EVEN AS HE QUIT yesterday, the minister who built Overlake Christian Church into an evangelical powerhouse maintained that he was innocent "of these horrible, perverted, reprehensible accusations." Meanwhile, his defenders and accusers alike wait for the results of an investigation.
Only when it was over did the clues seem so obvious.
The Rev. Bob Moorehead's sermon yesterday at Overlake Christian Church, entitled "The Blessing of Trials," focused on the persecution of the Apostle Paul and how Paul decided he couldn't take it any longer.
That was followed with a story about migrating cranes, Moorehead noting that when flock leaders tire, others take their place.
But throughout his sermon, the pastor's demeanor - warm, confident, upbeat - betrayed no hint of what was to come.
When the sermon was over, Gary Scott, spokesman for the elders of the giant Redmond church, stepped to the pulpit. In an instant, the other elders flanked Moorehead on stage, and soft organ music began to play.
Suddenly, the morning's tone took a turn.
"In recent months, the spiritual battle has become spiritual nuclear war," Scott told the congregants.
Bob Moorehead's nearly 29 years of selfless service, of impeccable reputation, had been shredded - Scott used the word again and again - by unrelenting attacks by accusers, by "the enemy."
And then, the revelation:
"Bob has determined that it's time for him to turn over the
pulpit to the next generation."
As if they were one body, the churchgoers drew in a breath. "No!" rang out, and tears began to flow. Soon, the sounds of sobs and weeping filled the vast room.
With that simple announcement, John Robert Moorehead ended his tenure as senior pastor of Washington's most-attended church.
Allegations follow Florida arrest
Moorehead built the nondenominational Overlake from a congregation of 75 in 1970 to a megachurch of 6,000 today. With his mixture of Southern charm and scriptural faculty, he became a fixture in the evangelical community, vowing to take the Gospel to every neighborhood in the region.
In recent months, though, Moorehead watched his reputation tarnish deeply and rapidly.
First was the news that he had faced charges of masturbating in a public restroom in Daytona Beach, Fla. - charges of which he was later exonerated but that stirred suspicions among some in his church.
Then, several men publicly alleged that Moorehead had inappropriately touched them in the past, often before weddings or baptisms. One man said he had an ongoing homosexual relationship with Moorehead in the late 1970s and early '80s that had left him, the accuser, emotionally scarred.
The allegations were devastating, particularly given Moorehead's very public position against homosexuality and gay rights.
Although their senior pastor steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, the church elders hired a private investigator to research his past. As the investigator completed his report, Moorehead took as much control as he could: He offered his resignation to the elders April 20, the fourth time this year he offered to step down.
Last Monday night, the elders unanimously accepted. And yesterday morning, they told the congregation and the community.
While avoiding any mention of guilt or innocence, Scott used the occasion to praise Moorehead's contributions to the church.
"We stand with him indebted beyond measure to what he's given," Scott told congregants at both services yesterday. "We stand with him in the pain of his position, and we will continue to stand with him."
`A stumbling block'
Moorehead, 61, left the pulpit as resolutely and defiantly as he had held it for nearly three decades. Christians must expect to go through trials, he told them, and only through faith can they emerge victorious.
After Scott announced the resignation, Moorehead stepped forward again, this time joined by his wife, Glenita, and their children and grandchildren.
Tears streaming down their faces, some of his family touched Moorehead or one another, as if to anchor themselves in a world that had become suddenly surreal.
The gifted preacher he is, Moorehead seized the moment, a teaching moment, to pastor his flock, reaching for the lessons of Scripture even as he prepared to leave a ministry that those close to him say is his life's blood.
"I know that some of you are extremely hurt. I know that some of you are angry," he said. "There are some people you'd like to just get a contract out on - our detractors, the people responsible for this, including the media."
But they can only be won with love and prayers - not by bitterness, he said.
He was resigning not because he is guilty "of these horrible, perverted, reprehensible accusations," he told them. "I am not guilty of any of them - you need to know that."
He was resigning not because of what was in the private investigator's report. "I haven't even read it; the investigator's report is nothing. As far as I'm concerned, my life and my integrity for 41 years says it all," he told the congregation, which responded with a standing ovation.
And he was resigning not because the elders had asked him to. "These men have never shown me anything but abundant love and support."
He was resigning, he told them, because he believed he had become a liability, a hindrance to the mission of the church.
"My credibility in the community has been seriously, seriously damaged," he said. "I have become a stumbling block for the church."
Also, he said, he was resigning for his family. Because of the accusations, he said, his wife, Glenita's, life "has been shredded."
`Don't jump ship, don't bail out'
Ending on a positive note, Moorehead encouraged people to stay with the church.
"Overlake has a great future," he told them. "Listen, sheep: If you have respected my ministry and respected my teachings, don't jump ship, don't bail out, don't run. I believe Overlake's best days are still ahead."
Moorehead told them he would preach next Sunday and then, after taking a vacation with his wife, return to deliver a final sermon June 14.
He didn't know what he will do next, he said. "But my ministry of reaching the lost is not over."
And he told them he was leaving with his head high. "I'm not leaving in shame. I'm leaving in honor. I want you to know that truth and integrity will always win out."
Many left church in tears
Many people left the church in tears. And everyone interviewed expressed faith in the pastor's innocence.
Not all thought he was wrong to step down, however.
"There are people in the community who will always associate his name with the accusations," said Tom Tribble of Kirkland, who has attended Overlake for 10 years. "It's very hard to overcome the stigma."
His wife, Stephanie Tribble, said she blamed detractors with "an agenda" for Moorehead's resignation. "I don't believe he's guilty. We love him. He's a man of integrity."
Even with yesterday's resignation, Moorehead and Overlake still face a significant hurdle: In a service on the evening of May 27, the elders have promised, they will release a summary of the investigator's report - a summary they hope will bring "closure to the cloud" that has hovered over the church.
At least a few of the 13 elders have reviewed pieces of the unfinished report compiled by John Hansen, a former Bellevue police officer. It is not clear whether Moorehead would speak as scheduled on June 14 if the final conclusion of the report is damaging.
"The schedule has been set, and I don't envision May 27 would change that, but who knows," said elder Jim Bennetsen. "Even if the report was not real positive, I think people would still come June 14."
One man who alleged Moorehead groped him during a baptism in 1975 said he does not trust the elders to reveal the findings of the investigation.
"I think every one of them should step down. I have no faith in them," said Gary McLean, who said he was 18 years old when Moorehead touched him. "They've covered up for the last two years."
Many members of the church community have rallied to Moorehead's defense, McLean said.
"There are still thousands of people, and I talked to one of them yesterday, who are convinced it's the media and people like me making all this up," he said. "We have lost acquaintances, people who openly won't talk to us in the grocery store, people who are best friends with our kids."
McLean has met and talked with investigator Hansen. He believes the church should "stand up and give a public apology to my family."
Search for new pastor to begin
The church will now begin searching for a new senior pastor. Moorehead had planned to step down or preach part-time next year, and the succession process has been under way for some time, said Bennetsen. At this point, the church is devising a list of qualifications. In the meantime, several different pastors will conduct services.
"I don't think we'll have a massive split," said Bennetsen. "We're wounded right now, but we'll move on. We're a tight family."
And as they left the church yesterday, Overlake churchgoers agreed that the church will survive and even thrive.
"We are the church, everybody you see here," said Alison Emerson of Bothell. "It's not a building or a person."
And many expect Moorehead to survive, also.
Leaving the church will free the pastor to work more on a national level, Emerson said.
"He will go on to do even greater things than he's ever done on the Eastside," she said. "He'll reel people in for Christ, just like Peter or Paul."
Carol M. Ostrom's phone message number is 206-464-2249. Her e-mail address is: email@example.com.
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--------------------------------- Some reactions to the resignation ---------------------------------
Here's what some people had to say about the Rev. Bob Moorehead's resignation as head pastor of Overlake Christian Church:
`I'm going to miss him. It makes me very sad. But the church will survive. We're founded on God, not on a man.'
Church member from Snohomish.
`In the light of all the revelations that have taken place over the past few years, beginning with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, anytime an accusation surfaces, there's an immediate suspicion and it's guilty until proven innocent. But in the time I've known Bob, I've never seen anything that would lend credence to the accusations against him. They are just not congruent with the man I've known Bob to be.'
The Rev. Richard Gobble.
Christ's Fellowship, Kent, one of eight Overlake daughter churches.
`It really doesn't matter if he's guilty or not. The point is that God will win out. (Moorehead) said: "Bob Mooreheads come and go, but the church of Jesus Christ is eternal." That is the essence of Bob Moorehead.'
Church member from Woodinville.
`I think obviously, he's been targeted by the enemy. Wherever Christ is being proclaimed, people are being persecuted. People are being boiled in oil; people here don't realize that.'
Church member from Snohomish.
`There was no conspiracy. Nothing other than the truth. You can't hide the truth. Sooner or later the truth is going to come out.'
Says Moorehead fondled him in the mid-1970s.
`What the media has done to him - it's tearing him apart. The media is what's hurting him the most. Everybody I've talked to says he didn't do it at all.'
17-year-old Woodinville resident and member of Overlake's youth group.
`The damage done in cases like this is on many levels. There are a lot of people who'll say, "There go those Christians again." There's a sense of being betrayed by religious leaders who stand for a kind of moral power but who cannot live by the morals they promote, a hypocrisy.'
The Rev. Tim Phillips.
University Baptist Church, Seattle.