Rebuilding can be tough for churches

Last Sunday, Pastor Renee Hornbuckle urged Agape Christian Fellowship’s congregation to keep its focus on God, not the scandal that had swirled for more than a year.

“God is not man,” she preached. “He won’t let you down.”

With founder and Rev. Terry Hornbuckle sentenced to 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting three women, church leaders say Agape will move forward and rebuild. That may prove difficult, experts on church scandals and growth warn.

The criminal proceedings have ended, but the church still faces civil lawsuits filed on behalf of some of Hornbuckle’s victims. The church claimed 2,500 members when the saga began. Membership dropped to as low as 300 before rebounding a bit to about 600, said Charles Richardson, chairman of the church board.

“It’s kind of hard to say what we’ll need to do to rebuild,” Richardson said. “We’ve never been in this situation before.”

Agape is a relatively young church that remains intertwined with the Hornbuckles. Terry Hornbuckle’s picture and bio remain on the church’s Web site. Renee Hornbuckle is expected to be named senior pastor, Richardson said.

Typically, churches that recover from sex scandals involving pastors get new leadership and have deep roots and denominational backing, experts said.

“If the ministry has been centered on the pastor, I think the chances of a church surviving drop dramatically,” said Bryan Feille, associate dean of students and minister-in-residence at Texas Christian University.

“The institution itself doesn’t lend itself to stability,” Feille said. “Ideas go out of fashion, and charismatic leaders go out of the scene.”

Reeling from scandal

First United Methodist in Fort Worth was rocked in the 1990s when numerous women complained to church officials that Pastor Barry Bailey engaged in sexual misconduct.

Bailey retired in 1994 and eventually relinquished his ministerial credentials. The resulting lawsuits cost the church $3 million, officials said at the time. But more than a decade later, the church has recovered, Pastor Tim Bruster said.

“Painful memories last a long time, but healing takes place,” Bruster said. “I believe that that has happened.”

Harvest Church in Watauga lost more than a third of its 3,800 members after pastor Ollin Collins was accused of misconduct in 1998. Five women sued the church, saying Collins pressured them into having sex.

Immediately after the scandal broke, Sunday attendance at the Baptist-affiliated church plummeted from 1,800 to 600, said current Pastor Bill Langley, who came to the church about a year after Collins left.

“It was like rats off a sinking ship. A lot of folks didn’t stick around, nor have they come back,” Langley said. “Some moved on to other churches. Some were so offended that they checked out altogether.

“That’s the sad thing — they got so disillusioned that they walked out of church completely,” he said.

Langley said experts on church growth told him it would take about a decade for Harvest to get past the scandal. The church, which recently filed for bankruptcy, still faces financial difficulties, but “we’re moving in the right direction,” Langley said.

“There’s a huge loss of trust in the congregation, and it takes a while to get that back,” he said.

Membership is now about 2,400, he said. A change in the bulk of the church administration was vital to regain the congregation’s trust, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s a universal rule that needs to happen, but for Harvest’s sake I can say that new leadership was necessary,” Langley said.

Collins and Bailey were well-known and influential ministers from mainline churches. Ties to strong denominations can bolster a reeling church community.

“First United had a lot of strength and a lot of history,” Feille said. “It’s just not like that for an independent church founded by a charismatic, entrepreneurial pastor.”

Terry Hornbuckle started the Victory Temple Bible Church in Irving in the mid-1980s with about a dozen members at a former Dairy Queen.

Preaching a prosperity gospel, the church was renamed Agape Christian Fellowship in 1992. By the end of the decade, the congregation was meeting in a 42,000-square-foot facility on nearly 30 acres in southeast Arlington. The property is valued at more than $4 million, according to tax records.

Former Dallas Cowboys Deion Sanders and Quincy Carter were among those Terry Hornbuckle counseled.

Feille predicts that Terry Hornbuckle’s absence will be an issue.

“Most people think of a charismatic leader as a kind of a savior who can fix everything,” he said. “When that person isn’t around, things fall apart, so in the long run it can be counterproductive.”

Bruster said the key to recovering is to focus on the church’s original mission.

“Who the church is at its core — a community of faith that seeks to be loving, both to one another and to those in need, and a focus on sharing the love of God — those are the core values that don’t change,” Bruster said. “Going back to that gets a church through difficult times.”

Langley said his strategy at Harvest was similar.

“This church was built on the personality of Ollin Collins, but it’s now a purpose-driven church,” Langley said. “I don’t have anything to offer, but Christ has everything to offer.”

Richardson said that members of Agape are focusing on their spirituality. The church did not and does not revolve around Terry Hornbuckle, he said.

“We’re here to worship God,” he said. “We’re optimistic about a future, and we know there is a future here at Agape.”

Agape’s leadership has consulted with experts on church growth and brought in a counselor to talk to members, Richardson said.

They may look to hire a new associate pastor, which was Renee Hornbuckle’s role, he said.

At Wednesday night’s Bible study, Renee Hornbuckle told the 175 people in attendance that “the confusion and the instability are gone.”

“We’re still talking to messy folks. We’re still answering all kinds of questions,” she said. “I just want [God’s] presence. I just want an experience with him.”

Staff writer Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Star-Telegram, USA
Sep. 3, 2006
Mark Agee

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 5, 2006.
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