Wife struggles to lead church as tithes, attendance dwindle
ARLINGTON – Terry Hornbuckle was a rising-star preacher with a growing church, friends in the NFL and a million-dollar house under construction.
Today, the 44-year-old many still call Bishop Hornbuckle sits in a jail cell fighting to regain his freedom while his wife struggles to maintain the mega-church they created from scratch 20 years ago.
One of the women accusing him of rape once said that Mr. Hornbuckle’s fate is now in the hands of God. But a Tarrant County jury will have the first say as testimony in the pastor’s criminal trial starts this week.
Jury selection began Friday. He faces three counts of sexual assault and one count each of retaliation, tampering with a witness and possession of methamphetamine.
Charles Richardson, chairman of the board of Mr. Hornbuckle’s Agape Christian Fellowship Church, said he’s taking no stance on the issues at trial.
“We’re just praying that justice prevails and that God’s will be done concerning the bishop,” he said.
Mr. Richardson said attorneys have advised him not to comment on specifics of Mr. Hornbuckle’s case. And state District Judge Scott Wisch has issued a gag order that prevents those involved with the case from speaking publicly about Mr. Hornbuckle.
Shortly after his arrest in March 2005, Mr. Hornbuckle said the three women accusing him of rape were just trying to profit from his success.
“I am completely innocent of the charges I have been wrongfully accused of,” he said in a written statement.
“My life will go on, and I will continue with my life’s mission of helping people.”
A month later, one of Mr. Hornbuckle’s accusers said she simply wanted her former pastor to stop hurting others.
“We come to these leaders for guidance, and they abuse us,” the woman said in a written statement. “It is very hard to maintain your faith in the face of such a betrayal.”
The Dallas Morning News does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Lawsuits filed by the three women describe a man very different from the one who preached that husbands and fathers must lead their families in a time of “acute moral and spiritual crisis.”
The first of Mr. Hornbuckle’s accusers said he asked her to meet him in a Grand Prairie motel parking lot in July 2003 so he could give her a gift, according to her lawsuit. She claimed that Mr. Hornbuckle exposed himself and then pinned her down in a truck and raped her.
In July 2004, another woman said Mr. Hornbuckle wanted to speak to her privately about rumors that she was a lesbian – something that he considered “contrary to Church teaching,” according to her lawsuit.
She said Mr. Hornbuckle took her to an apartment and gave her a drink that knocked her out. She said in the court filings that she vaguely remembered Mr. Hornbuckle being on top of her.
Her lawsuit stated Mr. Hornbuckle sexually assaulted her again a week later when she was babysitting at her uncle’s house.
The third woman said in court filings that Mr. Hornbuckle served her a spiked drink while they were at a Euless apartment later that month. She said she awoke naked. She tried to get dressed, but Mr. Hornbuckle sexually assaulted her while she was still too “woozy” to resist, according to the lawsuit.
G. Lee Finley, the attorney representing the women in the civil case, said previously that drug test results would show that one of his clients was drugged.
Those lawsuits, which also name eight church leaders as defendants, have been consolidated into a single case that is pending.
Mr. Hornbuckle has been in the Tarrant County Jail since March without bail. He has been arrested three times since last year for violating the terms of his release. He tested positive for drugs and did not submit a required urine sample for drug testing. Most recently, he failed to check in with the county to get fitted with an electronic monitor and was arrested two hours after his release.
Mr. Richardson said Mr. Hornbuckle is suspended without pay.
He started the church in 1986 with 15 members. A few years ago, Agape had reached mega-church status by some standards, and Mr. Hornbuckle was rising in prominence locally.
He befriended former Dallas Cowboys star Deion Sanders, and other Cowboys players either attended his church occasionally or were members. Mr. Hornbuckle and his wife, Renee, drove luxury cars, were sometimes accompanied by security guards and were building a million-dollar-plus mansion in Colleyville.
Since Mr. Hornbuckle’s legal troubles started, the couple has sold their planned dream home. Mrs. Hornbuckle still lives in a house nearby valued at nearly $750,000.
At the same time, attendance at the southeast Arlington church has plummeted. Mr. Richardson said the church averaged 2,500 in attendance each Sunday before the arrest. That’s down to about 500.
Church finances have also taken a hit. Mrs. Hornbuckle, who now leads the church, asked members at Wednesday night’s service for their regular tithes and offerings and then a third donation. She said the church collections were short the previous week.
“We’re running on faith,” she told congregants.
Mr. Richardson said there is no need to sell the 40,000-square-foot church and move to a smaller facility. He expects attendance to eventually return to previous levels.
Mr. Richardson said it’s been a struggle sometimes to persuade people to separate the man from the church. The key, he said, has been to keep preaching and work hard on community outreach. The church has started a small shelter for homeless or abused women, assisted Hurricane Katrina evacuees and worked with local homeless shelters.
Yet Mr. Hornbuckle is still the face of Agape. His picture is prominently featured on the church’s Web site with no mention that he is suspended or that he faces criminal charges. Visitors can still request that he speak at their events and hear a recording of his inspirational advice.
“When you’ve had a setback, don’t take a step back,” he says. “God is planning for your comeback.”
His biography on the site also contains errors reported in news accounts last year. He claims that he’s working on a Ph.D. from an Internet college in Indiana even though he stopped taking classes in 2000. The background information also claims he has a “pre-law” degree from Oral Roberts University even though he never received one.
Mr. Richardson said he planned to review the site and determine whether changes needed to be made.
As for the church’s future, he said, the only thing he can do is focus on spiritual matters and let the justice system handle the rest.
“I think that a lot of people probably counted us out,” Mr. Richardson said, “but we’re still standing.”