIves. Sizing me up as just another local bumpkin, the first words out of his mouth were that he was “a preacher”. I knew that was a lie. The conversation spiraled into a tailspin from there.

    When he discovered I knew better, the wealthy entrepreneur rapidly switched tactics. Eventually, perhaps thinking that someone of my apparent economic state might have a criminal record, he got on a law and order binge. Unknown to him, I was former cop with experience teaching an upper level criminal justice course at a four-year college.

    All the while, as the Robber Baron wannabe shifted mental gears trying to get traction, I could sense his mounting frustration. The more we talked, the more desperate he became to find some way to prove his presumed superiority. Finally, when he literally ran from me, the words of Proverbs 28:1 came to mind as he ducked into his new car and sailed out of the parking lot.

    Long ago, I came to the conclusion that most of the problems in any organization stem from those inclined to either run or ruin anyone and anything into which they come into contact. This toxicity is the same hubris that eventually destroyed the divine right of kings and sunk empires throughout history.

    Sadly, because pride abounds, churches are not always safe havens for those seeking refuge from the storms of life. All too often, there is too much money to be made in keeping the flock angry at someone or something. Too many churches are in search of some perceived enemy with which to do battle. While some objects of criticism may be legitimate, others are merely targets of convenience.

    Although, the Horry Watts of this world are few and far between, I can easily imagine the political muck-a-muck in the parking lot devising some sinister plot to oust a preacher he couldn’t control. On the other hand, just as I am disinclined to believe in biological spontaneous generation, I likewise wonder what churches did to provoke acts of apparent retaliation. Churches are not alone in this regard.

    For at least the past 20 years, it has been widely acknowledged that bullying is highly correlated with school shootings. Thus, while not all bullying results in retaliation, some bullying likely precedes excessive violence. It is a lesson which church leaders should take to heart in a country that, according to public opinion polls, is becoming increasingly both diverse and secular.

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