Preachers in Peril
Unaccountability threatens today's churches
Eclipse, May/June 2005
By Antoinette Wright
Reprinted with permission from Eclipse.
When Bishop Terry Hornbuckle, pastor of the prominent Agape Christian Fellowship Church in Arlington, Texas, was recently arrested and indicted on charges of sexually assaulting three women and charged with felony possession of 1 to 4 ounces of methamphetamine, scores of faithful churchgoers were left shaking their heads and wondering how this could possibly have happened at their church, to their pastor. What, they were left to ponder, had gone wrong? And how could such an anointed and sincere preacher, who seemed to have everything, just throw it all away?
The accusations leveled by former parishioners of Catholic churches around the country are not exclusive to that faith. Larry Crocker, a North Texas pastor at Lakeview Christian Church, also was recently arrested and charged with two counts of indecency with a child. In October, 2003, Dr. Joe Ratliff, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, was given a two-month paid leave of absence; following allegations he sexually assaulted a 37-year-old man. Ratliff allegedly forced the man into a church office where he groped and kissed him. It was also alleged that the Pastor offered to pay for the victim to have sex. The victim sued both Ratliff and the church. The case was settled out of court.
Unfortunately, Hornbuckle, who continues to proclaim his innocence, Ratliff and Crocker are not alone. Since the mid-1980s preachers have been rising to the upper-echelons of the ministerial world, drawing thousands of members to their churches and collecting millions of dollars in tithes and offerings, only to be publicly disgraced – the victims of the same temptations faced daily by all of us. From Jim Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart, from Robert Tilton to Don Stewart, hundreds of thousands of faithful followers have been let down by men they once believed held the keys to the kingdom.
Financial, sexual and moral issues plague the leaders of today's churches. Almost like rock stars or famous athletes, these men and women have greater visibility than ever before, and greater access to huge amounts of cash. Many fall prey to the pitfalls that lead their secular counterparts down the path of destruction – drugs, sex and greed.
Although scandal is not a new concept when it comes to the church, the stakes are certainly higher now than they have ever been. Big churches have become big business, making it necessary for pastors to double as CEO's of highly profitable organizations. Thanks to the far-reaching technology provided by satellite transmission and the Internet, stations such as TBN, Daystar and cable TV's Word Network have placed these men and women consistently in the spotlight, and they are constantly being watched.
In terms of spreading the gospel to as many folks as possible, televangelism has created an excellent opportunity for charismatic and innovative preachers/teachers such as Juanita Bynum, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar and Dallas' own Bishop T.D. Jakes to reach audiences of record numbers. The equation isn't difficult to figure out: more members equal more money, and more money equals more power.
If it's true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, many a disillusioned and heartbroken church member has been a victim of the greed, manipulation and/or sexual depravity that often accompanies a minister's meteoric rise to fame. With no system of checks and balances in place, and no standard of accountability for religious leaders to be held to, believers are many times left with nothing but their faith to sustain them.
EXPOSING THE TRUTH
Ole Anthony, founder and president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based organization that provides food for the hungry, rehabilitation for drug abusers, private investigative services and publishes the world's only Christian satire magazine "The Wittenburg Door," has been investigating fraudulent ministries, cults and affinity fraud for more than 20 years.
The Trinity foundation is probably best known for its investigation of televangelist Robert Tilton in 1991, in which prayer requests from faithful followers were found in trash bins, the envelopes had been emptied of the cash, checks, food stamps and trinkets many viewers had sent as "seed gifts." The foundation has taken on the daunting task of exposing predatory ministers and investigating complaints of what amounts to abuse of power in high ministerial places.
Concerning the recent occurrences in churches throughout the country, Anthony says, "Fundamentally, the problem is systemic. What's happened over the years [is], Christianity has begun worshipping bigness. So, the more members you have the better job you're doing, supposedly. All it's doing is creating an environment where there's no accountability for the leadership. The common denominator is that they [church leaders] start believing they're special, and there is no one that they can be accountable to. They have a board of directors, but it's usually just some prominent people that they never even meet."
With seemingly unlimited amounts of cash and adoring followers at their disposal, an illusion of being untouchable or above the law has been created, leaving pastors and church leaders with no one to police their behavior. But how much of the blame can be placed solely on the shoulders of these prominent figures? In a culture that rewards power with blind loyalty and devotion, how can we expect these mere mortals not to abuse their positions? They are often doted upon, coddled and treated like royalty by the very people they are supposed to be serving. Have they been placed on a pedestal so high that their fall is all but inevitable?
"The problem, from the individual's standpoint," Anthony says, "is that they can't afford to go to anyone and say, 'I need help with this problem,' because then it would ruin this image that has been created. In every major ministry that we've investigated over the last 20 years, they have no accountability. Some of these places are snake pits of sexual misconduct. It's because there is no transparency on the part of the leaders."
Anthony points out that today's ministers are almost being worshiped themselves and there's just too much credence given to them. They have a standard that they have to live up to that they can't meet. "My heart goes out to the ministers because they feel they have to put up this front, with the way they dress and the cars they drive..."
One of the more disturbing aspects of this dilemma is that many so-called "disgraced" televangelists have begun popping up on a mainstay of the African-American community – Black Entertainment Television (BET). Tilton, who once headquartered his ministry in Carrollton, Texas, has moved to Florida and can be seen on the network several times during the week. And he's not alone.
Pete Popoff, a former televangelist who hosted a weekly television show in the early 80's, but was disgraced when his endeavor to send Bibles to the Soviet Union via hot air balloons was terminated- only for the public to find out he had spent the money they had donated. He staged a robbery of his headquarters, and was further disgraced when Johnny Carson exposed his deeds on national television in 1986. Popoff has resurfaced and can also be seen on BET.
Although everyone deserves a second chance, the concern is that these people may be up to their old tricks. Many suspect that they are targeting the most vulnerable segments of society. Minority, sick, handicapped and elderly viewers have traditionally been more susceptible to the "prosperity gospel" Tilton and his cohorts teach. The concept convinces followers that if they give all they have, they will be rewarded "a hundred fold." The line becomes blurred between sound, Biblical teaching and taking advantage. These ministers often fail to teach morality and ethics, while claiming that the mere act of giving or "seeding" will bring riches and abundance.
Of course, there are those who see all of this upheaval as the work of the enemy. According to Bishop Larry D. McGriff of the Church of the Living God, Pillard Ground and Truth in Dallas, "The devil doesn't want to see God's work done, so of course he's going to attack the head."
Naturally, pastors and church officials being in the public eye are going to be attacked – sometimes wrongfully so – but the question is, can their character stand up to the weight of allegations and scandal?
Because of the separation between church and state, the government is unable to get involved, leaving the public to hold accountable those who misuse the Bible to take advantage of true believers. The key in all of this is to think for one's self. When looking for a church home, read, pray and research. "Don't be afraid to ask for a financial statement," Anthony says.
Honest people who are seeking an honest place of worship have the right to know the facts. If something seems fishy, investigate. Don't be afraid to ask questions.