Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mar. 4, 2003
By Darren Barbee, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Third of three parts. Part one. Part two.
He’s been there, where you’re at now.
Mike Murdock has been down and out — no money, sheets tacked up as curtains. He’s been so broke that he had only $10 in his pocket when he needed $3,000 to give to a minister.
He’s been heartbroken from a failed marriage; uncertain; even, he says, a doubter of the Bible.
In 1997, Murdock told viewers of his television program Wisdom Keys that he has had his world come apart.
“I literally was suicidal,” Murdock said.
One secret to Murdock’s success as a televangelist is his ability to make people feel a special bond with him. On his television program, he often pauses to gaze intensely into the camera. He singles out viewers as if he knows who is watching and what they are thinking. He sends a “Personal letter from Mike Murdock” to names on a mass mailing list.
Murdock says he is guiding a spiritual family. His message is not for everyone, he says. It is for the Uncommon few who recognize the truth. They will become Uncommon millionaires, Uncommon fathers, Uncommon women, Uncommon problem-solvers, Uncommon leaders.
Critics say Murdock gives people the wrong idea about his intent and their relationship with him. Religious leaders should take pains to make certain that their intentions are not misunderstood, critics say.
Anthony Pratkanis, a social-psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said Murdock is setting up “love bonding” with his audience.
Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, a televangelist watchdog group, bluntly says that Murdock allows people, women in particular, to think he has a personal relationship with them.
“He’s one of the evangelists who specifically target lonely women,” Anthony said.
Murdock tells donors that he is stunned by such assertions and that critics are trying to belittle him.
Consider the messages Murdock sends, critics say.
On one audiocassette, he assures the listener, “I’m not sending this to everyone. I felt led of God to tell you this.”
A Star-Telegram reporter on the mailing list of the Mike Murdock Evangelistic Association received two of the tapes in recent months.
In an April 1997 newsletter, Murdock wrote, “I wonder if you realize just how much you are appreciated … how many times I talk to the Father about your needs, your pain, your miracles!”
He often asks viewers and those on his mailing list to write.
“And when you write to me, feel free to include pictures of your family,” he said in November 1998 on Wisdom Keys.
Last month, he sent out a letter with phrases — like “I am so glad that you are in my life” — underlined in blue ink.
Murdock’s message is “You’re important to me. You matter to me. … Write me, because that’s what friends do,” Pratkanis said.
Charlene Pershing of Whitmore Lake, Mich., said she is concerned about the influence Murdock has over an elderly friend of hers. The woman insists on donating to the ministry even though she lives on a fixed income and has no money to spare, Pershing said.
“She gets these letters. They’re form letters, but she considers them personal letters,” she said. “… She doesn’t realize they’re form letters. And you can’t really tell her, I guess.”
Pershing herself donated more than $3,000 to the ministry in 1998. But she said she stopped giving because she received too many mailings asking for money.
Murdock was criticized by the local religious community after several women said he had led them on. At least eight came to the area, a minister and a former Argyle police chief have said. Some believed Murdock intended to marry them.
They included Janet Savage, who arrived in 1998 and lived on the side of the road near the ministry’s headquarters.
On a recent audiocassette sent to donors, Murdock expressed bafflement at any assertion that he has done anything but act honorably regarding a troubled woman who lived on the property next to the ministry. He did not name her.
“I did not know the lady. I’d never seen her, to my knowledge, in my life. I suppose she’d been to some services somewhere.”
Once he noticed her, he said, he tried to help by giving her a check so she could return home. But she cashed it and stayed, he said.
Murdock told the Star-Telegram last August that the woman who lived by the road was not sent by God to marry him because she brought divisiveness.
On the tape, he doesn’t mention the other women.
Many of them left with the help of local churches rather than the Murdock ministry, said Daniel Humbert, the former pastor of Argyle United Methodist Church.
Humbert said that he and other pastors tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with Murdock about the women.
Former Argyle Police Chief Larry Partin has also said that Murdock did nothing to help the women who came expecting marriage.
The Trinity Foundation says it has obtained letters and received phone calls from women who felt they were misled.
One woman who wrote several letters to Murdock in 1996 believed he wanted some type of relationship.
“If you desire a relationship with a woman, you must be willing to take the risk,” she wrote in one.
It is not clear whether Murdock responded. But correspondence shows that the woman became bitter over time.
“A true leader leads out of confidence, not manipulation,” she wrote later in 1996. “I have given everything away. I have nothing left to me. So you might as well search for a new victim.”
Anthony said that even Murdock’s songs are loaded with double meanings.
On his TV program, he sings, “The most wonderful thing has happened to me. I’ve fallen in love with someone who is in love with me.”
“They’re supposedly songs about Christ, but they’re easily interpreted to be love songs from him to the woman,” Anthony said.
Murdock has said that all his songs are inspired by and written for the Holy Spirit.
On an audiocassette, he talks of the news media “sneering about my singing to the Holy Spirit.” The media say, “He says he’s singing to the Holy Spirit, but it’s like he’s singing to a woman,” Murdock told listeners.
He said he couldn’t believe the gibe: “I said, ‘Lord, what is wrong?’ “
Other religious leaders say intimate moments between pastors and congregants can arise. Sometimes, the death or illness of a relative can confuse a person’s feelings, said the Rev. Marie Fortune, the founder of and senior analyst at the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle.
Pastors’ kind words can also be misconstrued. That’s why pastors must make it clear that their intent is to do their jobs, she said.
“We’re really in charge of these boundaries. It’s in everybody’s interest that we carefully maintain them.”
Paul Brooks, vice president for academics at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, said students learn that ministers must not only be moral but also appear chaste.
As an example, Brooks said that his office is about a five-minute walk from the university chapel. But if it’s raining and his secretary wants a ride, “she’s not going with me,” he said.
“That may not look very Christian,” he said. “But I’d rather somebody say I was not kind than for somebody to say I had a thing going with my secretary.”