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Faithful Flock Helps Usher In Revival of Controversial Pastor

After quitting his last post under a cloud, he leads a church founded by former congregants.

March 23, 2003|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to The Times

The congregation waited for minister David Moore to begin services at the New Community Church of the Valley last week, expecting one of the friendly, down-to-earth sermons that popularize his preaching style.

It was only his second week at the fledgling Indio church, formed by parishioners who followed Moore after he resigned in November from one of the Coachella Valley's largest churches amid personal and financial scandal.

But before the sermon, Moore shared some personal comments with the congregation: "Never, ever, did I charge anything for clothing to Southwest [Community Church.]"

He was referring to the details of an audit released the night before by his former parish, which described years of excessive spending and financial improprieties under his management.

Moore's disclaimers at last Sunday's services reveal that he is still under that cloud.

Moore, 49, joined Southwest as senior pastor 14 years ago, helping build the small desert congregation into one of the area's largest churches. At its 42-acre compound in Indian Wells, the church regularly hosted about 3,500 parishioners per weekend, many drawn by Moore's ministry. Moore also sold tapes of his sermons through a separate nonprofit organization, Moore on Life, which broadcast his messages to Christian radio audiences nationwide.

Last fall, nude photos of Moore, his wife and a married parishioner soaking in a hot tub surfaced during the woman's divorce proceedings. In court papers the woman's estranged husband alleged that the photos depicted an adulterous affair.

As Moore confronted the ensuing controversy, church officials began to question whether he had also mishandled church money, possibly using parish funds for personal expenses or diverting them to Moore on Life.

Southwest's attendance dropped, its board disbanded and half its staff quit. In November, Moore resigned.

Stung by the collapse of his ministry and grieving over his mother's death in the weeks that followed, Moore said he rejected requests by some former congregants to start a new church.

"I got so beat up the last time, I didn't want to do it again," he said.

So they started one for him, writing bylaws for New Community Church of the Valley, filing for nonprofit status and renting temporary quarters at the Polo Grounds in Indio.

"He really wants to minister to people," said Christine Griswold, a local physician who serves as chairwoman of the four-member board of New Community. "It's his gift. And we wanted a teacher. If we started a church and had him as the main speaker, it satisfied a lot of needs."

The church's initial service on March 9 attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the rented, 500-person hall, Griswold said. Pleased by the turnout, church organizers scheduled two services last Sunday and reported a full house for the first service; about 200 attended the second.

After opening with a group backrub, Moore delivered a morning message on aging with grace, sprinkling lighthearted banter in with biblical verse. "Repeat after me," he urged congregants several times, "There is a huge difference between growing older and getting old."

Meanwhile, Southwest struggled to recover in the months that followed Moore's departure. Many of its staff, including three senior pastors, returned. A transition team of outside pastors and lay leaders ran the church and commissioned an audit.

The audit described a church in chaos, running in the red for five years, unrestrained by fiscal controls and ripe for fraud.

Among the problems documented were annual deficits camouflaged by transfers from the church building fund to the operating budget, lack of accounting procedures and use of pastoral discretionary funds -- earmarked for the needy -- for such items as meals, entertainment and personal clothing.

Church funds were used to reimburse one staffer for membership dues to the Lincoln Club, a Republican political organization, the audit said, and to host "an appreciation dinner for MOL guests," an apparent reference to Moore on Life.

Neither the auditor, certified public accountant Bruce J. Legawiec, nor other church officials mentioned Moore by name. They later confirmed that the audit referred to questionable expenses by several senior staffers, not just Moore. Yet the implication was clear: The freewheeling financial culture emerged under his leadership.

Transition team member Ron Rowell said that church attendance had dropped by 1,000 per weekend -- nearly 30% since Moore's departure. But that evening's bad news fell upon a decidedly upbeat congregation that delivered applause and standing ovations at the mention of the church's remaining pastors and a potential candidate for senior pastor.

The next morning, Moore expressed bewilderment at the revelations by his former church. Annual audits during his tenure as pastor showed the organization in the black, he said, and he scrupulously separated church expenses from the nonprofit. Moore suggested that the audit's results represented an attempt to blame him for management confusion and falling attendance after he left Southwest.

"In their accounting, they have misplaced something," he said. "I had expense accounts from both companies, and I never mixed them."

He said he has shaken off the bitterness of the ordeal but the pain of rejection lingers.

"I gave my life to this ... built it up from nothing, and they threw me away," he said, "And that hurts."

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