Longform

The Faithless

Page 4 of 9

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.)

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske