Honey, I Shrunk the Church
After renouncing founder Herbert W. Armstrong as a false prophet, the Worldwide Church of God is in upheaval. So why is new leader Joseph Tkach, Jr. smiling?
New Times Los Angeles, December 4, 1997
By Ron Russell
Only a small stone marker denotes the final resting place of Herbert W. Armstrong, the one-time advertising salesman who carved out a global religious empire complete with three universities, a magnificent 50-acre headquarters in Pasadena, and legions of followers. So pervasive was his influence that, in the decade since the 94-year-old "prophet" and founder of the Worldwide Church of God died in 1986, the faithful have continued to gather at his grave in Altadena on the anniversary of his death to pray for his resurrection. Yet, these aren't joyous times for Armstrong's flock. Driven by the failure of his end-of-the-world prophecies and shaken by latter-day revelations of his extravagant lifestyle and alleged incest, those once loyal to the man who billed himself as God's modern-day Elijah have fled his church in record numbers. Many have joined splinter groups; others have renounced organized religion.
What makes the implosion of the once-prosperous Worldwide Church of God unusual -- indeed unprecedented in modern American religious life -- is that Armstrong's followers haven't so much abandoned the church as the church's new leaders appear to have abandoned them. Under the stewardship of Joseph Tkach, Jr., a 45-year-old former social worker, Worldwide's leaders have set off a stunning exodus within its ranks by repudiating the revered founder and his most sacrosanct teachings.
But the upheaval that has engulfed the organization involves more than merely doctrinal disputes. Among the many who have left are those who view Tkach and his colleagues as opportunists who've commandeered the religion for personal gain.
"They stole the church!" declares Aaron Dean, a former close aide to Armstrong. Dean belongs to Arcadia-based United Church of God, which claims 18,000 members, making it the largest of dozens of breakaway groups. "If you're ethical and you're someone in power who no longer believes," he says, "you leave and go somewhere else. They've destroyed everything we stood for."
Such suspicions have mushroomed now that the new leaders have begun to dispose of the church's considerable real estate, including pricey spiritual retreats in southern Wisconsin and Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. But in recent months, as they have embarked on a campaign to sell off the church's crown jewels, including even Armstrong's beloved Pasadena "world headquarters," the distrust has become almost palpable.
"I've come to the conclusion that the church under this group exists to perpetuate itself and to make money," says David Covington. Formerly one of Worldwide's top field ministers, he spent 25 years in the organization before resigning last year. Up to three-quarters of Worldwide's former 125,000 members have departed. The church's operating budget, which was $211 million as recently as 1990, has shrunk to $38 million. The church has had to lay off all but about 200 of its 1,200-plus headquarters staff, shut down Ambassador University, its sprawling Texas liberal arts school, and has drastically scaled back its half-century-old Plain Truth magazine. The new regime has even auctioned off the sterling silver Armstrong once used at lavish dinner parties for heads of state and other luminaries.
Ironically, Tkach (pronounced Ta-KOSH) has been hailed as a hero by evangelicals who, until recently, derided Worldwide as a cult. He has jettisoned many of Armstrong's judgmental pronouncements, including his dismissals of Roman Catholicism as "the harlot of Satan" and Protestant religions as "her evil daughters."
Since taking over as Pastor General in 1995 -- upon the death of his father, Joseph W. Tkach, Sr., Armstrong's handpicked successor -- the bearded younger Tkach also has tossed many of the founder's prophetic interpretations into the garbage bin. At the same time, he and other church leaders have softpedaled Armstrong's increasingly well-known personal failings, critics say, for fear of driving away remaining members who still hold the late prophet in high esteem.
Once only whispered among the church's elite, details of Armstrong's controversial and contradictory lifestyle have become widely disseminated as more of his followers, including numerous formerly high-ranking church officials, have exited the organization. The revelations include his alleged 10-year incestuous relationship with one of his daughters during the church's formative early days and his lengthy tolerance for the sexual escapades of his flamboyant evangelist son -- and onetime heir apparent -- Garner Ted Armstrong.1
"They still prop this man up and say good things about him, even though they've thrown out all that he taught," says ex-member Ed Mentell, who operates a dissident website called The Painful Truth.2 "Their whole basis for existing as a church is based on him [Herbert W. Armstrong]," he says. "If you take [him] away, they all fall, and they know it."
The doctrinal reversals over which Tkach has presided, including acceptance of the Trinity and observance of Christmas and Easter, have been aimed at steering the church toward the mainstream. As a result, the energetic leader has become the darling of conservative religious talk shows. And his book, Transformed By Truth, which purports to tell "the inside story" of the church's rejection of Armstrong's theology, is a smash hit in some theological circles.
Radio host and nationally prominent Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy3 compares the changes to those of the Protestant Reformation. John R. Holland, head of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (founded by the legendary Aimee Semple McPherson) calls the transformation "one of the great miracles" of the century. In a milestone, the National Association of Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in May to welcome Worldwide into the fold after an examination of its new teachings.4
All of this has infuriated longtime Armstrong loyalists, many of whom sacrificed years and huge portions of their incomes to Worldwide under his strict tithing requirements. Cracks one ex-member: "If anything, [Tkach] should have called his book, Honey, I Shrunk the Church."
For many current and former Worldwide members, the headquarters -- with its splendid Ambassador Auditorium and other buildings set among lush gardens and gurgling fountains -- is hallowed ground.
It was there that Armstrong said God had led him in the 1940s, when the preacher came to Los Angeles from Oregon searching for a permanent home for his fledgling ministry. Generations of church offspring were sent there to attend now-defunct Ambassador College. From sound studios on the campus, Herbert and, later, his famous son, delivered The World Tomorrow radio and television broadcasts, giving the church impact -- and an image -- far in excess of its size. "It's more than simply a piece of real estate," says David Hulme, one of Armstrong's former lieutenants and co-founder of the United Church of God. "It's a symbol of a religious heritage and a way of life."
Real estate sources say the campus, which faces upscale Orange Grove Boulevard and is within view of the Norton Simon Museum, could sell for between $100 million and $150 million. Among those rumored to have expressed interest are the DreamWorks studios, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a major area university interested in its possible use as a satellite campus. Meanwhile, sources say the church is close to selling the former Ambassador University, 100 miles east of Dallas near the East Texas community of Big Sandy, for about $30 million. "It's practically a fire sale," says a source familiar with the negotiations, "but then you've got to remember, it is in the middle of nowhere." The prospective buyer, a politically ultra-conservative investor group, intends to open a military college on the site that it says will compete with The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute.5
Worldwide's leaders have said that they have little choice but to dispose of the properties, since the church can no longer afford to maintain them. Upkeep of the headquarters alone is reputedly $8 million a year. But the leadership has been vague about how such a potentially huge windfall might be spent, while conducting its financial affairs in secrecy. And that has raised the ire of Armstrong loyalists, who, under the founder's regime, shelled out up to 30 percent of their personal incomes to pay for everything the church owns.
Under Tkach, Jr., the church's finances have become so precarious that rumors have circulated even among its employees that unless it is able to sell one of the properties soon, Worldwide faces bankruptcy. "Reading their monthly financial reports is a little like reading the medical chart updates for a terminally ill hospital patient," says ex-member and Worldwide critic John Trechak.6 "It isn't pretty."
Despite Tkach's early pledge to promote openness and loosen the dictatorial grip for which Armstrong was famous, the leaders have resisted calls for financial disclosure. Among other things, they've refused to reveal their own salaries and perquisites. A former high-ranking church official says that Tkach's compensation package exceeds $300,000, including a hefty raise he reportedly was given even as plans were being drawn up to lay off staffers. His chief aides include Greg R. Albrecht, the church's second-in-command and its public relations director, treasurer Bernard Schnippert, and J. Michael Feazell, an assistant to the Pastor General. Tkach and Albrecht declined numerous requests for interviews. After calls to Schnippert and Feazell went unreturned, Albrecht, the public relations chief, told New Times that neither they nor any other church officials would make themselves available for comment.
Not until January of this year did the Tkach team and its outside accountants complete a legally required audit of church finances for 1995. The leadership then declined to publish it, with Schnippert declaring in a message to the faithful that the audit was "so late as to be almost irrelevant to our current financial7 picture."
The leaders also refused to publish the church's bylaws until a smuggled copy turned up on the Internet last year. Afterward, the church printed the document in its monthly newsletter. The bylaws confirmed what doubters had long suspected -- that Tkach, as head of the church, wields virtually absolute financial authority. Not only does the title of Pastor General denote his eminence in spiritual matters, but as chairman of the church's board of directors, he possesses the extraordinary power to appoint or remove other board members "at any time, with or without cause or notice."
More troubling to some, however, is an obscure document drawn up in June, 1987, the year after the church patriarch's death, and during the administration of Tkach's father. The document, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, amends the terms under which church assets may be distributed in the event that Worldwide ceases to exist. Should that occur, once outstanding debts are paid, the amendment gives the Pastor General exclusive ability to control the assets and to assign them to an entity of his choice.
"That's why [the leadership] has been careful to retain a hierarchical as opposed to a congregational structure," says Covington, the ex-Worldwide minister. "They know that if it all comes apart, they can divvy up the goodies to benefit themselves and not have to worry about the little people in the congregations."
The leadership has also raised eyebrows by organizing Plain Truth Ministries, Inc. as a corporate entity distinct from Worldwide. Tkach is its president. The ubiquitous Plain Truth magazine, long distributed for free as an extension of Armstrong theology, now is sold by subscription and contains ads for books, videos, and even diet plans. (Indicative of the softer fare is a recent article: "Up Close and Personal with Pat Boone.")
"They're clearly interested in [the magazine] as a revenue-generating tool to coincide with the shift toward evangelical acceptance," says Phillip Arnn, head of Texas-based Watchman Fellowship, a counter-cult group. "My hunch is that Joe Jr. has determined that's where the market is."
The first hint to the public that trouble was brewing at Worldwide came in January, 1995, with the stunning announcement that the acclaimed concert series at Ambassador Auditorium would be discontinued.
The 1,200-seat hall was built as a kind of personal shrine to Armstrong. At its opening in 1974, he had compared it, with characteristic modesty, to the Parthenon. Praised for its stellar acoustics, the glimmering edifice soaring above an enormous reflecting pool had for two decades showcased the world's most distinguished musical artists, from Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.
Its pinkish lobby walls were said to have used up Turkey's entire export quota of rose onyx for a year. A backstage elevator had been installed ahead of schedule so that tenor Luciano Pavarotti wouldn't have to climb the stairs from the dressing room to the stage. An electric eye was put in the same elevator so that Mstislav Rostropovich wouldn't worry that his cello would be smashed by the closing door. It was, quite simply, "a fabulous hall, the best that money can buy," Yugoslav pianist Ivo Pogorelich once declared.
And then, suddenly, there was no money to underwrite its performances.
The church, through its performing arts foundation, had subsidized half the overhead -- $2.5 million a year. Rocked by defections as a result of changes that had already begun to take place under Tkach, Sr., it could no longer afford to pick up the tab.
(At times, the arts and the church were a difficult mix. Artists were discouraged from doing anything that might offend delicate moral sensibilities, as well as from playing certain kinds of sacred music. A production of Tosca once had to proceed with all Catholic artifacts removed from the scenery. Armstrong had even decreed that there was to be no box office on the grounds, making it necessary to buy tickets in a nearby office building.)
But there was more.
As it turns out, the foundation had routinely taped the Ambassador performances, compiling a treasure trove of commercial-quality audio and videotapes of nearly every concert ever held there. Many are considered priceless -- performances by Ray Charles, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughn, and countless others. There were rare tapes of the Kirov Ballet's 1986 appearance, its first in the United States in more than 20 years, and the Julliard String Quartet's traversal of the complete Beethoven quartets.
"It's an astounding collection," says Richard Koprowski, assistant archivist at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, which offered to store the recordings free of charge on the church's behalf. The archive, home to more than 200,000 recordings, is one of the few facilities in the nation equipped to handle such a collection. (Officials at the Huntington Library in San Marino had considered offering to help, but decided that they had neither the space nor the expertise.) After first indicating they would accept Stanford's offer, however, church officials changed their minds, leaving the highly sensitive and presumably deteriorating recordings in limbo. Until recently, at least, former insiders say, the tapes were stacked floor-to-ceiling in about 1,000 boxes inside two small rooms on the Pasadena campus. Koprowski and others say that the delicate and aging recordings are probably in need of special restorative treatment to prevent them from becoming worthless, something that the archive offered to do at its own expense. "Our thinking was and is that it would be an unforgivable thing for a resource such as this to perish," Koprowski says.
The Stanford archive does possess 20 of the estimated 2,000 recordings made at Ambassador, but only because they were outside the church's control. Koprowski says that while making room for more storage space in 1994, an employee at KUSC-FM came across the tapes, part of a series that the station had produced in the 1970s for National Public Radio (with opera star Beverly Sills as host) called "Live from Ambassador." The station donated them to Stanford.
The foundation's last acting director, ex-church member B. Douglas Russell, says that before he departed last December, church leaders had discussed destroying the tapes. "They talked about it, and I had the clear impression they would have, except that there were legal considerations that may have made it quite costly," he says. At the time the church was considering letting Stanford store them, Russell says, the materials were "scattered over the campus, some of them in a tin building, others in vacant student housing. Some of it I know was already water-damaged. Very little of it had been kept under what I'd call acceptable environmental conditions."
He sees the church leaders' apparent lack of interest in the tapes as another rejection of Armstrongism. "Within the culture of the church, these men had discussed Ambassador as an embarrassment and a huge waste of money," he says. "Am I surprised that they seem content to let these recordings wither away? No."
A small, portly man with a baritone voice and beaming smile, Herbert Armstrong exuded personal magnetism. The son of Quaker parents, he had bounced from one failed business venture to another in his youth. He reportedly became interested in the scriptures after his wife, Loma, experienced a "miraculous" healing. After announcing in 1933 that God had chosen him as his personal messenger, he scraped up enough money to buy airtime in Eugene, Oregon, and the Radio Church of God8 was born.
Over the next five decades, the salesman-turned-prophet became known to millions of Americans with his The World Tomorrow broadcasts on radio, and later TV.
His ministry didn't take off, however, until he cracked the L.A. airwaves during World War II. Soon he was able to buy what became the centerpiece of his empire -- the Pasadena estate that had once belonged to the brother-in-law of Cyrus Hall McCormick, inventor of the reaper. As the membership grew, money came pouring in from triple tithes: Members were required to contribute 10 percent of their incomes, spend 10 percent on celebrating the biblical Feast of Tabernacles each fall, and -- two of every seven years -- donate another 10 percent to the church for "charitable works."
Then, in the '70s, the church was wracked by upheaval that, similar to today, threatened its existence.
The sand in the prophet's hourglass was empty. He had long taught that three years in advance of the global destruction he had predicted would occur in 1975, church members would begin to be transported to the Middle Eastern desert city of Petra (in present-day Jordan) for their own protection. But the time to depart passed uneventfully, and the faithful, including some with bags packed, were disappointed. ("Some of us...had speculated that Mr. Armstrong and the church leaders would stay in the big hotel on the outskirts of town and that the rest of us would wait things out in the caves nearby," scoffs a former church member.)
Meanwhile, defectors from the inner-circle began to leak information about Armstrong's lavish lifestyle, his profligate spending on travel and entertainment. They also complained about feather-bedding by Armstrong relatives and other hangers-on, some of whom had received lucrative personal services contracts for doing little or nothing.9 (In 1979, California placed the church under receivership over charges of financial irregularities. But the state investigation was dropped after the church persuaded the Legislature to prohibit the attorney general from investigating religious organizations in such cases.)
Besides a fashionable home in Pasadena, Armstrong had a country estate in Texas and a Victorian house on the outskirts of London, near the church's Brickett Wood [Bricket Wood] college campus. He and Garner Ted Armstrong each had church-provided jets and traveled frequently. In fact, Herbert's globe-trotting became the stuff of legend. Gone for up to nine months a year, he glad-handed an incredible array of world leaders, from Japanese prime ministers and the leaders of China, Europe, and the Middle East, to heads of state in Africa and Latin America.
Doling out expensive crystal-figurine mementos as if they were chocolate bars, Armstrong proclaimed the courting of dignitaries part of his mission that was ordained by God. Others saw it as the world's most expensive autograph hunt. Although many of his followers were of modest means, he used their tithe money to lavish gifts on the rich and powerful. He once bought an introduction to Prince Charles with a charitable contribution to the Royal Opera House in London. Another time, he gave a huge sum to USC in exchange for the university's establishing -- of all things -- the Herbert W. Armstrong Professorship of Constitutional Law.
Relatives were said to be routinely using the church's corporate credit cards for personal expenses. Armstrong had the habit of carrying at least $10,000 in cash each time out, which he often passed out as "fun money" to those around him. On a whim, he once spent $30,000 to rent a yacht in Monte Carlo. Another time, according to a former insider, he flew to London for the sole purpose of buying a specially made prosthetic sex toy, which he reportedly carried in a Hermes pouch. Over lunch at the Pastor General's home in England, Alfred Carrozo, a former high-ranking church minister, recalls Armstrong once picking up some salt and pepper shakers and casually remarking that he had paid $12,000 for them.
The thing that drove Carrozo and others to leave, however, was the leader's double standard regarding his own edicts. In accord with Armstrong teaching, church members could visit doctors to obtain a diagnosis, but not (except in a few special cases) receive treatment. "As a pastor in the field, I had seen people die [for lack of medical attention]," Carrozo recalls. "And yet, as I came to find out, whenever he [HWA] became ill, he would slip away to a doctor for treatment."10 But such matters paled compared to another secret.
According to former church officials, and the founder's own grandson, Richard David Armstrong II, Herbert's younger daughter, Dorothy, began to tell family and friends during the '70s that, years earlier, her father had molested her. John Tuit, an ex-church member living in North Carolina, recalls Garner Ted Armstrong telling him of his sister's startling revelation and that Herbert had not denied it when his son confronted him.
The allegation surfaced publicly in a book written by David Robinson, a former Worldwide minister in Oklahoma.11 The church tried unsuccessfully to suppress it. Robinson recounted a bizarre late-night conversation with the then-widowed Herbert during a church festival in the Poconos. Armstrong, who had been drinking, was alleged to have confessed to Robinson that he had molested his daughter between 1933 and 1943. Then, to the astonishment of the younger minister, Armstrong was said to have produced a small black book in which he had carefully documented the many times he had masturbated, a practice he had frequently railed against from the pulpit. "It was a shattering experience for my dad," says Mark Robinson, a Dallas-area businessman, whose father died in 1995. "Until then, he had no reason to doubt Mr. Armstrong's spirituality."
The issue arose again in 1984, during divorce proceedings between Armstrong and his second wife, Ramona Martin, a former switchboard operator 46 years his junior. The breakup, after seven years of marriage, was nasty. Armstrong, playing hardball, had accused her of stealing church property and was pressing criminal charges while refusing to bend to Ramona's demands for a large settlement, including a large amount of cash and the couple's sprawling ranch-style home in Tucson, Arizona. Until, that is, shortly before a court hearing at which her lawyers had threatened to introduce a purported "understanding" between Herbert and his wife regarding the alleged incest. The divorce was quickly settled to Ramona's satisfaction, and the criminal charges were dropped.
Although damaging, the fallout from such disclosures didn't debilitate Worldwide for as long as Herbert was alive. The amicable and grandfatherly Armstrong continued to enjoy the adoration of rank-and-file members. Among those who heard about his shortcomings, many chose not to believe. "You blocked those kinds of things from your mind," recalls Joyce Renehan, who grew up in the church. (She and her husband, Bruce, left in the early '90s). "You might see a newspaper headline, but you were told not to read that stuff or Satan would get you and you'd be out of the church, and then where would you be?"
The reported high jinks of the younger Armstrong, however, became more difficult to dismiss. Handsome and charismatic, Ted (as he is known to friends) had, by the early '70s, eclipsed Herbert as the voice of The World Tomorrow, and, in the absence of his jet-setting father, was essentially running the organization. The younger of the Armstrong boys (his brother Richard had died in a car crash12), Ted had rebelled against church beliefs as a young man. In the Navy he had gained a reputation as a ladies' man and had returned from the Korean War with tattoos of naked women on his arms and legs. Some recall that he yearned to be an actor.
Instead, he married the daughter of a well-to-do church member, began raising a family, and settled on a career in his father's footsteps. It was widely assumed that someday the church would be his. If there were any who doubted it, they were confined to a few in the hierarchy who became aware of his alleged extramarital affairs. The word had leaked out during the 1960s, the result of a minister having been caught having sex with an Ambassador College coed. It was a big scandal on a campus where Herbert had forbidden girls to wear makeup and where holding hands was a punishable offense. Before being excommunicated, the fallen minister let it slip that Ted had also slept around.
His comments prompted Carrozo [Al Carrozzo], then dean of students, to conduct his own investigation, which convinced him that it was true. Among Ted's avowed conquests were dozens of wide-eyed college women, including some who became ministers' wives, Carrozo says -- adding that he shared his knowledge with a superior who told him that Ted had been fooling around for years and that Herbert had given up trying to do anything about it. Much later, the former dean says, he confronted Ted after listening incredulously to a distraught young married woman confess to committing a carnal sin. After much hesitation, she declared that the younger Armstrong had seduced her. "He admitted it," says Carrozo. "Then, I'll never forget, he said: 'Put me behind bars, slip my food to me, keep me in solitary confinement, but just don't take my microphone away because I must preach the message God has given me.'"
When Ted later began to flaunt an affair with a stewardess assigned to his jet, however, the elder Armstrong could no longer afford to look the other way and temporarily removed him from the TV and radio broadcasts.
Hoping that Ted could repair his marriage away from the media glare, former insiders say, Herbert packed him off to Hawaii with his wife and a bodyguard, whose job was to keep the errant younger Armstrong out of trouble. But a soap opera then ensued. Word got back to church headquarters that Ted had turned up in a massage parlor. Worse, the masseuse who was supposed to attend him had been reduced to tears. Seems the woman had been trying to turn her life around and, incredibly, had recognized her client as the man whose TV sermons had inspired her.
After being expelled by his father in 1978 following an alleged plot by some in the elderly Herbert's inner-circle to discredit him, Ted moved to Texas and founded his own religious group, the Church of God, International. But little appears to have changed. Nearly half of International's 5,000 members have quit since 1995, when a hidden video camera caught a naked and masturbating Armstrong soliciting sex from a Tyler, Texas, masseuse. She contends he had previously sexually assaulted her. Her lawsuit against him is pending.
Never in their wildest dreams did some of Joe Tkach, Jr.'s childhood friends imagine that he would someday claim the office occupied by the legendary Herbert Armstrong. But there's no lack of understanding about how it happened.
His father gave it to him.
"There was really never any doubt about that," says Clarke Hockwald, who grew up with the Pastor General and remains a friend, even though he and his wife, Elaine, left the church years ago.
It was already well understood that Joe Jr. would be the church's new leader when, three weeks before his 68-year-old father died of cancer in September, 1995, the elder Tkach called a dozen of the church's most influential ministers to his home to announce that his son would succeed him. The news elicited none of the astonishment that had swept through the church nine years earlier, when, before Armstrong's death, the founder had announced that the elder Tkach would be his successor. A former aircraft factory foreman from Chicago, Tkach, Sr., while widely respected, possessed none of Armstrong's charisma and was not even considered a top lieutenant. But he was known as a loyalist, and many believe the dying founder wanted to leave the church in the hands of someone who wouldn't tinker with it.
But Tkach, Sr. did just that.
Prodded by his son and others, he lifted the requirement that members tithe and observe the Sabbath, and began to emphasize salvation through the grace of God as opposed to Armstrong's emphasis on good deeds. Schnippert and Feazell, among the church's current inner-circle, quietly began attending classes at the independent evangelical Azusa Pacific University and, former insiders say, became enamored of ideas that were anathema to Armstrong's teachings, many of which challenged mainstream religious beliefs.
Armstrong had taught, for instance, that England and the United States constituted two of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, that a revitalized Germany would rise up and threaten the world with nuclear destruction, and that Old Testament dietary rules forbidding the eating of unclean meats should still be in force. According to him, Christ would return and give members of the church instant and exclusive immortality so that they could help rule the universe.
Not only did the new conformity with traditional evangelical doctrines roil many in the church but so did the manner in which the changes were introduced. Tkach, Sr. and those around him repeatedly denied rumors of impending doctrinal shifts, even accusing detractors of spreading lies, only to later institute the changes that had prompted the denials. A doctrinal committee ostensibly under the Pastor General's leadership was riven with so much dissension that it ceased to meet.
Hulme, the United Church of God co-founder, says he had a conversation with the elder Tkach three years before he died and that the former leader told him that significant further changes were in store, but that he intended to keep them under wraps for at least five years, lest they set off a fire-storm within the organization. "It became apparent to me over time that they were going in a direction that was different than what many within the church were being led to believe," Hulme says.
Several prominent Worldwide ministers had already rebelled. In 1989, Oklahoma minister Gerald Flurry established the Philadelphia Church of God, with about 5,000 members. And in 1992, Rod Meredith, once one of Armstrong's top aides, whom many had assumed would succeed him, formed the Global Church of God,13 headquartered in San Diego, siphoning off another 12,000 of Armstrong's followers. But the formation of United in 1995 proved to be a major blow to the church's efforts to stem the flow of members and money. Among United's directors were six of the 14 Worldwide regional pastors who had jurisdiction over nearly half of its local congregations in the United States.
While basking in the glow of acceptance from evangelicals and others, Tkach, Jr., officially at least, has remained optimistic about his church, even as membership has continued to dwindle and revenues have largely dried up.
"My secret desire is that, as time continues, God is going to open the minds and hearts of all these people who were formerly with us in these splinter groups to see the truth,"14 he told the Associated Press in June.
Associates who have left the church and have spurned Tkach's efforts to get them to return say the Pastor General has complained privately that not a week passes that he doesn't get angry calls or letters, and that he and his wife, Tammy, have been threatened with injury several times. "Joe is by far the most benign of the leaders Worldwide has had, and I still consider him a friend," says one former member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "but sometimes life requires more than not being as bad as your predecessors."
Tom Carrozo, the son of Alfred Carrozo [Corrozzo], who grew up with Tkach, insists that the church's current leaders face an insurmountable problem if they're sincere in wanting to put Worldwide back together. "Religions deal with foundational principles that are supposedly immutable," he says. "Once they become mutable, and you've cut out the foundation of the belief system, as Joe Jr. and the others have done, what do you have left?"
Indeed, Tkach in recent months has appeared close to reversing field once again with respect to at least one major doctrinal change. In a pastoral letter in January, he chastened members who "in the area of tithes...have decided to forsake their responsibility to God and to the church."
Other moves, meanwhile, have flopped.
Compared to the nine million copies of the Plain Truth published monthly in several languages during the Armstrong era, the revamped magazine has been slow to take hold. Sources say it has fewer than 100,000 subscribers. In a bid to ramp up circulation, sources say, the church has resorted to giving it away to members who are unable, or unwilling, to pay for it."15
The transition was so poorly thought out," says one ex-member, "that if this had been a Fortune 500 company, Joe Jr. and his friends would have been fired a long time ago." Bob Ellsworth, who left Worldwide in the '70s and still claims friends there, puts it another way: "Herbert Armstrong knew that his people liked Rocky Road. These guys stumbled out there and brought home vanilla."
NOTE: The following updates, footnotes, and links have been added by ESN:
UPDATE: In November 2004, the Worldwide Church of God moved it's headquarters from Pasadena to Glendora, California, (Pasadena Star-News, October 25, 2004). By May 2006 all their offices were moved to Glendora. (Together, May-June 2006). In 2006 they were considering a name change. In April 2009 Worldwide Church of God changed their name in the United States to Grace Communion International. (Some local church areas and countries may still carry the former name or a different one.)
2 While the Painful Truth posted much information exposing Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God after the new doctrinal changes, they are clearly an atheist website and link to the same.
3 D. James Kennedy died September 5, 2007 at the age of 76. Few are aware that Kennedy was a member of the CNP (Council for National Policy). Much more on the Council for National Policy (founded in 1981), plus a list of members, can be found in this offsite report and in the exposé: Let's Focus in on "Focus on the Family" by former FOTF employee Randy Shafer.
4 The radically liberal NCC (National Council of Churches) and WCC (World Council of Churches) can now join the NAE.
5 WCG sold the Ambassador College Big Sandy campus to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in March 2000, who then leased the campus to Bill Gothard, president of Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Gothard bought all the property in the buildings. (Calvary Contender, May 15, 2000) For an in-depth exposé on Bill Gothard and his pharisaical, cultic "system," read: Bill Gothard.
6 John Trechak was editor of the Ambassador Report (originally called Ambassador Review and first published in 1976). He died September 2, 1999. (Note: The AR is now posted on an atheist website.)
8 Radio Church of God was renamed Worldwide Church of God in 1968.
9 Also read: Jack Kessler's 1981 Letter to WCG Board of Directors (This letter exposed the evil of the continuing, persistent financial abuses and shocking moral depravity which were taking place in the Worldwide Church of God headquarters. Also covers Tkach, Sr. stealing $5,000 as a "needy church member.")
10 Charles Hunting, former Worldwide Church of God evangelist, admitted that HWA "had doctors around him all the time." (The Clyde Thomas Show, WKIS, Orlando, FL, 1988)
12 Richard David Armstrong died of shock in July 1958, due to lack of medical treatment after the car crash. J. Vernon McGee talked about this incident on one of his radio programs in the 60's. Read the segment on Richard Armstrong death in The World of Fairyland: The World Tomorrow and ESN's comments at end for more details.
14 As of 2005, there are hundreds of splits from the Worldwide Church of God, all holding to some form of Armstrongism (not all are considered destructive cults).
15 Today WCG has placed a price on Plain Truth Magazine, although one complimentary free issue is mailed out to new subscribers. UPDATE 2010: One can receive a "free one-year subscription" but after the year is up, the only way you can keep receiving the magazine is if you become a contributor to Plain Truth Ministries by sending a minimum annual gift of $10.