The Faithless

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"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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske