The international head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, dogged by questions about his financial ties to a Sacramento investor, resigned his post Monday after nearly a decade at the top of the 10-million-member church.
Robert S. Folkenberg, the son of missionary parents and president of the fast-growing denomination since 1990, told associates that the controversy over his financial dealings was "detracting from God's work."
Folkenberg, 58, had become entangled in a messy lawsuit filed last August by Sacramento businessman James E. Moore, who alleges that Folkenberg and other Adventist officials cheated him and a charitable trust out of $8 million in promissory notes in a land deal in El Dorado County.
"He was visibly shaking," said Mario Ochoa, a top executive with the Adventist relief agency, describing Folkenberg as he made his announcement Monday during a specially called meeting at the church's world headquarters in suburban Washington, D.C.
"I think everybody listening had a sense of sadness over this whole thing, but we respect his motivation. He said it was for the good of the church," Ochoa said. "What he did made sense."
The church's executive committee secretary, G. Ralph Thompson, was named acting president until a permanent replacement can be agreed upon in March.
Church officials were reluctant to discuss possible successors Monday, but several familiar with the process said there was support for picking a leader who would head the church through its already-scheduled elections in 2000 and then agree to step down. Many of the church's leaders have hailed from Loma Linda, where the Adventists have a particularly strong membership base and run a hospital and medical school.
Starting in the early 1990s, Folkenberg and Moore were partners in the controversial land deal, and the church president made clear in dozens of hours of taped phone conversations with Moore--before the lawsuit--that he felt badly about his involvement.
In one conversation, according to sources, Folkenberg said he had "asked the Lord for forgiveness so many times. . . . The Lord knows I've told him I regret having taken a nickel."
Folkenberg also expressed concern about losing his job or possibly facing legal trouble if his business dealings were exposed. He discussed at length ways in which he might repay the debt--some of which Folkenberg acknowledged posed a conflict of interest with his church duties.
Moore has said he taped the conversations with Folkenberg's signed consent, but lawyers for Folkenberg and the church maintain that the tapes were made illegally without the church president's knowledge.
Church officials have also attacked Moore's integrity, pointing to his bankruptcy and his 1989 conviction and imprisonment for theft in an unrelated investment deal.
But the allegations were damaging enough that church elders from around the world flew to Washington last month for a specially convened session to weigh Folkenberg's future.
After three days of meetings, the matter was passed on to another committee for discussion on March 1. Speculation continued to mount that Folkenberg might step down first, and he made it official Monday morning.
Acknowledging "mistakes" in his dealings with Moore, Folkenberg said in a statement that "to avoid additional pain and conflict to my family and the church I love, I am removing myself from the controversy by tendering my resignation."
Folkenberg's nine-year tenure was often an erratic one.
He oversaw tremendous growth in overseas membership, often achieved through aggressive proselytizing. And the church credited him Monday with "the effective blending of cutting-edge technology and evangelism," in part through the use of use satellite broadcasts and the Internet.
But even before the Moore lawsuit, he was faced with several controversies that tested his hold over the evangelical denomination.
Soon after taking over the church, he and a top aide had to apologize for having accepted tens of thousands of dollars in salaries for questionable jobs for their wives, provided through anonymous donations.
And the Adventists' fired treasurer, who unleashed a barrage of allegations against the church in a 1995 lawsuit, accused Folkenberg of mismanagement, nepotism and financial conflicts of interest. That suit is still pending in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Ochoa, the relief-agency executive, said the Adventists will ride out the storm.
"As Adventists, we have a certain approach to these difficulties as a test of our faith. These tests are here for a purpose," Ochoa said. "We just pray the Lord will be with us. That's the attitude now."