- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

A United Methodist church in Brandywine that once was the fastest growing in the region will close tomorrow after a final service, a cautionary rise-and-fall story that is rare among the nation's "megachurches."
After a boom period that drew thousands of members, the 118-year-old Gibbons-Resurrection Church split over a charismatic pastor who fell out with his bishop as the congregation sank $6 million into debt. In the end, the church defaulted on the building and 1,200-seat sanctuary.
"The whole saga went on for 10 years," said the Rev. Rodney T. Smothers, who was recruited last year to try to turn around the church, which retained 300 loyal members. "The closing is a sad day, but in ways, a cathartic release."
The church had been renamed Resurrection Prayer Worship Center after 1984, when the Rev. C. Anthony Muse began to catapult the 120-member parish into the megachurch big leagues, reporting 4,000 worshippers on Sundays.
Mr. Muse used his pulpit popularity as a springboard to win a seat in the Maryland General Assembly. Now he is running for Prince George's County executive as a Democrat while leading the bulk of the splinter congregation.
Those members left United Methodism in 1999 to form Ark of Safety Christian Church, which meets in a commercial building in nearby Oxon Hill. The Brandywine church reverted to the Gibbons-Resurrection name that same year.
"It's hard to believe it's over," said Lillie Pinkney, 93, who grew up in the church and planned to attend tomorrow's final worship service. "I'll go wherever the congregation goes next."
Neither side in the dispute is commenting because of a lawsuit filed by the regional United Methodists seeking missing financial records from Mr. Muse.
Mr. Muse, who left the church $6 million in debt, has blamed the financial problems on corrupt building contractors. He said he decided to leave the Methodist Church because the offer of $1.2 million in aid by a former superior, Bishop Felton May, was not generous enough.
The drama over the Brandywine church not only is unusual, but played out in the high-risk world of megachurch building, a relatively recent trend in the United States. A megachurch is defined as having at least 2,000 worshippers on an average Sunday. About 600 U.S. churches meet that criterion.
"Most grow so fast that they must build, and build rapidly, to avoid having too many services over a weekend," said Scott Thumma, a researcher at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who is an authority on the topic.
Few megachurches are sunk by a failed building project, although most feel the financial strain, Mr. Thumma said.
"Some decide to build that larger sanctuary too soon in their period of growth and the momentum can't be sustained," he said.
Members of the Brandywine church have been willing to borrow $2.5 million to try to retain the property, which includes a vast sanctuary and two unfinished wings. Mr. Muse's following has made a $3.2 million bid in hopes of moving back in.
Mr. Thumma's survey of 153 megachurches last year found that 54 percent are in "excellent" financial condition, compared with 30 percent in 1995. The average megachurch has annual costs of $4.4 million and income of $4.8 million, he said.
Boom churches are seen as safe investments, said John Johnson, president of Colonial Trust Co. of Phoenix, which has provided financing primarily through bond sales for 600 growing churches, including Gibbons-Resurrection.
"The default rate is relatively low," Mr. Johnson said, pointing to a failure rate of no higher than 3 percent under a recently worsening economy. "Historically, it's been a very good investment for bondholders."
Bondholders on the Gibbons-Resurrection property likely will vote on a purchase bid by the end of the summer, he said.
The church is "officially disbanded," and United Methodist pastors from other area congregations will attend tomorrow's worship service and offer their churches as a next home. Mr. Smothers said he will "plant" a new church next month in nearby Waldorf.
Church bankruptcies of all kinds are fairly rare, church officials say, mainly because supporting denominations come to the rescue. For historic reasons, few churches close outright.
A national listing by "bankruptcydata.com" shows that 60 congregations filed for protection from creditors since 2000. Most are entrepreneurial, Pentecostal and independent churches, judging by their names.
Two million Christians attend U.S. megachurches, which are characterized by fast growth, full-service facilities and an evangelical effervescence in Bible preaching and music programs. An estimated 90,000 believers attend megachurches in Virginia, Maryland and the District.
The largest megachurch turnout is in California, with 364,612 worshippers, followed by Texas, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee and Arizona, according to the Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Mo.
United Methodist officials, who suggest Mr. Muse acted in bad faith, do not see the demise of the Brandywine church as an indictment of megachurches, some of which have been criticized for becoming "religious businesses" or empires of a charismatic pastor.
"The large church is paving the way for spiritual leadership and discipleship among United Methodists and others," said the Rev. Wesley Daniels, head of evangelism for the denomination. "The leadership of these churches are risk takers who capture a new vision and show a boldness."
Mr. Daniels said the lesson is about pastors learning new managerial skills so that more large congregations he was pastor of a 1,500-member church in Iowa can try to have an impact on society.
The Rev. Hollins McCallister, a businessman before ordination, applied such skills in expanding Ben Hill United Methodist Church in southwest Atlanta from 6,000 members in 1993 to 9,700 members today.
"We draw people who grew up in the church, but also young African-American professionals," Mr. McCallister said.
His church had begun a building project, but then paid $7.6 million for the 67-acre Delta International Center, where it will open a 5,000-seat sanctuary by next summer.
"We immediately jumped on that property," Mr. McCallister said, noting that with $75,000 to $100,000 a week coming in via offering plates, the bank loan supplied the entire amount.
Mr. Smothers said the Gibbons-Resurrection story also is "a testimony to the strength" of being in a denomination, which is the case for seven in 10 megachurches.
"The vision of a congregation is not just its building," he said.


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