Church Heading Back to Court -- No Firings Yet in Divided Community Chapel

Seattle Times/March 14, 1988
By Dick Lilly

Donald Lee Barnett, the embattled pastor of the Community Chapel, did not carry through on reported threats to fire employees of his Burien church this morning, but he held out the possibility there could be dismissals in the future.

After a meeting with some church and Bible college staff members, Barnett said he never threatened to fire anyone. He did say, however, that he had called the staff meeting "to find out where the staff people's allegiance was.''

Elders of the controversial church had ousted Barnett amid allegations of sexual misconduct, but the pastor was restored to power Friday when a King County judge granted him a temporary injunction because his removal may have violated church bylaws.

Yesterday, church spokesman Chuck Kerr said Barnett planned to fire elders at the church unless they pledged allegiance to him.

Today, Barnett said he is waiting for a court hearing tomorrow and will confer with his attorney before making any final decisions on the future of the church.

James Leach, attorney for the elders, said Judge Jim Bates will hold the hearing in King County Superior Court to clarify what he meant to happen while the temporary restraining order is in place.

"We're going to ask him to make sure both sides are restrained from taking action which will destroy the church, until there can be a hearing on the merits of the case,'' said Leach.

Of 99 staff members, only 10 showed for the meeting this morning, Barnett said. He attributed the low turnout to the elders' influence.

"David Motherwell told me this morning the elders have taken a stand that the word of God takes precedence over what the judge said,'' Barnett said. Motherwell, a member of the church, has been acting as Barnett's personal counselor for the past few months.

Barnett did say he might be forced to fire staff members if people didn't follow the his orders or cooperate.

Last week's court order apparently "gave the pastor the right to fire any and all that disagree with him,'' said Kerr, the church's spokesman.

Leach also said he thinks the church's bylaws technically would allow Barnett to fire many people. "The bylaws give him a great deal of power, but I don't believe that was the spirit of what the judge intended to have happen,'' he said.

None of the elders - there are about 18 altogether - could be reached for comment yesterday, and none apparently attended this morning's meeting at the church's Bible college.

Kerr said that at a Friday evening service, Barnett asked members of the congregation to bring in their resumes - presumably so he could find replacements for those he planned to fire.

Bates' decision Friday overruled, at least for now, the elders' order barring Barnett from the pulpit at the independent, Pentecostal church south of Burien. Pleased with the judgment, Barnett returned to preach the Friday night service at the organization's main chapel while the elders conducted services in an older sanctuary adjoining Community Chapel's Bible school.

Yesterday the congregation - roughly split with about 400 at each location - had the same choice of a service led by Barnett or by the elders. On the door of the school chapel, worshippers found a notice that read, "Anyone who walks in this building will be `disfellowshipped' and staff will be fired,'' said Kerr. The note was from Barnett, Kerr said, but when the pastor heard that a "majority'' of the congregation was at the school chapel, he sent a messenger rescinding the order.

The church has approximately 1,750 members, according to its current roster.

Last week, while barred from church property other than his home, Barnett, 57, preached to about 300 of his followers in a meeting room at a Federal Way bowling alley.

Barnett was removed by the elders after he refused to submit to their discipline, which, among other things, ordered him to avoid private contact with women other than his wife, from whom he is separated. The elders then brought to the congregation evidence of Barnett's alleged adultery with several church members.

The elders contend Barnett's alleged sexual misconduct has exposed the church to legal liability. Three lawsuits have been filed by women who claim Barnett sexually assaulted them under the guise of spiritual counseling. As a result, church attorney Leach argued in court Friday, Barnett has "breached his fiduciary responsibility as a board member of the church and therefore is subject to removal.''

In letters to the congregation last week, Barnett called the elders' action "an illegal coup.'' The elders have sins, too, Barnett, wrote, "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 Community Chapel for years. Besides the lawsuits against Barnett, two church members have been convicted of child abuse and three others of failing to report child abuse.

Former members of the church have claimed its doctrine of "spiritual connections,'' which includes intimate dancing with partners other than spouses, has broken up families. Chapel membership, which once reached 3,500, has been declining since Barnett began preaching of "spiritual connections'' in 1986.

Barnett, who founded the Community Chapel and Bible Training Center in 1967, was granted his job for life and given virtual veto power over the elders' actions in the corporation's original bylaws.

The elders have filed new incorporation papers and amended bylaws with the secretary of state's office in Olympia as part of their battle against Barnett.

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