The Faithless

Carol Davidson is an Arcadia housewife, a grandmother, a missionary's mom, and until recently, someone who spent every Wednesday night practicing with the church choir.

But she is also, as she puts it, a gutsy broad. And that's where the trouble at Valley Cathedral began.

She didn't go looking to ignite a civil war. Not when she started stirring things up; not even in the end, when she was, literally, excommunicated. Davidson and her husband, Ron, had been members of the Valley Cathedral, the large Christian church in affluent north central Phoenix, for 22 years. Ron was even the secretary of the board of trustees. Gadflies operate outside the power structure; the Davidsons, both in their mid-60s, were part of it.

But trouble found Carol.

"When people were upset, they'd come to talk to me," she explains. "'Let's go see Mama Carol.'"

And plenty of people at Valley Cathedral, as it turned out, were upset. Upset about the church's pastor, Charles Combs.

There's never been any allegation of, say, serious transgression (think: crystal meth, Jessica Hahn, tax fraud) regarding Combs. And there was certainly no doctrinal dispute between him and his parishioners. At Valley Cathedral, Jesus is the only path to salvation, and the Bible is God's infallible Word. Everybody was on the same page, Combs included.

But staff members whispered that their newly hired pastor was never in the office, that his wife was rude to them, that there had been angry arguments and abrupt dismissals.

At a place as consciously nice as Valley Cathedral, that was something to talk about. And pretty much everybody who wanted to talk seemed to find Carol Davidson, eventually.

So she started asking her question. She'd ask it, casually, at choir practice, in the lobby after church services, in the hallway if someone wanted to talk.

"If you knew the CEO of a corporation, would you expect them to work Monday through Friday?" she'd ask.

Invariably, the answer was "yes." Carol Davidson was no dummy — she was counting on that.

"Well," she'd say. "Are you aware the CEO of Valley Cathedral is rarely on campus, except a few hours on Wednesday and Sunday?"

That was it.

But this is what happened, in rapid succession:

Pastor Combs removed the Davidsons from church leadership and told them, just like that, that he was booting them out of the choir.

When they continued to ask questions, they and five others were told that their membership had been revoked — and that they'd be arrested if they showed up again on church property.

Most of the staff quit.

Dozens of members left. Others tried to fight: The congregation's annual business meeting ended with shouts and sobs as a band of rebels attempted to question Combs' credit card purchases, which included hundreds of dollars for golf and dining.

Worst of all, when the Davidsons' son, a missionary in China, publicly questioned Combs' actions, he says the church abruptly cut off his financial support. After eight years in the mission field, Eric Davidson's association with Valley Cathedral ended without so much as a "thank you" note.

Combs has made it clear that he's not leaving unless forced. (That would take a vote by the trustees, and it's worth noting that the ones who have been outspokenly critical of him have almost all been booted or weren't allowed on the most recent ballot.) But one member claims that he has petitions from almost 100 people calling for his removal — and they aren't giving up, either.

History is full of churches splitting, sometimes with brutal consequences. When the Reformation caused the divide that would forever splinter part of the Catholic Church into a hundred Protestant pieces, the result was reform — but also years of bloodshed.

Few modern congregations, however, have endured battles as brutal as Valley Cathedral's. These days, after all, not too many pastors are into that whole excommunication thing, not if they can avoid it.

And it's hard to think of any church that has suffered such a brutal crackdown over what began as an innocuous dissent: a question or two about office hours from a 64-year-old grandmother.

"This is what started all this," Carol Davidson says, smiling ruefully. "I never kept my mouth shut."

If Hollywood would ever deign to make a film about Valley Cathedral, the casting agents would have to dial up John Lithgow. No other actor could do Charles Combs justice.

And it's not just that Lithgow was so good as the priggish minister in Footloose — or the priggish father in Kinsey. Picture the height, the slightly beakish face, the ring of balding silver hair: That's Lithgow, but it's also Combs.

More than that, Lithgow could handle the oratory. For Charles Combs is a skilled speaker, a very skilled speaker.

(Through the church's lawyer, Anne Tiffen, Combs declined an interview. In a written statement, Tiffen defended Combs' "extraordinary pastoral experiences" and noted that the pastor is not even considering offering his resignation. She also notes some arguments about worship that took place before Combs' arrival at the cathedral: Pastor Combs, she wrote, "accepted this call so that he could unify and shepherd a hurting flock.")

The good charismatic churches today have mastered the art of the sermon in ways that most old mainline pastors can only dream of. Go to, say, a Lutheran church, and you get a guy in a robe hunched over a pulpit, intoning the age-old Lutheran formula: a jokey anecdote — just one jokey anecdote, of course — then an intellectual examination of how man has fallen short of God's law, followed by a reminder that we've been saved by grace. There's no sizzle, and little attempt at modern applicability.

But at a church like Valley Cathedral, the seating is in the round, so the pastor, wearing a suit and a clip-on mic, almost seems to be wading into his audience. He's got a PowerPoint presentation, and he's integrating the Bible, a touch of pop culture, and whatever he's been reading.

In his sermon December 3, Combs managed to tie in the Old Testament story of Joseph, an anecdote about a pro athlete, the lessons of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a newspaper story he'd happened on about a man born without arms.

The overall effect is Tony Robbins-does-religion, not fire-and-brimstone.

Combs starts with a question: "What do we do until God comes through with what He says He's going to do?" As it turns out, there are four steps to getting there. And the conclusion is that God wants us to succeed, He's there to bless us, we just have to stick with His plan until He can bring it to fruition.

It's no "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God," that's for sure — and one reason Combs' actions in the past four months are so jarring.

Clearly, Valley Cathedral is a church that wants new members, yet it's throwing out some of its most devoted old ones. It's a church that preaches forgiveness and blessing and prosperity, but it's acted as if there can be no second chance for the fallen — and no question just who the fallen are.

Naturally, they're the ones who've opposed the pastor.

Combs' message on Sunday, December 3, is a good example: Even as he preaches that God is going to bless His people, there's a clear indication that "His people" doesn't mean "everybody."

The text is Jeremiah 29, as the Old Testament prophet tells the Israelites how to live during exile. Plant gardens, Jeremiah says, have children, and build a new life.

Then the prophet segues into what's become an oft-quoted message of hope:

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. . . . I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you . . ."

In Combs' hands, the verses also contain a warning.

Do not listen, he tells his congregation, to faithless people.

"Have you ever been around people who just zap your faith?" he asks. "You were working for the Lord, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, then someone pulled the plug on you. What happened?"

There is a pause, a Lithgow-ian pause. Anyone who's paid attention to what's been happening at Valley Cathedral has some idea what the pastor is talking about.

"They were faithless. FAITH-less," he concludes. "Say it with me. 'Faithless.'" (They agree: "Faithless.")

In other words, the people in attendance are on their way to "a future and a hope." As for those who've departed — well, they're faithless.

This seems to be Charles Combs' implicit doctrine: If you stick it out here, you're ultimately in for a blessing. Leave, or criticize the pastor, and you've revealed a fatal character flaw.

But it's not hard to imagine the verse being given another application. After all, Jeremiah is talking to people in exile. A pastor in a different situation could presume that the members who were forced out of Valley Cathedral are the ones who are supposed to plant gardens, have babies — and wait for their triumphant return.

Combs' words are meant as an exhortation. But, whether he likes it or not, they could apply to either side of the conflict at Valley Cathedral.

"If someone tells you the Christian experience is not warfare, don't listen to them," he says. "God has a plan for your life and you will go through opposition."

When Valley Cathedral hired Combs, almost two years ago, he was one of the pastors at Brooklyn Tabernacle, a huge New York City church famous for its music. Before that, he'd been pastor at churches in six states — and before that a Bible College student and a Midwestern boy.

But it was the "Brooklyn Tabernacle" pedigree, some Valley Cathedral members admit, that left them star struck. After all, the Tabernacle choir has recorded dozens of CDs of "praise music," six of which have won Grammys. The place was in another league.

By Phoenix standards, however, Valley Cathedral has a heady history of its own. Founded in 1977 by a group of Pentecostals, the church had 1,200 people in attendance at the time of its first service on site at Central Avenue — an eight-acre plot purchased from North Phoenix Baptist Church, which sits just a block to the south. The sanctuary, finished in 1981, was dedicated in a service led by Jack Hayford, the author, hymn writer, and founder of California's famous Church on the Way.

At its peak in the late '80s, members say, Valley Cathedral had nearly 1,000 members, many of them young families with children. Today, the congregation has aged, but the campus still has a sumptuousness that speaks to its affluent roots: Its North Central Phoenix Bridal Path neighborhood, after all, is one of the priciest parts of town. (The county assessor values the place at $8 million; a shrewd real estate agent could surely get three times that, even in this market.)

But the number of worshipers dropped long before Combs came on the scene. There was a split over the mode of worship, for one thing: Some members wanted a more formal, liturgical service; others wanted a free-for-all of raised hands and hallelujahs. In the end, the liturgists lost — and many members took a hike.

That left ugly wounds. "When I'd go to weddings or funerals, I'd see these people who used to be members," recalls Connie Griffith, a longtime member. "And I'd get really worried about who I'd run into, because I knew some people were really bitter about it."

It was also hard when Pastor Dan Scott left in 2004. The sincere, well-liked Scott had been with the cathedral for 10 years and endured the split; he finally left, members say, when his wife suffered health problems and needed full-time attention.

When he left, as is often the case, others left, too.

But several hundred members remained, through the time of an assistant pastor trying to fill Scott's shoes, through the search that led to Combs.

They had high hopes that Combs would guide Valley Cathedral back to its days of glory — or, at least, stabilize the place. The church launched a campaign to reach out to those who'd left. Members also leafleted doors from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street, welcoming the neighborhood in for a service.

Some old faces returned; some new ones joined in the worship.

Behind the scenes, trouble was already brewing.

It started with the staff. For while Combs is a skilled preacher, that's only half the job. (Maybe even less than half.) As Carol Davidson would intimate, the pastor at a place like Valley Cathedral is also, in essence, the CEO. He's got to guide the staff, set the tone, make sure that personnel help the mission rather than undermine it.

Early on, some staffers decided that Combs wasn't their guy. They never really discussed the reasons, their co-workers say. They just left.

Connie Griffith, the director of Early Childhood Ministries, stayed. Soon after the Combses arrived in Phoenix, she had to take time off for minor surgery. And during her convalescence, she kept hearing reports that another person on the church staff had left, one after another.

"What's going on?" she pleaded. But everyone kept giving the same answer, she recalls: It was nothing personal, but they weren't happy with the direction the church was going.

She started to worry about returning to work.

The cathedral's attorney, Tiffen, notes that many staff members were offered severance packages by the trustees, a process that Combs wasn't involved in. It is "not uncommon" for staff to leave when a new pastor comes on board, she notes.

Griffith is a mother of two teenagers, but has the patient voice and gentle manner of someone who's used to working with young children. For 13 years, that's exactly what she did for Valley Cathedral, including the last 11 as director of the Early Childhood program. At one point, that meant supervising as many as 140 preschool kids during morning services, along with their teachers. It was never a full-time post — they wanted her to stay below 30 hours a week to contain costs — but sometimes it felt like it should be.

But only after the Combses' arrival, and after all the staff departures, did she begin to dread going to work.

"It felt like a ghost town," Griffith recalls. And though no one was talking about the details, she could understand why. The Combses were rarely in the office. "It was like we were on our own," Griffith says.

When orders came, they were usually from Mary Combs.

Charles Combs was hired at a salary of $74,000, according to two trustees. As part of his package, his wife Mary was hired as his administrative assistant for another $18,000. (Charles Combs has since been given a raise, putting his salary at $83,000.)

And while Charles Combs was polite, if distant, Mary was more temperamental, says Terry Grant, then the front desk operator. She'd upbraid staffers for not being at their desks when she called — even if they'd just stepped out for a moment.

"She'd do it right in front of people," Grant says. "It was just degrading and abusive."

The Combses' unwillingness to hold regular office hours also caused trouble, Grant says. Pastor Scott had always been around, it seemed. But the Combses rarely came in during the week — yet seemed intent on making sure few people knew it.

"I was never to give out information about whether Pastor Combs was in to anyone, whatsoever," Grant recalls. "I was to say, 'He's away from his desk,' and then call him on his cell phone so he could call back."

Once, Grant unthinkingly told a trustee that Combs was at home and gave out the number. In any normal church, that wouldn't have been a problem. But Grant soon fielded an angry call from Mary Combs: "She said I had no business giving out their personal home phone number!"

It was worse when people really needed help. Once, Grant says, a suicidal man came in and begged to see a pastor. There was no one around.

Other times, sick people needed visiting. In every instance, Grant says, she was supposed to call a lay minister. "I was never, ever, ever to call Pastor Combs. He didn't want to be bothered."

All that got the staff talking. But it only became worse when Combs had a heated argument with the youth pastor. Griffith, who says she couldn't help but overhear the whole thing, was shocked when Combs told the staffer to pack up his stuff that day and get out. A group of high school students came by that afternoon to help him pack.

Incidents like that, so different from the way things used to be done at Valley Cathedral, led both Griffith and Grant to approach Carol Davidson.

"Mama Carol" was there to listen.

And while Griffith and Grant may have been used to taking orders, the Davidsons were not. Ron, the retired CEO of a small equipment rental and sales company, is less obviously feisty than his wife, but he'd also grown concerned. He agreed to Carol's plan to ask pointed questions around church about the Combses' work habits.

By early summer, thanks to Carol's questions, other dissenters began to seek out the Davidsons. Someone also anonymously slipped them statements from the church credit card. They revealed that Combs was using the card for a host of personal expenses — $1,607 on golf and meals in March 2006 alone, according to card statements. (Randy Powell, a trustee at the time, says he also discovered receipts showing that the church credit card was paying for the pastor's satellite radio.)

The worst part is that the expenses came during a time of financial trouble, says Powell, who was elected trustee in the spring of 2005. "They were having to transfer money from other funds just to make payroll," he says.

But trustees weren't shown the fine print — even when they asked to see it. They'd get a one-line summary listing a lump sum for "operating expenses," not the line-item statement that the bylaws seemed to require. Powell asked for an itemized list of receipts, but the treasurer never produced them.

Then came the letter.

One of the trustees, Roberta Helweg, wrote a five-page letter to the rest of the board, questioning the financials and reminding them of their responsibilities under the bylaws. (Helweg declined comment.)

"Once she sent that out," Carol Davidson recalls, "it took less than 24 hours for Pastor Combs to set up a mandatory meeting."

At the meeting, two trustees confirm, Combs asked if the board had received the letter. Then, rather than address the questions Helweg had raised, Combs asked an odd question.

"Did you let your wives see it?" (Some of them, Davidson included, had to say yes — as if a woman like Carol Davidson wouldn't have insisted on it!)

Then came a directive. If they'd received the letter by e-mail, they were to erase it, Combs said.

If they'd been printed, they were to go into the shredder.

"If you all can't do that," the pastor announced, "your resignation ought to be on the table."

"We were shocked," says Ralph Hill, a trustee who was at the meeting. "The things Roberta was asking for — as a trustee of the corporation, that's your duty." But Combs, Hill says, just sputtered about how this wasn't the way they would do business. He refused to address the subject further.

After the meeting, Combs asked Ron Davidson to come to his office.

"Carol's been spreading a lot of discord," he said, according to Ron Davidson. "I'm going to have to caution you that this is not right."

In her statement, the church's attorney, Tiffen, says that Combs was acting at the urging of some church members "upset about a handful of people sowing discord." The members, Tiffen wrote, "told Pastor Combs that unless he could deal with the dissenters, they could no longer continue participating in the life of the church."

As Ron Davidson would learn that day in Combs' office, the pastor was ready to "deal" with him and Carol. He told Ron Davidson something that Davidson had never expected.

"I'm removing you as secretary of the board," the pastor told him. "I'm removing you both from the mission board. And I'm removing you both from the choir."

Choir practice used to be every Wednesday. And so that next Wednesday after the mandatory trustee meeting, Ron Davidson got up and read a letter to his fellow choraliers. He explained that he and Carol had been "removed" from the choir, but that they didn't intend to step down until they received notice, in writing, from Pastor Combs.

The next week, when they showed up for practice, there were Combs and several trustees.

Before practice could begin, one of the trustees explained where the Davidsons had failed: They never got permission to ask their questions.

In the book of Matthew, the trustees reminded the choir members, Jesus instructs his followers not to run around ratting each other out. If someone has messed up, Jesus tells them, they should confront that person directly.

If that doesn't solve the issue, they should go back, with supporters, and give the sinner another chance to make things right.

The Davidsons, the trustee explained, didn't follow that formula. That's why they were being kicked out.

Until that point, Ron says, "there had been a lot of people leaving church, but it was very hush-hush." But the bizarre presentation at choir practice threw the floodgates open, and the singers peppered the church officials with questions. Who should the Davidsons have gone to with their concerns? Could this happen to other people?

And then, one woman said, "I'm going to play the devil's advocate. What if Ron and Carol don't step down? What if they insist on singing on Sunday morning?"

Then, the leaders responded, the whole choir will be barred from singing.

The Davidsons didn't sing. Carol is feisty, but she isn't that feisty.

They kept going to church, and Ron Davidson says he fully intended to meet with the trustees and try to work things out. But then, on Tuesday, before he could begin making arrangements, David Eagles was removed from his position as head of the lay ministers and kicked out of the church.

Eagles is a black man with a sonorous voice and erect posture. He chooses his words carefully, and not just because he is talking to a reporter. He's used to counseling the sick, the distraught, the destitute. He seems more comfortable listening.

Until he was fired, Eagles was an ordained — but unpaid — minister for the cathedral. It was he who handled all the calls that came in from people needing a pastor to pray with; it was something he was happy to do. (And a good thing, since Combs apparently wasn't.)

In August, he'd gotten a call saying the choir wanted to get together to pray for a musician who was going through hard times. Eagles agreed to attend — but soon found himself answering a call from Combs, who asked what the prayer meeting was about.

"It's about prayer," Eagles said.

Combs said that would be okay, but it couldn't be a church meeting — ostensibly, he didn't want members sharing grievances instead of praying. Eagles said he didn't think that was the idea.

Combs appeared to give his okay, if not exactly his blessing.

But it was the prayer meeting that came up a month later when Combs called Eagles into his office.

Combs was upset about an e-mail that Eagles had sent out, calling for everyone to pray for the church. It was "divisive," he said. And then he talked about the prayer meeting.

Carol Davidson had been "prophesying," Combs said. That wasn't supposed to happen. And someone, while praying about the church, had focused overlong on "deception" — they'd used the word seven times, Combs said.

"I asked if you'd be in control of the prayer meeting," Combs told Eagles.

"I don't control the prayer," Eagles said.

Combs told him he was no longer a minister, Eagles says. And, for that matter, he wasn't a church member, either. Combs told him to turn in his keys. He was kicking him out.

After Eagles was dismissed, it was only a matter of time before things really fell apart. The Davidsons were handed a letter one Sunday, formally removing them from membership — when they didn't leave immediately, the church's security officer, an off-duty policeman, was asked to escort them to their cars.

Terry Grant, the former front desk operator, was also removed from membership, along with her husband. So was Roberta Helweg, the trustee who'd written the letter questioning the finances.

And so, too, was Debbie Schelske, a 13-year member and choir singer who'd helped distribute Helweg's letter.

"It's like taking a knife and being stabbed in the heart," Schelske says, her eyes welling with tears, even a month later. "The choir kept me grounded in the Lord — having it there every Wednesday night and knowing that you needed to walk the walk — now I feel like I'm just out there."

In August, Connie Griffith finally quit the job that she had loved. She'd never wanted to do anything but work with kids.

Now she works in data entry. "It's been a hard transition," she says.

Even worse was seeing what happened to her church. Griffith and her husband had spent nearly a year training for church leadership, as lay ministers. But in September, they got a letter from Combs, marked "CONFIDENTIAL." He was disbanding the lay ministers' group.

Since Combs had arrived, he wrote, the church had "progressed, grown, and prospered in the Lord."

But, unfortunately, Combs wrote, "there has arisen a faction in the church that has come together due to lies, rumors, and false allegations. For this reason, I, as Senior Pastor and President of the Valley Cathedral Corporation, have had to take some drastic measures to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

To that end, Combs wrote, he was "releasing" all the lay ministers. He would call a new group "as soon as I feel led by the Spirit to do so."

He added, "Some of you will undoubtedly be a part of this group." Not, as it turned out, the Griffiths.

Combs also divided the choir into three groups. One was out — no more leading the church in worship. The second was allowed to stay.

The third group was allowed to keep singing, but only if they made an appointment to talk to Combs and, ostensibly, pledge their loyalty. (Attorney Tiffen defends this process, saying it was also in place at Combs' previous church.)

Increasingly, Valley Cathedral resembled a Third World dictatorship. Trustees like Ralph Hill say they were never even told what was happening. Combs acted on his own, and even the trustees found out after the fact, through the grapevine, what he'd done.

Griffith found herself sitting through Combs' sermons, seeing everything in a new light. "He was just kind of manipulating people into thinking the way he wants them to think," she says, still surprised. "It just baffled me that people didn't realize it. They didn't want to think for themselves."

The group of dissidents at Valley Cathedral clearly had a case to make about Combs' style of leadership — any time you need an off-duty cop to control a church service, you've got a problem. And they may have had a case about office hours and credit cards, too. Members' donations are hard-earned, and not everyone wants to subsidize their pastor's golf habit while services are being shuttered.

But it's also clear that many people at Valley Cathedral are fine with Combs. And that's where things get hairy.

Sure, the Davidsons and their supporters were longtime members, and, until recently, were held in good stead. But the church voted to bring in Combs, and no one is claiming that vote wasn't by the book.

At heart, the battle for Valley Cathedral isn't so much civil war as an attempted coup d'état. And, as in any coup, Combs' side has most of the firepower, just by virtue of his job as pastor.

On top of the power given the pastor in the bylaws, after all, it can be hard to convince some Christians, no matter how unseemly a situation is, that God wants them to rise up in revolt against their pastor.

"We always support the pastor," says O.D. Randall, 78, who's been a member for 16 years and is also a lay minister. "He's done a good job — his preaching is very good. And if he's made some bad decisions, we still support him.

"The people on the other side are good people," Randall adds. "They've just got burrs in their saddle. They want to stir things up. Well, I'm not for tearing things down, I'm into building them up."

That perspective was evident at the church's annual business meeting in October. The ousted members had hoped to make a case to their former congregants about the need to remove Combs — but the meeting ended in total chaos. Combs repeatedly tried to stop the meeting, to close without new business, to limit debate. (A parliamentarian who attended the meeting at the request of one worried member was horrified.)

But those who raised the issue of Combs' leadership were greeted with heckles.

The Davidsons' son, Eric, had flown back from his job on the mission field in China to attend. When he took his turn at the mic, he spoke of King David and how, before he was king, he vowed not to raise a hand against "the Lord's anointed" — presumably, a reference to not attacking Combs.

But by that point, many in the audience were in no mood even for gentle Biblical parables. When Eric Davidson noted, "I am an apostle of the church," one woman called out, "Not for long!"

The discussion, ultimately, ended with shouting.

"You shut up!" one man screamed.

"No, you shut up!" a woman retorted. "You've been running your mouth this whole time and I'm sick of it!"

Another woman rushed to the front of the stage and began convulsing in sobs. "You should be praying for her!" one member shouted at another. "You should be praying!"

With that, the meeting was over.

The next day, one of the dissident members, Patience Hoag, sent an e-mail summarizing the meeting's improprieties. (It was she who'd hired the parliamentarian.) She was greeted with a lengthy reply, forwarded to more than a dozen other members, by the assistant church treasurer, Deborah Fitchie.

Fitchie and her husband David, a trustee, declined requests for comment through the church's lawyer.

"It made me ashamed before God that something so ugly took place in the House of God and that some Christians allowed themselves to become so hateful and disrespectful to our Pastor and to each other and to God's house," Deborah Fitchie wrote.

"One woman got up and left after the first ten minutes," Fitchie added. "As she passed by me she said, 'I did not come here for "something like this"' and she left. I wonder if she will ever come back to Valley or any other church."

She concluded, "You and your friend seemed to be more concerned about parliamentary procedures than you are about the souls of people that were damaged by what they witnessed."

Patience Hoag, who hired the parliamentarian to come to the business meeting in October, says she'd assumed that meeting would change everything. Once the congregation heard the truth about why some members opposed Pastor Combs, she assumed they'd flock to their cause — and Combs would be forced to resign.

Clearly, that wasn't going to be the case.

For Hoag, it was a rude awakening. "They've known most of us for many years, and they just brought Combs in two years ago from out of nowhere," she says. "And yet they're not going to believe us? It's like, all of a sudden, we can't be trusted!"

Indeed, soon after the meeting, Eric Davidson, Carol's son and the missionary who'd spoken up, got a rude awakening.

There was no formal notice, just an abrupt cessation of payments: After eight years of living in a remote province, learning the language in order to translate the Bible into the people's native tongue, Davidson's time in China came to a rapid halt.

Valley Cathedral was cutting off Davidson's financial support.

He and his wife and their four kids packed up their bags and flew back to Phoenix.

As November turned to December and Christmas approached, the situation at Valley Cathedral had grown increasingly bleak. A group of 115 members held a "town hall meeting" at the Pointe Hilton Resort at Squaw Peak to discuss concerns; for more than two hours, members — and former members — shared stories and expressed anger about Combs.

Only one person spoke in Combs' favor. Three trustees who still served on the board were in attendance, but only one stood up to introduce himself. None of them spoke.

After the meeting, one of its organizers, 79-year-old Neal Dooley, called Combs to request an appointment to talk about the meeting. Combs initially seemed interested — but when Dooley called back to pin him down on timing, he instead got a call back from a trustee saying the meeting would not take place. Ever.

(The cathedral's attorney, Tiffen, denies that this phone call took place. She says Combs was willing to meet with Dooley but that Dooley "refused to tell Pastor Combs the purpose of the meeting or who would be attending.")

It was around the same time that Dooley learned that the church's food bank had been forced to cut its hours in half because of a lack of volunteers. But when he attempted to remedy the situation, he was given a stern instruction that he could only get volunteers from among the church membership.

Even after he agreed to that stipulation, when Dooley showed up for work, he was told to go home.

The week before, Dooley had sent out a letter summarizing the town hall meeting, letting the membership know that Combs had rejected his attempt at a meeting. And so when he showed up at the food bank, Dooley was told that the trustees had changed their minds.

"I don't want you in there," he says he was told, "but if you've got other members . . ."

Dooley ended up standing outside the shuttered food bank, handing out Fry's gift cards that he'd purchased with his own money. In just one shift, he says, he had 13 takers.

Dooley's kids have tried to convince him to move on. But he's incensed by what he sees. "We don't live in a dictatorship," he says. "This is an orderly world! And I'm not gonna put up with a dictatorship!"

Still, even Dooley admits that it's hard to sit through services. He sees the empty pews, feels the presence of the missing people, sees the unrest roiling beneath the church's fine veneer.

"It's a dead church," he says. "I went there a week ago and I saw the empty chairs where the choir used to sit, and I just sat there and cried."

At that service on December 3, the one where Neal Dooley found himself crying, the congregation is much smaller than the 500 people who sat here six months ago. Much of the church staff is gone, including the longtime worship leader. Most seemed to disappear without a trace — one week they're there; in the next, they'd never existed.

The choir used to fill 50-some chairs behind Combs' pulpit. But this week, there are just 17 people seated there, and they don't lead anything, even their traditional song during the offering. In fact, before the offering, while the congregation is distracted with greetings, they appear to have quietly slipped out of their robes and rejoined the congregation.

Even with the choir mixed in, the giant cathedral still feels half-empty. Multiple pews have been roped off, and few others contain more than a parishioner or two. And this service, at 9 a.m., is the only one they're holding on Sundays anymore: The 11 a.m. and Saturday evening services have been stopped for lack of interest. (There's also one Spanish service, however.)

Pastor Combs tells his congregation that the church needs $7,000 a week just to stay open — $16,254 a week to make payroll. The week before, according to the bulletin, they got just $9,771.

But Combs seems to have a forced cluelessness about how bad things have gotten.

"What we're praying all through 2006," Combs explains, "is for $35,000 to spend on ministry." He notes that it's double what they're currently getting. (It is, in fact, more than triple.)

He seems to want, desperately, to make things hum — and he doesn't seem to trust anyone but himself to make it happen. "He just doesn't want anything to go and happen without his okay and input," notes Ralph Hill, the trustee. Combs even jumps in to personally lead the singing.

It happens near the end of worship. The team filling in during the choir director's absence — a drummer, a keyboardist, and three singers with handheld mics — finishes a rousing version of "Jesus, We Crown You With Praise" when Combs steps out of the audience and asks one of the singers for her microphone. (The singer, surprised, goes along, smiling.)

The pastor explains that he wants the whole congregation to do the motions: touching their hands to sign "Jesus," placing an imaginary crown on their heads at the word "crown," raising their hands at the word "praise." And then he leads them into the song himself, John Lithgow teaching tai chi.

The song, as it turns out, was one made popular by the Brooklyn Tabernacle, where Combs was associate pastor before coming to Phoenix, before everything at Valley Cathedral unraveled so badly.

And as he sings it, the congregation following his lead, Combs' voice is several times louder than anything else in the room.

"Jesus, we crown you with praise
Jesus, we crown you with praise
We love and adore you
We bow down before you
Jesus, we crown you with praise."

There's something poignant in the way the pastor's voice gains volume over the half-empty cathedral. It's as if he remembers a fuller church, a more jubilant congregation, and he has no idea how loudly he's singing.

No idea at all.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske