Rape conviction makes Hornbuckle’s return unlikely, not impossible
FORT WORTH – Terry Hornbuckle‘s flock called him “Bishop.” To many now, the fallen minister is just another drug addict and convicted rapist.
Churches across the nation are led by pastors who have cheated on their wives, stolen money from their congregations and spent years in prison. Despite their crimes and sins, they have been “restored” to the ministry.
No one knows whether Mr. Hornbuckle, who will be a registered sex offender when he returns to the free world, will ever be called pastor again.
“You have examples of God restoring even the most reprobate believer,” said David Kyle Foster.
He cited the story of King David, who was forgiven for the crimes of adultery and murder. But Dr. Foster, executive director of Mastering Life Ministries in Franklin, Tenn., said that modern believers might not be so forgiving, and in this case, rightfully so.
“God would have to write it on the wall that he’s healed and should be restored,” Dr. Foster said.
Mr. Hornbuckle, 44, whose attorneys say he is a methamphetamine addict, is awaiting sentencing after being convicted Tuesday of three counts of sexual assault. He could receive probation for his crime or two to 20 years in prison. The jury hearing the case returns to deliberating his sentence Monday.
One day, though, he’ll probably walk out of jail or prison and have to start a new life. For the past two decades, Mr. Hornbuckle’s life has been that of a minister on the rise.
He started Agape Christian Fellowship and built it from a small congregation that once met in a former Dairy Queen to a church with more than 2,500 members who gather in a sprawling multimillion-dollar campus in southeast Arlington.
Church officials have not commented on the possibility of Mr. Hornbuckle returning to Agape.
Some at Mr. Hornbuckle’s church said they have already forgiven the husband and father of three and are ready to embrace him as their spiritual leader once again.
LaShawn Amires, a member of Agape for 6 1/2 years, said that God tells her to forgive, and that’s just what she’s done. She said she prays that God will provide Mr. Hornbuckle with whatever he needs to get through these hard times.
“It’s not my position to judge my spiritual leader,” Ms. Amires said.
She said she’d be willing to follow him if he returns to the pulpit.
Annie Davis, an Agape member who has known Mr. Hornbuckle for 25 years, said she, too, had already forgiven her longtime friend.
“If we don’t forgive others, he [God] won’t forgive us,” she said.
Ms. Davis said only God would be able to decide whether to restore her former pastor to the ministry. She said some people would be willing to follow while others wouldn’t.
“Some will never forgive him,” Ms. Davis said.
But she said that she and others who don’t believe the allegations of rape would be more likely to give Mr. Hornbuckle a second chance.
‘A false leader’
Lynn Dupree, who attended Agape for a year and left in 2004, is one who can’t forgive as easily.
She initially found Agape to be a welcoming church that helped the poor, created a vibrant children’s ministry and inspired its members. But she became disenchanted with unrelenting pleas for money during Mr. Hornbuckle’s emotionally charged sermons, which she said had too little talk about God.
Long before news of Mr. Hornbuckle’s legal troubles hit, Ms. Dupree started to doubt his sincerity. She said he often told congregants not to emulate him, and that he was not worthy of their adulation.
“He was right. We were believing in a false leader,” Ms. Dupree said.
When a scandal like this rocks a church, parishioners often lose hope, said the Rev. Bryan Feille, associate dean of students at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.
“It’s always devastating when there is a breach of trust, and some will have trouble trusting again,” Mr. Feille said. “In the Agape case, it’s more difficult because [the church is] built around Hornbuckle. They have focused so much of their dreams and hopes on one person.”
Churches embroiled in scandal often split over succession, Mr. Feille said.
“There are those who want to throw the rascal out and those who defend the rascal, so you get polarized over the situation,” he said.
Mr. Hornbuckle has been suspended without pay from his duties, and his wife, Renee, is now the church’s senior pastor.
Church officials said the congregation has lost about 2,000 members since Mr. Hornbuckle was first arrested in March 2005. But they said that membership is on the rise again.
Dr. Foster said the greater the betrayal, the longer it will take for a minister to be restored. In the case of Mr. Hornbuckle, he said, “You have someone who could take a life to heal.”
And there are some cases where the crimes are so great that restoration isn’t possible. He said that murderers and child molesters should not be restored.
“The consequences of being wrong about reading someone’s heart or hearing God’s word would be too heinous,” Dr. Foster said.
Michael Battle, vice president of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., said he’s not aware of any pastor who has returned to the pulpit after a rape conviction. He said that going to prison doesn’t necessarily strip a minister of his or her spiritual authority – it’s the nature and severity of the crime.
“It would be extremely difficult to return,” he said of Mr. Hornbuckle.
But Dr. Battle noted that unlikely is not the same as impossible.
“There should be no crime that Christian faith could not redeem except for blasphemy,” he said.
Paris M. Finner-Williams, a psychologist and Christian counselor in Detroit, said redemption for a pastor requires a careful plan that takes months or, more likely, years.
Because these are such serious offenses, she said, “there are more steps and a more intensified plan for redemption.” Baby steps are needed.
That would include counseling by a mental health professional and a committee of church elders or peers to watch Mr. Hornbuckle closely, probably on a daily basis, she said. There must also be an understanding on the part of the minister about the pain he caused and what led him to veer off his path.
Dr. Finner-Williams said a simple apology isn’t enough.
“Forgiveness does not automatically erase the event,” she said.
Aug. 26, 2006
Jeff Mosier and Debra Dennis