New Buddhist sect worries traditionalists

Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sunday, November 28, 1999
By David Briggs And Joel Rutchick

Standing in the center aisle of Full Gospel Evangelistic Center, a solitary figure silhouetted against the Romanesque-style architecture of this stone cathedral, Bishop Matthew Ferguson was getting angrier by the moment.

A month and a half earlier, this preacher from St. Louis had shocked members of the landmark Cleveland congregation by boldly announcing he was taking over their church.

He was God's apostle to Middle America, he told them, one of Jesus' modern-day 12. He talked of making Full Gospel the mother church of a religious empire that would grow to 2.5 million within five years. He told church leaders he would make them millionaires within a year, and free members from their personal debts.

And still, "God's man with the plan" was misunderstood. In a church setting where people typically danced and shouted in the pews, he would look out and see the silence of uncomfortable glances shared across the church. Some members openly expressed their disdain.

"I'm a multimillionaire come to help you get some sense," the well-dressed, athletic, 56-year-old pastor chastised this Pentecostal congregation of lawyers and janitors, of teachers and women on welfare. "I ain't bragging. I'm just telling the truth. I'm a bad boy. When you can start paying cash for your Rolex watch, then you've got enough nerve to smirk and cross your eyes at me."

But this Sunday in June many churchgoers had heard enough. Instead of falling in line, this would be a different kind of watershed, setting off what would become a mass exodus from Full Gospel. Today, more than half of its 300 members have stopped attending the once-thriving church on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and many of its ministries - the church's lifeblood - have been shut down. Not even the bishop's wrath could stop the flow of Full Gospel members to other churches.

"I'm not threatening anybody, but I've seen this happen in ministry and I say this to warn people," he said of his critics in one sermon. "I've seen it within three years after people start coming against me. I've seen it, not just once, not just twice, many, many times within three years - they either have a stroke, they have some kind of incurable disease or die physically dead."

If Ferguson hasn't made millionaires out of his followers, he certainly has acted like one. Since coming to Cleveland, he and his wife bought a $580,000 home in Solon's tony Chagrin Highlands development and purchased resort property along a fairway of a new Jack Nicklaus signature golf course in the Ozarks.

Outside Cleveland, Ferguson's church fund-raising efforts offering eye-popping returns of up to 24 percent are under investigation by Missouri authorities and a multimillion-dollar church building project in his hometown of St. Louis is in disarray.

How could an outsider come into a landmark Pentecostal church, declare himself one of the 12 living apostles and take over a congregation expecting a $2 million insurance settlement? Ferguson isn't talking.

"Somebody say, "Respond.' Respond, for what. I don't respond to no devil," Ferguson told Full Gospel members in a Sept. 5 sermon addressing The Plain Dealer's inquiries. "I tell them to shut up."

But scores of interviews in Cleveland and St. Louis, church records and visits to several services along with taped sermons reveal a tale of human ambition stoked by claims of divine authority meeting the faith of ordinary churchgoers. Ultimately, it became a test of faith.

In the ebb and flow of world religion, Pentecostalism is on the upswing. The combination of emotional worship and emphasis on a personal relationship with God has enabled the faith to grow rapidly in settings from Latin America to Cleveland.

But what has been a substantial source of its power - an almost unbridled congregational freedom - also became a source of scandal when human failings were unchecked by any overseeing bodies. What particularly concerns many Pentecostal leaders years after the fall of such national figures as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart is the popularity of prosperity theology, the idea that faith and Earthly riches are inseparable.

Ferguson is a case study in prosperity theology writ large, someone who claims with all the fervor of a new convert to be God's excellent example of one whose faith has been rewarded in this world.

Not that success came overnight.

A graduate of Robert A. Taft High School in Cincinnati, Ferguson says he started out in the projects after being discharged from the Army as a private in 1963. In 1977, while Full Gospel was starting out in a storefront, he was a reservation clerk for Trans World Airlines with a small church in the basement of his home. He would not leave TWA until 1982, when his church was able to support a full-time ministry at Abundant Life Fellowship Church in Missouri. Ferguson received a master's degree in education from Washington University in 1976 and a doctorate in theology from a St. Louis Bible college in 1984.

"He was an excellent teacher," said Rod Tate, the former band director at Ferguson's St. Louis church. "Dr. Ferguson was definitely full of the word of God."

His Abundant Life church, located in a working-class St. Louis suburb amid a cluster of Pentecostal churches, grew to include an elementary school and television ministry.

Five hundred miles away, Full Gospel steadily grew from a handful of members at its Union St. storefront to its present quarters in the former First Hungarian Reformed Church next to Benedictine High School on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Ferguson came to Full Gospel in the summer of 1996 as an overseer, someone who traditionally is a source of spiritual help and guidance for the pastor. And the Rev. Michael O. Exum needed a lot of help. Exum, who knew Ferguson from national Pentecostal circles and considers him "a great man," invited him. Exum was trying to save his marriage at the same time the church's financial condition was worsening.

Exum's personal troubles were such that Ferguson was able to go far beyond the limited authority usually accorded overseers.

Following Ferguson's advice, the church board first cut Exum's $72,000 annual salary and his housing allowance in July 1996. Four months later, Ferguson announced during a church business meeting that Exum was "stepping down." The official reason Ferguson cited, according to church minutes, was Exum's failed marriage.

Ferguson told board members during the meeting that Exum had not been able to reconcile with his wife and that "if the head cannot keep his own household intact, he cannot keep the house of God intact. . . ."

Appointed by Ferguson to replace Exum was the Rev. William Jordan, a son of the church who lived in a modest home near Luke Easter Park in Cleveland. Here, after a period of turmoil, was someone members could believe in. With a new pastor also came a complete business reorganization. As Draconian as some of Ferguson's recommendations - a 30 percent across-the-board salary reduction for church employees and some layoffs - Full Gospel slowly got out of debt.

The church replaced an agreement to lease a BMW for Exum with a $350-a-month auto allowance for Jordan. Full Gospel, which had bounced a $12,000 mortgage payment check in June 1996, was flush enough to come up with $117,000 to pay the building off by May 1998.

Under Jordan, the church was attracting new members. Adult members recall Jordan as a man who lived in their neighborhoods, knew what it was like to raise five children and didn't care about status. Teens describe him as a father figure, someone they could talk to about anything.

Word began to spread that you needed to arrive early to get a good seat on Sunday morning. A thriving youth ministry attracted some 70 kids on Wednesday nights and Sundays.

"You could really see the fruit," said church member Teri Shanks. Ferguson himself praised Jordan, telling fellow St. Louis pastor Alfred Harvey at a prayer meeting last year that Jordan "had built up the church and was doing a great job."

But all was not well back in St. Louis for Ferguson.

Some of his longtime members were becoming disenchanted with what they say was Ferguson's sudden emphasis on wealth and material things. The message went from more traditional Pentecostal biblical preaching on salvation to, " "Follow me and you, too, can be a millionaire.' That's not the old pastor. It's so contrary to what he's always taught us," said Lisa Tate.

She and her husband, Rod, left the several-hundred member Abundant Life congregation last spring after more than nine years because they felt uncomfortable with the church's direction. Several other members of the St. Louis church also said they stopped attending earlier this year. This spring, the new $21 million Abundant Life worship center which Ferguson called a prototype for his mother church in Cleveland, was plagued with financial problems.

As Ferguson and Abundant Life began gearing up to offer promissory notes to raise money for the project, the financial fortunes of Full Gospel in Cleveland were changing. Full Gospel officials were expecting a $2 million-plus insurance settlement, primarily the result of damage to the roof caused by snow and ice over the previous few years.

In April, according to church minutes, Ferguson appeared before the church elders and board of directors and told them of God's plan for him to take over as pastor of Full Gospel.

"The Lord said, "I sent you as an apostle, there are three I sent to America and you are one of them. . . . I'm giving you mid-America. Your responsibility is mid-America.' "

There is no record in the minutes of a formal vote, but other board members at the meeting pledged their support.

Great things would happen at Full Gospel, Ferguson said.

"I could get every one of you out of debt right now. The Lord has given me the power to put that under my feet," he said. "Only money is keeping you from what God has called you to do. Within a year, I'll make you a millionaire."

But he held church leaders to a vow of silence. The congregation would not be told about Ferguson's plans to become pastor until the church's 22nd anniversary in May.

Imagine sitting in the pew that day when an out-of-town minister steps up to the pulpit and announces that God told him to become the new pastor of Full Gospel.

Several worshippers who were in church that day say the service broke down to a mass of tears, shock and confusion. There were audible gasps and wailing.

"I had never experienced anything like this in all my Christian years," Yvonne George said. "Actually it was kind of scary."

Then Ferguson got a surprise of his own.

Jordan was not going along with the plan. The pastor who prepares for services by humbly kneeling in prayer in a corner of the church went to the pulpit and told the congregation that he, too, had gone before God.

And God told him to remain as pastor of Full Gospel.

Two pastors hearing two voices from God. A congregation in shock.

Only one man would win.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.