Children who feel suicide is the only way to purge their "demons'' are among the casualties of recent turmoil at Community Chapel and Bible Training Center, according to counselors who spoke to a group of South End ministers yesterday.
About 75 members of the South Suburban Ministerial Association gathered at Des Moines Gospel Chapel to discuss how their churches can best minister to those leaving Community Chapel, a large Burien-area church.
Recently, a number of members, including high-level bible college teachers and counselors, have left the church, charging that Pastor Donald Lee Barnett's encouragement of spiritual connections between church members has brought heartache to the church, including playing a part in a number of divorces, two suicides and the recent murder of a young girl by her mother.
Barnett and other church officials have refused to comment.
South End ministers, many of whom say they've been approached by former chapel members or their families, say they're deeply concerned and want to learn more about how to help those they believe have been wounded by their experience with the church.
"We're wrestling with how to help people who come out . . . and to help them not be alienated from God,'' said the Rev. Tom Horton, president of the association, and associate pastor at Boulevard Park Presbyterian Church.
Like most other ministers, Horton admitted, "I don't know how to do that.''
The ministers got some expert advice from speakers, including two professional counselors from Christa Counseling Service.
Joy Kirkpatrick, marriage and family therapist, noting that around 30 percent of her caseload is made up of Community Chapel families, said she finds a "real strong spirit of suicide'' in teens who come out of the church.
Kirkpatrick attributes some of that, she said, to the emphasis on ridding oneself of evil and demons. "They (believe they) have no other way of doing that but suicide,'' she said. "It's real scary.''
Dr. David Penner, a clinical psychologist, said adults who leave the church may appear to outsiders to be extremely suspicious, especially of authority.
Other problems, Penner said, include loss of the ability to think critically, as well as temporary loss of an ability to just have fun.
Used to spending many hours, sometimes every evening, at the church, Penner said, chapel members need sensitive handling by ministers of churches they might approach in order to begin to regain their sense of play.
Other problems, Penner and Kirkpatrick said, include difficulty in trusting others, depression and fear of betrayal. Some former chapelites, they said, may make the transition relatively easily. "We are not trying to say everyone who comes out of this church is in this condition,'' Penner said.
Pastor Rick Foss of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, another of the speakers, emphasized that the ministers were not gathered to find ways to extricate members from Community Chapel, but rather to help those who had already decided to leave.
The ministers also heard from Harry Stegman, a former Chapel Bible College teacher who now helps counsel ex-members. Chapelites are taught, he explained, that "their destiny is to lead the world church into unity.'' Furthermore, Stegman said, spiritual connections are seen as the means to that end, not to divorce and turmoil. "The promise of this thing was that marriages would be healed.''
Stegman estimated that at least 200 adults have left the church since the first of the year.