Barnett Troubles Obscure Success -- Friends and Critics Blame his Woes on Ego, Eccentricities

Seattle Times/March 18, 1988
By Marsha King

Friends and foes alike say Donald Barnett, pastor of the scandal-plagued Community Chapel and Bible Training Center in Burien, is the quintessential self-made man: brilliant, persuasive and artistically gifted.

But today his extraordinary talents are obscured. Barnett looks tense and tired, always wearing a white pompadour toupee and a frown, defending himself over lurid tales of his teachings and illicit sexual adventures.

Those who know him say his intellect and biblical knowledge drew believers in. At his zenith, the self-ordained pastor attracted 4,500 followers - and inspired the founding of 22 satellite churches in the United States and Canada.

But friends and family say Barnett's ego and eccentricities brought him down.

The elders of his independent Pentecostal flock have voted unanimously to oust him for sexual misconduct, but he remains in the pulpit pending a King County Superior Court hearing on the matter.

Former members are suing him, alleging sexual assault and ministerial malpractice. His wife, Barbara, recently filed for legal separation. Some of his closest family haven't seen him in two years.

In addition, two church members have been convicted of child abuse and three others of failure to report child abuse. Former members also say the pastor's teachings on "casting out demons'' and "spiritual connections'' have led to the murder of a child, suicides, broken marriages and opened the door to child neglect and abuse. Hundreds in the church have left, including key leaders.

The church itself has dwindled to 12 satellites and 2,300 members, including 1,500 at the Burien headquarters.

It's come to this because of ego and the devil, Barnett's older brother says.

"I think the basis for his downfall very frankly is his pride. The Bible said pride comes before a fall. It became a prideful thing . . . an exclusive, elitist type of church,'' said the Rev. Robert Barnett, a pastor in Boise, Idaho. The brother heads a non-denominational congregation that is not affiliated with Community Chapel.

"I've tried to make him realize that he's in deception, but he doesn't believe me,'' said the brother, who attributes to Satan's influence the church's teachings on "spiritual connections'' with partners other than spouses.

Despite numerous requests, Donald Barnett declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he didn't have time.

Barnett was born near Moscow, Idaho, during the Depression to middle-class, God-fearing parents. He grew up in Tacoma. His father was an accountant, his mother a teacher.

"We were raised in a home where there was a loving father and mother. . . . We had a happy childhood, too,'' said Robert Barnett, who remembers his brother as always having friends and his parents as frequently reading the Bible.

But another close family member who has known Barnett for more than 30 years recalls him as a loner, never tolerant of other points of view - even during his early career at The Boeing Co.

"He isolated himself from the rest of society. He always felt the rest of society was wrong and he was right,'' said the family member, who attended Community Chapel off and on for 14 years until he left with his wife two years ago.

The relative refused to be named. He now has a life on the "outside'' and fears public prejudice against the church will damage his successful career if his identity is known.

Barnett always was an eccentric, the family member said. When everybody else at Boeing was wearing skinny, straight ties, Barnett wore bow ties. While fellow riders in his car pool socialized on their way to work, he read the Bible. On the job, Barnett was successful, working his way up from draftsman to a project coordinator. Other companies courted him for jobs, the family member said.

At home, he was "the image of a perfect Christian father and husband,'' said another family member.

He and his wife were "always really in love,'' the family member said. And the whole family went to Bible study at mid-week, and church services twice on Sunday.

Barnett and his wife raised two sons and a daughter. One son, who suffers from a serious disease, is cared for at Community Chapel's Bible college dorms. His daughter was married to one of the current elders but divorced him two years ago and subsequently left the church. Her former husband is one of the elders who voted against Barnett. The pastor hasn't seen his other son in two years.

While her children grew up, Barbara Barnett worked hard and gave unselfishly, her family says. One member described her as "a good and wonderful wife.'' The couple always portrayed their marriage as made in heaven, says a family member.

But that same family member recalls that Barnett "was always out to get a good-looking woman to give him attention.'' And Barbara wore lots of makeup and a long flowing wig trying to please her husband, people who know them say.

During the early years, Barnett taught a Bible study class in the Boeing cafeteria during lunch hours and a Bible study session at the Des Moines Assembly of God church. Barbara was a Welcome Wagon hostess who encountered new neighbors eager for the Lord's word. Together they started another Bible study group in a future elder's home.

"They never intended it to be a church, but more and more people kept coming,'' said a family member. "It kept growing and growing. It was so big it filled a house.''

Sunday-school classes were conducted for the children in the bedrooms, she said.

At that time, Barnett belonged to the Assemblies of God, but he didn't subscribe to all the denomination's doctrine.

Eventually, members of his Bible study group, many of whom were Lutherans and Catholics, felt they had gained a new experience in receiving the Holy Spirit, the family member explained. But their mainline pastors couldn't accept their new-found beliefs, such as speaking in tongues, so they abandoned their more traditional churches.

Community Chapel's and Donald Barnett's influence grew. The main church, which includes a Christian school and Bible college on 36 acres in Burien, is estimated to be worth $10 million.

This church slowly evolved from a "spirit-filled,'' fundamentalist, nondenominational congregation in the '60s to a religious group that today has veered far from mainline beliefs.

Barnett said God constantly was sending him direct revelations. And Barbara testified from the pulpit about bizarre visions, a former member who wanted to be identified only as Linda recalled. The two presented themselves as in the forefront of Christian thought. Church members were isolated from society and taught to put their whole life into the church, a family member said. Barnett preached women should be submissive to their husbands, the family member said.

In the mid-'80s, Barnett began teaching about demons, the family member recalls.

"He began teaching that everyone has demons that have to be cast out of their bodies in order to purify them,'' the family member said. Church members would gather around the one with demons, hold him or her down and shout prayers at the person for hours.

The church's other most controversial teaching was "spiritual connecting.'' Some attributed its genesis about two years ago to Barbara. Others insist the concept sprang up at an elders' retreat. But all agree it didn't start with Barnett.

Barbara Barnett could not be reached for comment, despite numerous attempts.

The principle says members can find holiness by making "spiritual connections,'' often through dancing that sometimes involves intimate contact with others. Though the pastor warned against allowing such connections to become sexual, critics say they inevitably do lead to sex and love between people not married to each other.

"When the connections first started, people were very careful about it,'' said Linda. There was solo dancing before the Lord. Only later did couples dance together, stare into each other's eyes and kiss publicly.

One man, who is still a church member after 18 years, said the dancing got out of hand.

"I saw lots of new Christians enter into this. . . . And they would get involved and put that individual (connection) before their mate,'' he said.

Barnett began taking numerous vacations with "connections'' but not his wife, according to Linda.

She said one woman who was a spiritual connection of Barnett's finally came to the realization that the pastor didn't care for her and she left the church.

"We were taught never to be critical of our pastor or critical of anyone,'' Linda said. "Basically, we stopped thinking for ourselves.''

Added to the details of sexual connections and Barnett's falling out with Barbara are allegations that the pastor is dependent on drugs. Many people say Barnett has spoken from the pulpit about a personal problem with prescription drugs.

"I remember him getting up in church about four years ago and saying the demon drugs had been cast out,'' said a family member.

"I don't know if he was taking more than he should or not, but he evidently developed a dependency on prescription drugs. I don't know if he's taken them since or not,'' said the family member.

In a March 9 letter to the elders, Barnett wrote: "Even your allegation of `my drug use' was left ambiguous, leaving the possibility that people could think illegal drugs were meant.''

Barnett said he was taking only Tylenol, over-the-counter sleeping tablets because of stress, and prescribed anti-arthritic tablets.

The accusations, the newspaper stories and the court hearings no doubt will go on for weeks. The elders also have been accused of conduct similar to Barnett's.

The pastor and the church face a series of civil suits asking unspecified damages for alleged sexual misconduct. Some of the cases aren't due for trial until 1989.

If there is any church left by then, former members fear it won't be much different from today.

"The adulteries, divorces, suicides and child abuse/neglect will not stop, because the doctrines, philosophies and attitudes will be the same,'' said a former member who left the church six months ago.

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