The Faithless

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"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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske