The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Pastor

Special to The Times

As senior pastor of Southwest Community Church, one of the largest Christian churches in the Coachella Valley, David Moore offered a blueprint for the moral life, schooling his congregation on such topics as the value of marriage and commitment, and broadcasting those messages to Christian radio audiences throughout the country.

But his pastorate crumbled on what some see as the shaky foundation of his own conduct, after nude photos of Moore, his wife and a married female parishioner in a hot tub surfaced during the woman's recent custody battle.

Moore, 49, resigned as pastor in November, as parishioners took sides, the church board disbanded and half the staff quit, although many subsequently returned.

"I grieve over this church and the pain I've brought the people of Southwest by a few minutes in a spa three years ago," he apologized in a written statement to parishioners. "A trust has been broken, and that's my fault."

Moore also left financial questions in the wake of his departure. Both the church and an affiliated nonprofit organization are now conducting audits, officials said, and Riverside County sheriff's detectives are investigating documents from the ministries.

Moore, whose mother died of cancer in early December, did not answer phone calls. But in an e-mail interview, he denied any personal or financial wrongdoing.

"I agreed to resign as the senior pastor of Southwest Community Church because I thought it would be in the best interest of Southwest, not because we have anything to hide," he wrote.

Moore joined the church as pastor 14 years ago, leading what was then a small congregation in Palm Desert through its expansion into a $36-million complex on 42 acres in the adjacent city Indian Wells.

Colleagues describe Moore as a charismatic speaker who attracted congregants with his knack for translating biblical verse into tangible terms.

"He was a very entertaining speaker who can capture and maintain your attention," Dan Perkins, an associate pastor at Southwest, said. "People were drawn here because of Dave, and it helped all of our ministries."

The congregation grew to about 1,200 official members, with more than 10 times that many on the church mailing list. As many as 3,500 parishioners sometimes attend services, Perkins said.

Moore also broadcast his sermons on Christian radio stations in major cities including Los Angeles, New York and Washington. He sold cassettes and videotapes of his talks through a nonprofit called Moore on Life.

As No. 1 among its "top 10 resources," the company's Web site lists Moore's "Love for a Lifetime" series, which includes tapes on "How to Keep the Fire Burning" and "The Anatomy of an Affair." Moore and his wife, Sonya, also taped a video describing their faith, love and marriage.

So parishioners were stunned when photos began circulating last fall of the couple soaking nude in a hot tub along with a married woman who is a member of the parish. A letter by Steve Highfill, district superintendent of Southwest's denomination, the Evangelical Free Church, states that the photos were taken three years ago by the parishioner's husband.

In court records of the couple's recent custody battle, the husband, who is the president of a local development firm, alleged that the photos portrayed an adulterous affair between his wife and Moore.

In another document, he stated that he and his wife had "indulged in an improper adult-type relationship with another couple," adding: "As to the pictures, all four of us took them -- it's no secret."

In an e-mail response to The Times, Moore described those allegations as "serious, false accusations."

"It's sad to consider the repercussions of an innocent indiscretion related to some photographs taken three years ago," he wrote. "We asked for God's forgiveness three years ago and agreed that this would never happen again. After Sonya and her girlfriend destroyed the pictures, it's unfortunate that someone made a secret copy to bring sorrow and shame."

Highfill also asserted that after discussions with Moore, his board and multiple witnesses, "I remain satisfied that no credible evidence of an adulterous relationship exists."

But Highfill said that even in the absence of adultery, the photos show Moore falling short of a pastor's responsibility to honor marriage, and maintain self-control, respectability and discipline. The photos, he said in an e-mail interview, "represented a progression of compromises, and could not be dismissed as a few minutes of indiscretion."

Jerome Baggett, an assistant professor of sociology and religion at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, said clergy members are often highly respected "but we're also secular Americans, and fairness trumps, and propriety trumps, and nobody is above the law and the need to act in appropriate ways."

Religious scholars said that while the hot tub photos depict a consensual gathering among adults, they nonetheless represent an abuse of pastoral power.

"The pastor always has more power in relationships than parishioners.... The pastor is always the one responsible for maintaining boundaries," said the Rev. Joretta Marshall, academic dean and professor of pastoral theology and care at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.

Since Moore's departure, most of the departed staff have returned, including three associate pastors. The church is conducting an annual audit. And a transition team of five evangelical church leaders will help lead the church in coming months.

Although Moore on Life formerly aired over the national Christian radio network of Salem Communications, the organization stopped the program on Oct. 31, said Salem Vice President Roger Kemp. The Moore on Life Web site announced that it will now air messages exclusively over the Internet and also undergo an audit.

Riverside County sheriff's detectives are likely to take months examining a box of documents regarding Moore's ministry, said sheriff's spokeswoman Shelley Kennedy-Smith.

Moore plans to undergo a process of "discipline and restoration" under the guidance of church elders and pastors from the Evangelical Free Church, which may eventually restore his ministerial credentials, Highfill said.

While some church members expressed outrage at Moore's conduct, others viewed him as a fallible but gifted preacher worthy of a second chance. Still others mourned the end of his ministry but backed his resignation.

"He's drawn a lot of people to the church and is an inspiration," said Deanna Young, a Palm Desert resident and 11-year member of the church.

Nonetheless, she said, she believes he resigned correctly after failing the moral principles he preached.

"He disqualified himself, and it's unfortunate, because a lot of people are having to do a reassessment of what they were receiving from the church and realizing that they can't look to a person, they have to look to God."

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