Ex-members say Arlington church lost its focus; leader has denied sex, drug charges
Update, Aug. 22, 2006: Terry Hornbuckle Found Guilty
ARLINGTON – Pacing next to a kitchen table-size lectern in his $3 million church, Terry Hornbuckle often warned his congregation about demons.
Daily life was a fight against the basest human urges, he would explain to hundreds gathered at Agape Christian Fellowship in southeast Arlington. In one of his self-published books, Mr. Hornbuckle called it “Psychological Warfare.”
It was a battle the sharply dressed, charismatic preacher told the growing crowds that he could help them win – as long as they followed his advice and Scripture.
Now, former church members fear that Mr. Hornbuckle, who is free on bail on sexual assault and drug charges, has fallen prey to the demons he so eloquently preached against. He has denied the criminal charges.
“He’s not a man of God,” said Kevin Thornton, a former church member who became disenchanted with Mr. Hornbuckle in part, he said, because of the church’s emphasis on money. “It really upsets me when people abuse their power.”
If the criminal charges are valid, the pastor’s story is a familiar one, said Ole Anthony, head of the Trinity Foundation, a Christian watchdog group based in Dallas. It’s not unusual for huge nondenominational churches that preach the gospel of prosperity – in which followers are asked to donate to their church or pastor expecting God to provide financial success in return – to disintegrate as a result of accusations of their leader’s indiscretions, he said.
“There are so many examples of this where there isn’t any accountability with the churches,” Mr. Anthony said, recalling Robert Tilton, the Farmers Branch televangelist whose $80-million-a-year ministry collapsed under the weight of fraud accusations and questions about his infidelities in the early 1990s.
Mr. Hornbuckle, 43, who started his 2,500-member nondenominational church in 1986 with a dozen friends, was indicted last month on charges that he sexually assaulted three female church members – ages 17, 20 and 37 at the time – and, in two of the cases, drugged them. He’s also facing a drug charge after police said they found one to four grams of methamphetamine and a glass pipe in his car during his arrest.
Agape church member Sean Verdun, like many supporters of Mr. Hornbuckle, said that the person who would commit these alleged crimes bears no resemblance to his pastor, who he said is committed to empowering and uplifting people. Mr. Verdun said he believes his pastor was set up.
Mr. Hornbuckle and his church also are facing lawsuits filed by the alleged victims.
Through their publicists, Mr. Hornbuckle and church elders declined to comment on the allegations or discuss the history of Agape for this story.
Shortly after his arrest, Mr. Hornbuckle, who was briefly suspended from his duties as pastor but was reinstated last week, proclaimed his innocence at a news conference.
“These charges are frivolous,” he said last month. “Those are accusations that I categorically deny.” He also said in a previous written statement that the women demanded that he pay them millions of dollars in “hush money.”
One of Mr. Hornbuckle’s associates also was indicted on two counts of aggravated perjury in connection with her testimony before the grand jury about the case.
Two of the alleged victims said that Mr. Hornbuckle slipped them a date rape drug, and they woke up in a bed in a Euless apartment, according to the lawsuits. A third alleged victim said that Mr. Hornbuckle forced himself on her in a truck. In each case, the lawsuit claims that he told the women he wanted to meet to talk about spiritual or personal matters.
In a statement issued through her attorney, one alleged victim said Mr. Hornbuckle “created a place of worship and praise, and then used it to deceive and abuse people.
“What Bishop Hornbuckle did was terrible and wrong, even more so because he did it in God’s name,” said the woman, who is not being identified because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault. “I want him to understand the pain and anguish he has caused, to me and to so many others.”
At least three former church members said they filed complaints with the IRS alleging that the church’s charitable-giving statements – used to calculate income tax deductions – reflected only a fraction of the donations made to the church.
One of those, Mr. Thornton, said that church officials refused to explain why the donations listed on his statement one year amounted to only one-third of his actual contribution.
The IRS, as is its practice, refused to confirm or deny the existence of the complaints.
Mr. Verdun said he believes there is a conspiracy against Mr. Hornbuckle because of the church’s work to help low-income families. One program has helped more than two dozen families buy houses, and that is threatening to some, Mr. Verdun said.
“People get set up all the time in America,” he said. “It’s nothing new.”
Mr. Thornton and his wife, Tamme, who attended the church from 1998 to 2000, said they believe that Mr. Hornbuckle’s fall started when the church moved to its current site from a strip mall storefront in Arlington in 1999. They say the charming and accessible pastor grew more aloof as both his congregation and the church’s bank account grew.
“He became more of a diva,” said Mr. Thornton. Questions for Mr. Hornbuckle had to be funneled through church elders, and members of the congregation were asked to provide “security” for the “first family.” The security detail standing in front of the stage scans the crowd intently during church services. The entrance to the church is gated, and weekday visitors must press a call button for admittance.
Tanisha Edwards, who attended Agape for seven years and left in 2003, said she also noticed that Mr. Hornbuckle began distancing himself from average members of the congregation. Mrs. Edwards said that Mr. Hornbuckle announced that he would no longer perform weddings or funerals.
“Pastors are supposed to lead the sheep,” she said. “You’re not supposed to leave them out in the pasture.”
Former church members said he began to behave and live like wealthy, celebrity televangelists such as Creflo Dollar of Atlanta, who served as one of his role models. In a 1999 interview with The Dallas Morning News, Mr. Hornbuckle said he patterned his ministry after that of Mr. Dollar and other pastors of large megachurches, including T.D. Jakes and Tony Evans.
Mr. Hornbuckle graduated in 1980 from Wilmer-Hutchins High School. He then enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in business. Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in religious education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
However, the educational background he listed on the Agape Web site is not entirely accurate. It says that he has a “pre-law degree” from the Oral Roberts University School of Law in Tulsa. A university spokesman said records show that Mr. Hornbuckle took classes there in 1983 and 1984 but did not receive a degree.
The Web site also said he’s “currently pursuing a PhD in Conflict Management at Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Ind., but officials at the Internet university said he withdrew in 2000 after taking classes for five months.
In 1986 – the year he graduated from UTA – Mr. Hornbuckle started Victory Temple Bible Church with 15 members, and moved the church into a former Dairy Queen. By the mid-1990s, he had renamed the church Agape Christian Fellowship, and his congregation had doubled from 250 to 500 members. The church then moved into an 8,000-square-foot storefront at an Arlington strip mall in 1995.
Some former Agape members said Mr. Hornbuckle became friends with former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders and would occasionally appear at Thursday prayer meetings with other Cowboys players. Mr. Hornbuckle has described himself as either spiritual adviser or chaplain to the Cowboys. Team officials said that Mr. Hornbuckle has never served as chaplain or had any official position with the team.
It was just before the move to the 30,000-square-foot Destiny Center in 1999 when Mrs. Thornton said she started becoming disenchanted with the church and its growing emphasis on money. The high-pressure pleas for donations were constant from the Hornbuckles and guest speakers.
“I need 10 people to bring up $1,000,” she said, mimicking the requests for money. “That kind of raised a red flag.”
Mr. Hornbuckle often bragged in the pulpit about the new luxury car he bought, the jewelry his wife wore or the vacations they took, former church members said.
Last year, the Hornbuckles started construction on a 12,200-square-foot house in Colleyville that’s expected to be worth more than $1.1 million, according to city construction documents.
Mrs. Hornbuckle testified at a recent bail reduction hearing that she and her husband are each paid $50,000 annually from the church, and they receive an $80,000 yearly housing stipend.
On the church Web site, a document for new members said that “bad things” happen to members who do not give 10 percent of their income as a tithe. “Disobedience gives Satan the right to wreak havoc in your life” if they don’t tithe, the document says, and tells them to pay the church before paying any bills “be it electricity, child support or water.”
At a recent Wednesday night service, those in attendance were asked to stand and hold up envelopes if they were tithing or giving an offering. Only a few of the 90 plus on hand remained seated.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Mr. Anthony, of the Trinity Foundation, said congregations preaching prosperity are growing in popularity.
“It teaches people how to be motivated and become a millionaire,” he said. “It’s really in line with the health and wealth preaching that is so foreign to the New Testament.”
Mrs. Thornton said that in the late 1990s, a “cultish” atmosphere began to take hold. Many of the women tried to dress, look and act like Mrs. Hornbuckle. When Mr. Hornbuckle shaved his head bald, a sea of shiny bald heads filled the pews the following Sunday.
And questioning Mr. Hornbuckle, said Mr. Thornton, was out of the question.
“You’re on his side, or you’re on the side of the devil,” he said.
Terry Lee Hornbuckle
Born: Feb. 2, 1962
Education: Graduated, Wilmer-Hutchins High School, 1980; bachelor’s degree in business, University of Texas at Arlington, 1986; master’s degree in religious education, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989; some Internet doctorate classes, Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, Ind.
Church history: Mr. Hornbuckle starts Victory Temple Bible Church in Arlington with 15 members, 1986; the church moves into a former Dairy Queen building, 1987; church is renamed Agape Christian Fellowship, 1992; church moves into an 8,000-square-foot strip mall storefront in Arlington, 1995; church moves into a 30,000-square-foot, $3 million building in Arlington, 1999.
Staff writer Kathryn Yegge contributed to this report.