Misbehavior among top church stories

Column by Kevin Eigelbach

Cincinnati Post 12/28/2006

It's time again to review the top local religion stories of the year, as determined by our panel of experts - that is, me.

Everyone loves a scandal, and religious leaders gave us more than their share this year.

In February, the Rev. Larry Davis, former pastor of the First Baptist Church in Cold Spring, Ky., was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for tax evasion and defrauding a bank.

Davis admitted stealing at least $500,000 from the church, presumably to feed a gambling habit. But sometime in late 2008, look for Davis to resume his role as pastor, possibly with former First Baptist members who've remained loyal.

After all, we live in the land of second chances, and Davis knows how to pastor. He gives great sermons, he dreams big and he's there for the members when they need him.

Who better to aid believers in their struggle against sin than one who so obviously failed? Davis' fate reminds us that church leaders fail just as leaders do in the business world or in politics - it just looks worse.

He wasn't the only one.

In July, Garry Unthank, former basketball coach for the Community Christian Academy in Independence, pleaded guilty to having sex with a 15-year-old player. Her parents and those of another girl who says Unthank assaulted her are pursuing a lawsuit against the Community Pentecostal Church, which owns the school.

Lori Eubanks, mother of one of the girls, said she planned to move her family from Independence because of harassment she received from the community.

The church tried to cover up what was going on in much the same way the Roman Catholic Church covered up abuse by priests, her attorney said.

It's an all-too typical reaction to scandal in the sanctuary. It's easier to believe there's no problem. Believing, in the absence of proof, is something believers know how to do well.

Also this year, the Diocese of Covington completed its synod, a three-year process of ... I'm not sure what.

Here's how the diocese Web site describes it: "A synod is both a sign of diocesan unity with the teaching authority of the Church and an effort to foster that unity." At first, I thought it gave Catholics in the pews a voice in how to run their church. That just proves how little I know about the Catholic Church.

Although the process involved soliciting comments from hundreds of lay people, they had no authority to challenge basic church doctrine.

When I read the final synod documents, I was underwhelmed. They made few significant changes in the diocese, except to try to make the faithful adhere to a hard-line stand on birth control.

It seems it was just another way for the bishop to make sure everyone in the diocese is on the same page - his page.

In September, I visited the Plum Creek Christian Church in southern Campbell County, which opened its new, $5.6 million building.

It includes a 530-seat worship center - which in the old days we would have been called a sanctuary - easily expandable to about 900 seats.

It's an example of a trend we've seen across the country for several years - the growth of big, conservative Christian, suburban churches. Smaller, urban churches with fewer members and fewer services find it hard to compete. Expect it to continue. As my political science professor told me 20 years ago, "This is America, and in America, more is better."

Staff reporter Kevin Eigelbach writes on religion for The Post. Reach him at keigelbach@cincypost.com.