ARLINGTON — The Agape Christian Fellowship congregation has spent several years confronting questions about both salvation and survival.
With the help of God and gas wells, church officials believe they will soon be on the right path. They have started rebuilding their membership. They expect the turnaround to continue with the naming of the founder’s wife, Renee Hornbuckle, as senior pastor and a tentative $1 million deal to sell land and mineral rights to a gas drilling company.
“We’ve had hard times, but I felt that in my own heart, that we were planted here, and that God put us here for a reason,” said Charles Richardson, Agape board chairman. “I always thought we would make it.”
Mr. Hornbuckle was sentenced to 15 years in prison in August 2006 for sexually assaulting three women, two of whom were church members. Testimony at the trial said Mr. Hornbuckle drugged some of the women and used methamphetamine.
A little over a year since Mr. Hornbuckle’s conviction and official firing from the church, Mr. Richardson said Agape is on the verge of a new beginning.
Mrs. Hornbuckle, named interim pastor after her husband was jailed, has just completed a yearlong review by outside ministers. On Sept. 29, she’ll be installed as the church’s new senior pastor.
The board also plans to ask a federal bankruptcy judge during an Oct. 4 hearing to allow the real estate deal with Chesapeake Energy to move forward.
For $1 million, the gas company would receive 16 acres of vacant land owned by the church, all the mineral rights for that property, half the mineral rights of Agape’s remaining 13 acres and a contract to drill for gas underneath the church.
A bankruptcy court filing also said there was a tentative, secret agreement to settle the lawsuit filed by several women who accused Mr. Hornbuckle of raping them.
The women’s attorney, G. Lee Finley, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Hudson M. Jobe, a Dallas attorney representing the unsecured creditors in the bankruptcy, declined to discuss the case.
The state civil lawsuit settlement is contingent on funding of a bankruptcy reorganization plan, said Davor Rukavina, an attorney for Agape.
He said the land sale and reorganization — including the payment of back property taxes — would set the church on solid financial footing. Mr. Rukavina said he hopes Agape is out of bankruptcy by year’s end.
‘Has to be God’
Mr. Richardson said the timing of Mrs. Hornbuckle’s consecration and the upcoming bankruptcy hearing weren’t intended to coincide, but he doesn’t believe it’s an accident either.
“It has to be God,” he said.
Some of the church’s other legal problems have been cleared up. One federal workplace lawsuit filed by a former employee was recently dismissed, and another was settled without payment.
Despite the recent trouble, Mary Ransom, 40, said she never doubted Agape’s future. She’s attended the church for three years and always felt “overwhelmed by the presence of God in this place.”
“I see truth and integrity in the ministry,” she said.
Kennith Dunk, 53, who has attended Agape for 17 years, said all churches go through ups and downs, but he never considered abandoning this church for another.
“We’re at our best place in history,” Mr. Dunk said, describing the church’s energy and direction.
Mr. Richardson and other members said the spirit of the church will bring in more members and help take care of the financial troubles.
A steady rise
Hardly an overnight success, Agape started in 1986 as Victory Temple Bible Church and met in a former Dairy Queen. As it grew, Mr. Hornbuckle changed the name to Agape Christian Fellowship and moved into a larger storefront location on Division Street in Arlington.
By 1998, the church had grown so large that it could afford its multimillion-dollar spread on Mayfield Road.
Agape once boasted a membership of 2,500 but lost at least 90 percent of that when Mr. Hornbuckle’s crimes were made public. On a recent Sunday, about 200 to 250 people were in attendance. Mr. Richardson said the average attendance is closer to 300 to 500.
Financial reports filed with the court show a church struggling to stay afloat despite the bankruptcy protection. In July, Agape spent nearly $11,000 more than its revenue, and that deficit grew to nearly $29,000 the following month.
While in bankruptcy, the church doesn’t have to pay its full $30,000 monthly mortgage. The church’s largest single expense is Mrs. Hornbuckle’s monthly salary of $15,192 plus $1,500 more in honoraria, which has since been discontinued.
Church finance experts said the pay is much higher than pastors at comparable churches.
A 2006 salary study for the Southern Baptist Convention found that the average annual salary for a pastor at a church with 401 to 600 members was $76,553. Of the 11 churches with attendance of more than 1,000, none paid its senior pastor as much as Mrs. Hornbuckle’s $182,000 annual pay.
Simeon May, CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration, agreed that Mrs. Hornbuckle’s salary is far higher than he would expect to find at comparable churches.
“Probably at one time, that salary might have been appropriate,” Mr. May said. “But where they are now, that salary is way out of line.”
Mrs. Hornbuckle’s salary is slightly more than she and her husband were jointly paid about two years ago.
Mr. Richardson and Mr. Rukavina said Mrs. Hornbuckle is “worth every penny.” She has put in a lot of work as pastor and on church finances and is the church’s single largest donor. The board is reviewing her salary but “does not feel comfortable disclosing more at this time,” Mr. Rukavina said in an e-mail.
Bill J. Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, said nondenominational megachurches like Agape often live on the edge of bankruptcy. Many can’t make ends meets without continued growth.
“When they take a hit in the loss of the pastor for whatever reason, they only have a small window of time where they can rejuvenate themselves,” he said. “Sometimes economics catches up before they are able to reform their identity.”
Dan Busby, vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Responsibility, said it’s hard to tell by looking at the financial report whether Agape can survive.
“It looks like they are still in the valley of decision of what their future will hold,” he said.
Mr. Richardson said church officials never considered joining with another congregation and have no plans to move, two common approaches for struggling churches. He said he’s confident Agape will continue with the help of a power higher than the court system.
“If God wanted us to survive, we would do it here, and we would do it on our own,” he said.
Here is a breakdown of the major expenses in August for Agape Christian Fellowship. The church received $64,350 in donations and interest and spent $93,018.
€¢ $24,288 — Salary, housing allowance and honoraria for pastor Renee Hornbuckle. The honoraria have been discontinued. Her monthly salary is usually $15,192 (nearly half is housing allowance), but August included an extra paycheck.
€¢ $13,372 — Salaries for the eight other Agape employees
€¢ $13,340 — Partial payment of $30,000 monthly mortgage
€¢ $12,713 — Insurance
€¢ $7,156 — Telephone
€¢ $4,653 — Electric
SOURCE: Bankruptcy court documents
Renee Fowler Hornbuckle
Occupation: Pastor, motivational speaker, author
Born: Little Rock, Ark.
Academic: Bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing, University of Arkansas, 1984; master’s degree in biblical studies, The Institute for Teaching God’s Word Seminary, Rockdale, Texas, 1997
Career: Co-pastor/pastor, Agape Christian Fellowship, 1995-present; chief operating officer, Destiny Center Inc., 1999-present; founder and president, Women of Influence Inc., 2000-present; founder and president, Rachel’s House women’s shelter, 2001-present; co-owner, Wings To Go restaurant, 2003-05; owner, Truly Yours clothing store, 1999-2003; senior specialist, instructional design, instructor, trainer, Northern Telecom Inc., 1986-95; self-published books, The Power of Passion; The Power of Healthy Esteem; Petals, Principles and Promises; If It Pleases the King; Destined For Greatness; 40 Golden Nuggets to Enter the Promised Land (co-author)