Longform

FROM THE BIG HOUSE TO GOD'S HOUSE

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Sturgeon, however, saw himself as the victim, and in his letter to the church fathers in Missouri, compared himself to Christ. "I believe a similar thing happened to our Lord just six days after a triumphal entry into Jerusalem," he wrote.

Until it could fashion the new chapel, the remains of the congregation met in a local school cafeteria.

There followed a string of interest-free loans from Sturgeon's family and followers--some for as much as $100,000--and high-interest loans taken through mortgage companies. According to church-board members, each of these loans was to cover earlier notes, hundreds of thousands of dollars that never seemed to get paid off. On more than one occasion, Sturgeon was reduced to borrowing the church mortgage payments from his garage mechanic, who was not even a member of the church. "Phil, he's the type of guy, he could have a brand-new car and it would break down on him every time he drove 100 miles," the mechanic says.

Often, the church could not afford to pay Sturgeon's salary, so he returned to school--though in his late 40s--to become a surgeon's assistant, and was eventually forced into bankruptcy.

So was the church. In 1987, Sturgeon and his board of directors mortgaged the property for $185,000, then quickly fell behind on those payments.

The Arizona District Council of Assemblies of God lent them another $70,000. However, only a fraction of the money went toward the impending mortgage.

"When we lent them the $70,000 to hold off the creditors on their loan, I think Sturgeon used that for back salary and a lot of other things that were due him," says Reverend Sites, superintendent of the District Council.

Four months' back payments went directly to the title company; the rest went to pay off a $30,000 loan from Sturgeon's wife's uncle and a smaller loan from Sturgeon's garage mechanic. Nearly $24,000 went directly to the church, and, at most, $8,400 of that may have gone toward the mortgage.

In spring 1991, a little more than a year after Jim Alderdice's arrival, the First Assembly of God of Glendale filed for protection under Chapter 11. Though the church's board of directors insists that Alderdice has no say in church finances, the reorganization papers listed him as a board member. On the articles of disclosure filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission, Alderdice was also listed as a board member--even though the church had checked a box stating that no board member had ever served as an officer of a corporation that had gone bankrupt. Then, as IGBE had on a grander scale, the church simply walked away from $273,000 in loans, including the district money, the mortgage and loans from church members.

"It's the first bankruptcy that's ever been filed by a church in Arizona, of any denomination," says Reverend Sites. "That's what I understand."
The District Council thought that it would have a claim on the Glendale church's property, because of the loan it had made, but Sturgeon and his board members cut the district out of the pie when they filed for bankruptcy. The holder of the mortgage foreclosed after attempts to work out payment schedules and lease options with Sturgeon.

Alderdice and 20-some devout churchgoers, who "stick with him like Heaven," as one former church member put it, followed Sturgeon into exile at the chapel he now rents on Sunday afternoons.

Others decided that the financial problems outweighed Sturgeon's marvelous preaching and counseling in their minds, and they quietly moved on.

"There's frustrations of attending a church for a long time and really pulling and really trying and not having it go anywhere," says one former member.

"We could see the potential of the church," another says sadly. "And we did have a desire to go, because it had such a rich ministry." The Arizona District Council of Assemblies of God had long had its eyebrows raised over Reverend Sturgeon's irrational acts.

On one occasion, when a district official tried to attend service at the Glendale church, Sturgeon became irate and demanded he leave.

The most bizarre and inexplicable incident took place in summer 1990. An assistant pastor of Sturgeon's church called the district office to say that Sturgeon was vacationing in Florida and had been asked to visit a prison inmate. Therefore, Sturgeon wanted the district council to write him a letter of good standing--but under an alias, addressed to a Reverend Philip Victor, instead of to Philip Sturgeon. Victor is Sturgeon's middle name.

The inmate's name was also Sturgeon, the assistant went on to say, and the pastor was concerned that he would not be permitted extended time with the prisoner if it was thought he was a relative.

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Michael Kiefer