Pastor Reinstated for now at Chapel

Seattle Times/March 11, 1988
By Marsha King

King County Superior Court Judge Jim Bates today ordered that ousted Community Chapel pastor Donald Lee Barnett be returned to the pulpit temporarily until the court makes a final ruling in his case.

Bates granted Barnett's request for a temporary injunction, agreeing there were genuine legal issues surrounding the manner in which church elders voted Barnett out last week as minister of the Burien Community Chapel and Bible Training Center.

The judge rejected church attorneys' arguments that a civil court should not intervene in a religious matter.

The ruling came as Barnett, removed over allegations of sexual misconduct, mounted a desperate appeal to his flock, accusing the church's elders of sin in three emotional letters he sent to members of the congregation.

The letters decry as illegal the senior elders' actions in deposing him from the church he founded in the 1960s and seek to rally the congregation behind him.

Barnett tells church members in a letter addressed "Dear Sheepies of my flock'' that they have experienced "an illegal coup.'' Though critics accuse him of sexual misconduct, Barnett says the elders have sins, too - "at least one is guilty of much more than I, and yet he is one of the front men to condemn me.''

Controversy has surrounded the independent Pentecostal church for years. Several former church members have filed civil lawsuits against Barnett, alleging he sexually assaulted them under the guise of counseling. Two church members have been convicted of child abuse and three others of failing to report child abuse.

Former members also have charged that the church's teaching of "spiritual connections,'' a form of worship in which members dance with and embrace partners other than their spouses, has broken up families.

The church claims 2,500 members.

In his letters received by members of the congregation yesterday, Barnett says he has repented for all his sins and has lived for six-and-a-half months with only a couple of "slips.'' Barnett writes that even though he is without his wife and needs love, "I am experiencing very little temptation, generally none, sometimes more - but I'm holding, and generally without much strain.'' Barnett and his wife are separated.

The pastor was "disfellowshipped'' last week by a unanimous vote of the church's senior elders. They accused Barnett of sexual misconduct with women in the church and then removed him because he refused to abide by restrictions forbidding him to associate alone with any woman other than his wife.

In one of his three most recent letters, Barnett warned the elders:

"You are running fast and loose with the facts and with accusations, dear brothers! You are defaming your pastor before the world without any regard for carefulness. I'm afraid you are stealing the hearts of my flock by making me look bad and you look good. But God sees all this.''

In order to oust him, the elders filed new articles of incorporation with the secretary of state and amended church bylaws that had guaranteed Barnett his job for life.

At a hearing in King County Superior Court today, Barnett's attorney sought the temporary injunction to restore Barnett to his job until the court issues a final judgment on the legality of how the elders voted Barnett out.

Barnett hopes to return to the pulpit this weekend, but former members report he had reserved a room at the Hyatt Hotel near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, ostensibly for alternative services.

Barnett was not in court this morning and could not be reached for comment about the ruling, his letters or other developments.

Court documents filed yesterday by attorneys for the church maintain the pastor is unfit for his job because his alleged sexual misconduct has harmed the congregation and forced Community Chapel to defend itself in several lawsuits.

"Further, if allowed to go unchecked, a continuation of Barnett's sexual activity could increase the likelihood that Community Chapel and its directors would be named defendants in other litigation,'' the court documents say.

In the documents, church attorneys also maintain that Barnett's removal is private church business of a theological nature. A civil court should refrain from entering into matters of religious doctrine, the court documents argue.

A Dec. 23 letter appealing to the elders for help is what finally brought the matter of Barnett's sexual misconduct "to a head,'' said James Leach, an attorney for Community Chapel. The letter, submitted with court documents, was written by Jerry Zwack, former director of the church's counseling center.

In the three-page, single-spaced document, Zwack details what he says are Barnett's "promiscuous adulteries'' while on vacations and at home as far back as April 1986.

Zwack wrote, "Girls came to me shamed, upset, crying, ready to leave the church; confessing all that went on sexually . . . .

"Please don't be intimidated any longer,'' Zwack wrote to the elders. "Most of you know some or all of the information I've brought out and have done little or nothing.''

Leach, the church's lawyer, said yesterday that Barnett "has breached his fiduciary responsibility as a board member of the church and therefore is subject to removal.''

The pastor's "admitted acts of adultery'' with female members of the congregation and his refusal to abide by elders' restrictions are evidence of that breach, according to Leach. Leach said Barnett has admitted to 27 acts of adultery with four different women. Barnett made the admissions, according to Leach, both before the elders and in a Feb. 28 sermon to the congregation.

"He says none of those occurred within the last six months and that he has been forgiven by God so why should you hold those against him,'' said Leach.

"Unfortunately, his adulterous behavior has resulted in a number of lawsuits by women who have been traumatized by him. And the church is subject to possible liability as a result of his behavior,'' the attorney said.

A close family member of Barnett's who fears retaliation if identified, says all of the allegations against the deposed pastor are true, but that many elders in the church also are guilty of illicit behavior, too.

"They're doing exactly the same thing that Don's doing. But they're trying to cover their butts. They . . . think they won't get sued if . . . they have said they're trying to save the church. Maybe if Don takes the punishment, then the church will be saved and they'll have their jobs,'' she said.

Lanny Peterson, an elder in the church, said of that comment and Barnett's letters:

"I really don't want to respond to that, so that's all I can say. We're still prety much following our policy of not responding to the media and trying to solve our problems in house.''

The Barnett family member said church members have given up everything for Community Chapel and "now it's all coming down.''

She lambasted the church's teachings on "spiritual connections,'' which she said led to adultery and opened the door to child abuse.

"When I left the church it was mandatory for the kids to dance together. Some kids were very embarrassed,'' she said.

"With connections, you started kissing, you fondled. That was basically the outcome of connections,'' she explained.

The woman said she has talked with many people who were "connected'' with children. "What spiritual benefit are you getting out of a 5-year-old?

"It was a physical thing. They didn't want to admit that,'' she said.

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