Saturday, December 28, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Letters To The Editor

Fallen, But On The Rise

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

They were the Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye of their time and place.

Like Bakker, the fallen televangelist, Donald Lee Barnett was the charismatic, silver-pompadoured pastor of a huge flock hungry to be born again in the Bible and the blood. And like Bakker's then-wife, Tammy Faye, Barbara Barnett stood beside her man at the pulpit, hiding from the gathering storm behind long false lashes and lots of hair.

Eight years ago, the Barnetts' Burien-based Community Chapel and its attendant Bible college went down in a tempest of scandal and accusations of sexual antics on the part of Pastor Barnett, leaving thousands of followers wondering how it happened.

Now Barbara, whose divorce petition was just one of several messy court actions against Barnett, has written a book - a la Tammy Faye - in which she attempts to tell them.

It wasn't greed that caused their church to fail, she says, nor bad theology. It was a combination of human weakness and the devil.

Unlike Bakker, Donald Barnett never served time in prison; he was ousted from the church in 1988 and settled with his accusers with the help of a court-appointed arbitrator. Some of his disciples followed him to Renton, where he preaches in a rented hall to about 350 members of the Church of Agape.

Barbara Barnett lives in Burien, near where she and her ex-husband built their independent Pentecostal ministry. She looks much younger than her 65 years. She designed her pale-pink-and-blue house four years ago, she says proudly, and paid for it through odd jobs (she was a waitress for a while), and the maintenance payments she receives from Donald. It is tastefully decorated, and doves flap and coo in an aviary off the garage, filling the house with a faintly angelic background babble.

God commanded her to write the book, "The Truth Shall Set You Free: Confessions of a Pastor's Wife (WinePress, $19.95), Barnett says. It's intended as not only a moneymaker but also a warning to "God's people" and other pastors "so they won't make the same mistakes we made."

The Barnetts grew up in churches in which people were filled with the Spirit; prayed and sang praises around the clock; collapsed, "slain in the Spirit;" and claimed to be healed and raised from the dead.

At 16, she met a young and handsome Donald Barnett at a Bible college in Boise. He'd grown up in Tacoma; his father, uncle and brother all were preachers.

The Barnetts grew their church empire from scratch, building on prayer groups Donald started among people he encountered at his job at Boeing. Barbara brought in people she encountered as a Welcome Wagon greeter.

They hadn't intended to start a church, Barbara says. "It was something that just happened. It was part of God's plan, as was everything that happened to us."

At his zenith 20 years later, Barnett was a self-ordained pastor, "anointed by God," with 4,500 followers. The chapel and Bible college sprawled over a 44-acre campus, with 22 satellite churches in the United States and Canada.

The Barnetts lived in "a nice home," Barbara acknowledges, but didn't live extravagantly. They took regular vacations to Hawaii, though, "which we always paid for ourselves." Many times they were accompanied by church members, including the "spiritual connections" who proved to be their downfall.

Barbara Barnett says she had a vision early in their ministry that prophesied "the devastation" of their church. She describes it as "a great darkness like the wind that would destroy everything." Only those "with a special unique relationship with Jesus" would survive. At first, Barnett thought it was a vision about Revelations, but now, she says, she knows it was about the church.

The devastation came in the wake of an ever-intensifying - and some say misguided - theology in which Pastor Barnett described glorious visions of heaven and encounters with God. Followers said they'd been moved by God to do something in worship services they'd always considered "evil" - dance - and soon hundreds at a time were whirling around the sanctuary, caught up in "a heavenly visitation."

Members also began to form "spiritual connections" with others in the congregation. They were dance partners during worship services, but they also served as soulmates to help with earthly problems. The spiritual partners were not necessarily spouses, and, according to Barnett's book, soon "demons of jealousy and self-pity" arrived to "take advantage of any old wounds and hurts that were left in marriages."

Pastor Barnett's connections included numerous young women in the church; three filed a lawsuit in 1987, accusing him of using the relationship to coerce them into sexual contact. Barbara Barnett writes at length about her connection, a younger man who came to her first in the guise of Jesus. They never had a sexual relationship, she says, and she remains friends with him and his family.

The aftermath was recounted in court and news accounts over a period of years.

Hundreds left the church, many with lives in shambles. Former members said Donald Barnett's teachings on spiritual connections and "casting out demons" had led to suicides and broken marriages, and opened the door to child neglect and abuse. Two church members were convicted of child abuse and three others of failure to report child abuse.

Finally, the church and Bible college were sold to the state for $16 million; in 1993, it became the state's Criminal Justice Training Center. Barbara Barnett can't quite bring herself to describe fully what happened.

It wasn't the connections, she says, and it wasn't that Donald was a charismatic charlatan. Nor does she feel her ex-husband's theology was mistaken.

"We were really rich in the word of God because of Donald's unusual gift given by God. He's an excellent theologian," she says.

She was weak, she offers with a slight shrug, an "enabler" who defended her ex-husband out of her own "wrong-thinking concepts."

"I thought it was my duty as a Christian wife." Donald, she maintains, was in the grasp of the devil.

A friend of Barbara's, a Christian counselor who has worked with more than a dozen couples who were involved in the Community Chapel, says the problem lies in the isolation that sometimes accompanies charismatic movements and the power bestowed on pastors who are considered by followers to be anointed by God.

"When parts of the Christian community get cut off from the larger community like Community Chapel did, the pastor is no longer accountable to anyone," says Gene Anderson of the Whole Life Center. "They wrote rules to live by, but certain people didn't have to live by them. That's when they stepped over the line."

Barbara Barnett, who belongs to a church similar to Community Chapel, says she feels sorry for those who were caught up "in the devastation."

Donald Barnett says he hasn't read his ex-wife's book, although "she probably pictures herself as a victim when I am the real victim."

He won't comment on his past or whether he was guilty of ministerial misconduct, as court documents accuse him.

"I am going on and keeping a good heart and spirit in spite of all," he says. "I am hoping some day that Barbara will come back to me. I dearly love her and want her back again."

That won't happen, Barbara says.

"I wouldn't change anything that happened to me," she says. "I wouldn't choose to go through it again, but if God told me, `This is the only way you can know Me as you know Me now,' I would do it all again. I feel like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Bible, when they were cast into the fiery furnace.

"God has wrapped me in a cocoon of love, and I've come out of the furnace without even the smell of smoke, just like they did."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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