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Keeping the Faith and Credibility

After controversy with the last two Foursquare leaders, the church's new president says he hopes to bring a 'fresh breeze of openness.'

September 11, 2004|Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writer

The new president of the Los Angeles-based International Church of the Foursquare Gospel said he wanted to restore a sense of confidence in the leadership of the independent Pentecostal denomination. After all, the past two leaders both left their offices after financial investments resulted in substantial losses for the church.

Jack Hayford, who is preparing to start his five-year presidency Oct. 1, said he hoped to offer "a fresh breeze of openness and communication" and to decentralize church leadership to avoid repeating mistakes.

And beyond finances, he said he wanted to reach more people by less traditional means, ministering in inner-city neighborhoods, bringing in Christian rock bands and holding a tailgate party at the Rose Bowl before the Rev. Billy Graham's crusade there in November.

"The objective of our organization is to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is truly relevant to people today," Hayford said, by "learning to communicate the spiritual dynamic of the 1st century in terms that are perceptible to the 21st century." Hayford, 70, is a lifetime member of Foursquare and founder of its Church on the Way in Van Nuys.

Foursquare claims more than 4 million members in 138 nations, with more than 38,000 churches and meeting places. In the U.S., where Foursquare has 250,000 followers, its stronghold is on the West Coast, with 601 churches and more than 113,000 members in California, officials said.

Founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in Los Angeles in 1923, Foursquare was run for more than 60 years as a family enterprise, said Vinson Synan, dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University in Virginia. McPherson, one of the early 20th century's most successful evangelists, used Hollywood stage props and movie star flamboyance to draw crowds. After her death in 1944, her son Rolf K. McPherson took over as president until 1988.

"When you have such a centralized government, decision-making is not as diffused as it is in other places," said Synan, who has studied Pentecostal movements for about 50 years. "There's not the checks and balances you have in other places."

The following two presidents, John Holland and Paul Risser, each resigned for not following church governance rules in the wake of large financial losses, Foursquare officials said.

"The reality is that there was a very serious misjudgment and a corresponding presumption in the exercise of the decision-making power of the president," Hayford said.

Risser, who served as president from 1998 to earlier this year, lost about $15 million after investing profits from the sale of the church's radio station in what authorities have alleged were two fraudulent investment schemes, according to the church.

Foursquare officials declined to disclose details of the investment losses during Holland's 1988-1997 term.

"It essentially was so similar [to the Risser situation] as to be surprising it would happen again as it did," Hayford said. "It was severe failure at managing according to policies.... The variations would be merely technicalities."

The two last presidents "saw an opportunity that they didn't process according to the guidelines and it was not anything they had a vested interest in for themselves," Hayford added.

Hayford said membership did not decline and donations were not down as a result of the incidents.

Another controversy was spurred by the pastorship of Ed and Ivy Stanton, who were brought in five years ago to help Foursquare's headquarters church in Echo Park grow by using a contemporary style to attract young followers. Their efforts to renovate the landmark Angelus Temple -- built by Aimee Semple McPherson -- drew criticism for going against tradition. The two resigned in 2001.

They were replaced by Matthew Barnett, who was 27 at the time. In 1994, Barnett founded the Dream Center in Echo Park, which was billed as one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. Barnett has been hailed by church leaders for ministering to gangs, prostitutes and transsexuals, among others. The center has been incorporated into Angelus Temple, and Hayford said he sees the future in such urban ministering.

Hayford previously had declined to run for the presidency, busy with his own TV evangelism, book writing and speaking engagements. But Hayford said he is ready now.

"The main reason I feel excited is because I so didn't see this [presidential post] coming and didn't have any desire to do it and I totally believe the hand of God is in it," he said. Hayford, who will co-chair the Billy Graham crusade at the Rose Bowl in November, grew up with exposure to various denominations, including Foursquare, because his parents moved often during the Depression.

"I am perceived as a bridge builder between denominations," Hayford said.

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