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After Fall From Grace, Preacher and Career Reborn

Religion: Tim Timmons, who built the former megachurch South Coast Community, has new congregation and new life.

February 14, 1999|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the most important times in Martha Feenstra's life--including her battles with breast cancer and a malignant tumor at the base of her tongue--she has relied on Tim Timmons, now pastor of the New Community Church in Irvine, for spiritual support.

"He married my youngest son, and he buried my husband," said Feenstra of Costa Mesa. "He's been a Rock of Gibraltar for me."

She met Timmons when she sang in the choir of the now-defunct South Coast Community Church, which at its zenith in the 1980s had more than 10,000 members and was one of Orange County's biggest churches.

Even after his fall from grace amid allegations of misconduct and his eventual return to be head of the small New Community Church, Feenstra has stuck by the preacher. So have many in his new congregation of about 500.

"I've counseled half of Orange County," Timmons said recently, fiddling with a strand of receding gray hair. "It makes you tired."

So do the endless stories of his alleged transgressions.

"To this day, I run into people who were nasty to me," he said.

Timmons, 53, resigned from South Coast in August 1990, after he'd been dogged for years by rumors about marital infidelity and financial impropriety. Timmons denies most of the accusations.

He does admit, however, to an "inappropriate" relationship with a church member, a woman he "spent lots of time with" and confided in about his marital troubles with his wife of 25 years.

"As soon as we realized it was wrong, we backed off," he said. "People tried to make something of it later. They came after me."

Timmons, now divorced, continues dispensing guidance to the masses in books and motivational-speaking engagements. But as a preacher, he has found redemption with a smaller congregation.

That comes at the price of a smaller annual salary--down from $120,000 at South Coast with a staff of 68 to less than $50,000 at New Community with a staff of nine. But Timmons said the peace of mind gained from a simpler life is worth more than numbers can say.

"When you're a pastor of a large church, you're in a caldron of pressure that no one understands," he said. "I've been there, done that."

Crowds Came to Listen

Born in Ohio, Timmons attended Cedarville College in Ohio and the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas, where he worked with Campus Crusade for Christ.

When he moved to Newport Beach in 1975, he started a counseling business and a nonprofit corporation called "Game Plan for Living," a ministry built on free talks to educators and political leaders about morals and leadership.

He then spent a year filling in as pastor of Mariners Church, then in Newport Beach. Soon people were flocking to hear his sermons.

He resigned from Mariners in 1980 to start South Coast Community Church, which began as a Bible study group with 400 people at Lincoln Elementary School. Within 10 years, the congregation had grown to 10,000.

As head pastor, Timmons met with thousands of congregants and packed the pews with lively sermons laced with humor and pop psychology.

"Christianity can get real stuffy," he said. "I knocked the stuffings out of it for a while."

Before his resignation, he was considered a big spiritual gun in Orange County, the peer of early megachurch moguls such as Rick Warren of Saddleback in Mission Viejo and Chuck Smith Sr. of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa.

"He's introduced a lot of people to Christ," said Ed Neteland of Mission Viejo, who was an administrator at South Coast during Timmons' ministry. "He's changed a lot of lives."

"I gave a lot of other people permission to carry it off," he said about his casual style and motivational talks masquerading as sermons. "People buy attitude."

Church membership began to dwindle in his last years at South Coast as some congregants rejected his moral leadership. And numbers plummeted after Timmons resigned.

"Any time a founding pastor resigns, there will be a exodus," said Don Johnson of Irvine, a former administrator of the church. "I'm sure there were some people who were disappointed."

The diminished congregation of South Coast merged in 1996 with Mariners, which had been growing quickly since the Rev. Kenton Beshore took over, and the blended congregation became Mariners South Coast. Last month, Mariners dropped the "South Coast" from its moniker, signaling an end to the last vestige of the Timmons era.

Nevertheless, his children and ex-wife still attend Mariners. His son, Tim Timmons Jr., works at the church as director of high school ministries. The younger Timmons said he intends to continue his dad's legacy of evangelism.

"God's bigger than my dad," he says.

," he said. "We're all sinners."

The elder Timmons says his ordeal made him a better minister.

"Now, when someone tells me they're in a pile of depression, I understand," said Timmons. "I'm a wounded healer."

Although he said his goal is to reach as many people as possible, he contends his intention isn't to grow New Community into another megachurch.

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