Fall from Grace

Part 3: ‘Can’t have two tigers on the hill’

As the theatrics and growth balloon, cracks begin to show for Living Hope Church

Pastor John Bishop sauntered across Living Hope Church’s stage and ran his hand along the side of an adult Bengal tiger. He gave it a few pats.

In a split second, the 350-pound tiger leapt up and wrapped its front paws around Bishop’s neck, prompting handlers to scramble to the pastor’s rescue.


Living Hope Church pastor John Bishop got up close and personal with a tiger named Sundar at a service in 2007. From left are Dan Stockdale of Harriman, Tenn., left, and Rick Kelly of San Bernadino, Calif., owner of Amazing Animal Productions.

The Columbian files

Bishop laughed nervously as he distanced himself from the big cat. The encounter wasn’t the only thing he’d done to promote the gospel that made him or others nervous. Still riding high from the thousands who attended Easter Sunday at Portland’s Rose Garden arena, Bishop was cooking up all kinds of antics to grow church attendance.

Besides the Bengal tiger, Bishop brought in a lion cub, tiger cub, Capuchin monkey and hawk as the visual crescendo to a series on The Ark in September 2007.

“I felt like Dr. Doolittle, but we had 4,000 visitors that one weekend,” Bishop said during a 2010 interview with THiNK International at the Calibrate Church Conference. “We have to be willing to not ever, ever sacrifice mission or message, but we have to be willing to always have the methods challenged.”

He added, “I would do anything shy of sin” to get people to come to church.

That fall, Living Hope hung giant banners that simply read SEX facing state Highway 503. The signs advertised the church’s four-week series on sex, much to the displeasure of neighbors and people driving by. At the time, Bishop admitted the signs were unconventional but said it was all part of drawing people to church.


In fall of 2007, Living Hope Church hung giant banners that simply read SEX facing state Highway 503 in Brush Prairie.

The Columbian files

For several years, around Christmas, the church hosted a live Nativity complete with a newborn baby, Curly the camel, two sheep, a goat and donkey. For Easter 2008, the church held services at Dodge City Bar and Grill and purchased an hour of broadcast time on Portland TV to bring the story of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.

“I did things that looked unreasonable, maybe irresponsible, even,” Bishop said in a recent phone interview with The Columbian.

Former Living Hope church member Katie King, 38, appreciated Bishop’s topical preaching.

“It just seemed really relevant to my life at the time and where I was at. It was really lively and enthusiastic at a church that was growing,” she said. “It just seemed like, ‘Wow, the cool kids, the cool church.’ ”

Living Hope was still expanding with campuses, eventually, in Portland, Hawaii, New Zealand, India and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where people watched recordings of Bishop’s sermons. It was listed as one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation by Outreach Magazine in 2007.

Living Hope members at one point traveled to India on the church’s first international crusade. There, they baptized and fed people, and visited an orphanage that was founded and supported by the church.

Bishop also launched a few nonprofits, John Bishop Ministries, Community Resource and Service Center and Only God International, named after one of Bishop’s oft-said phrases. “Only God” was emblazoned on bumper stickers and offering baskets.

Leadership issues

It was during this time of tremendous growth and outreach that trouble brewed internally.

“There were cracks and fissures in the leadership style,” King said. “No one was held accountable to anything. There were a few people getting jobs at the church who were very unqualified to work in ministry. There was no job vetting process; it was all based on nepotism.”

If people voiced concerns with the way things were being run, they were ignored. They were told if they had a problem, they could go to another church, King said.

Former Associate Pastor Will Warren said it was these leadership issues that led to his ouster from Living Hope.

After the Rose Garden Easter service, Living Hope held regular services in a room at the Oregon Convention Center, before acquiring Old Laurelhurst Church in Portland. Warren, now 62, and pastor Bruce Avery ran the location together. It wasn’t long, however, before Warren said he started getting pushed out. (Avery did not respond to requests for comment.)

Bishop promised him that he would be preaching every Sunday, Warren said. Instead, he only preached about once a month, and members watched recordings of Bishop’s sermons. This angered many people who had moved with Warren to Living Hope, he said.

In early 2008, Bishop called an emergency staff meeting, Warren said. There were apparently some serious issues that needed to be addressed.

Two pastors pulled Warren aside and told him the church wanted to move him to the Brush Prairie campus and cut his salary. They said he was getting a pay cut based on Laurelhurst’s dwindling membership. Warren said much of his congregation had left because they rarely heard him preach.

Not long after the move, Warren left the church and said he’s glad he left when he did.

Warren’s childhood friend and a longtime acquaintance of Bishop’s, Victor Pierce, said he felt Bishop used the guise of outreach and racial reconciliation to acquire more satellite churches. He said he doesn’t believe Bishop was trying to bring people together; he just wanted to expand.


Members of Living Hope Church pack a semi truck full of donations for the STOP Hunger Warehouse.

The Columbian files

Pierce, now 61, said he tried to get answers for Warren and set up a meeting between the two men, but it never happened.

“I hope the best, whatever the best is for John, to help him in changing his life. In the end, being true to his heart and the people, the community for the rest of his life,” Pierce said.

Months after Warren left Living Hope, Bishop headed to Australia for a speaking engagement. There he received word that his “trusted staff” planned to leave to start another church.

In late 2008, Jerry Romano, now 66, was part of a mediation effort brought in to prevent church leadership from imploding. He said then-Youth Pastor Danny Clinton was becoming ruffled by some of Bishop’s decisions and wanted to be unified in leadership or plant a church. But Bishop, whom Romano characterized as a “control freak,” viewed it as Clinton leaving to do his own thing.

Clinton eventually left Living Hope and started his own church. Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.

Former Living Hope congregant Richard Brosius, now 66, said it appeared Bishop didn’t believe in sharing leadership.

“John pretty much called the shots, and that was his downfall,” Brosius said.

“It was kind of his mantra, ‘You can’t have two tigers on the hill,’ ” Romano added.

Bishop said when he returned from his Australia trip the dynamic of the church’s staff had changed.

“I didn’t know how to navigate the (church’s) growth, and my family needed me. There was just so much going on,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t know how to … make everyone happy. At the end of the day, I couldn’t do it.”

In November 2008, Bishop’s grandfather, Sydney Wellman, aka Pop, died at age 86 in Vancouver, according to Columbian archives. Bishop wrote in his 2013 book “God Distorted” that he was in the “midst of one of the worst times” of his life.

His grief coupled with the inner turmoil at the church marked the end of what Bishop considered to be Living Hope’s golden era.

Bishop said Danny Clinton had an entrepreneurial spirit, but instead of allowing him to thrive, he tried to control him “because of my own insecurities.”

“Danny Joe was a tiger. I should have recognized that, and I didn’t,” Bishop said.

Money trouble

As the mediation team soon discovered, far more was festering under the surface, Romano said, including a lack of accountability and serious financial issues.

Romano interviewed church staff and their spouses to see what was happening. Another member of the mediation team was tasked with looking over the books. There was a lot of discussion about misappropriation of money, specifically money that was loaned by a wealthy congregant to pay off a significant tax liability. Church leaders interpreted it as a gift, Romano said.

The congregant, who agreed to be interviewed but didn’t want his name printed, said he loaned about $500,000 to Living Hope. He said he was told he would get the money back right away because the church was heading into the holiday season. About a year went by, and he hadn’t received any repayment.

It took the mediation team intervening for the congregant to get repaid.

“The church was reckless and packaged it up as faith,” the congregant said.

Another congregant, a certified public accountant who also wished to remain anonymous, said he saw the tax liability — the church owed hundreds of thousands in back payroll taxes. He was asked to look over the finances by the congregant who had loaned the $500,000, he said. When he brought the tax liability to the leadership’s attention, he said church leaders told him they didn’t know about it.

“There was a lack of accountability for the senior leadership,” the congregant said. “That wasn’t an innocent mistake. There was intent not to pay.”

The congregant left the church shortly after the discovery.

Bishop said in a recent phone interview that he recalls the tax liability being related to property taxes. Living Hope’s financial team had incorrectly filled out the church’s nonprofit paperwork, which exempts the church from paying certain taxes. The error was caught too late, Bishop said, but the church did pay it off — though church leadership never got to the bottom of the issue, he added.

Romano said he was unsure whether the tax liability was related to property taxes or payroll taxes, but said the mediation team met for months with church leaders and those who tried to help Living Hope out of its financial bind.

“We defended the angle in which (the congregant) gave that money. He was very generous,” Romano said. “They shouldn’t take advantage of one of their givers. To re-characterize that (loan) was abuse.”

Gerry Breshears, 71, a theology professor at Western Seminary who was part of the mediation team, said the church leadership had to be restructured to create more accountability and to finesse the budget, which included forming an elder board. However, Bishop eventually deconstructed all of that, making him the ultimate authority, he said.

Bishop said the mediation team wanted everyone on the elder board to have an equal say and equal vote. He tried to make everyone happy, he said, “but on the flip side, I was the guy in charge.” Still, in hindsight, Bishop said there’s a lot he would have changed about that time.

A third former congregant, who, too, wished to remain anonymous, estimated he gave at least $100,000 for various causes but felt it was misappropriated. The church kept track of the big givers, said the congregant, who attended Living Hope for about a decade.

“They realized they could raise a lot of money by having a cause, and then the money would go into their general fund, and then it was their slush fund,” the congregant said. The same congregant was also on the building committee for the proposed remodel of the Brush Prairie campus. The project never happened. He said the church was ringing up bills for preliminary design work but wasn’t paying existing bills. The church had plenty of cash flow coming in from tithing and donations, he said, but its spending was outpacing giving.

Storefront sanctuaries

Financial issues weren’t unique to the church; Bishop continued to run into problems with his business, Team Cleaning Concepts.

The Department of Revenue issued two warrants against the company for unpaid taxes totaling $2,575.29 in 2008, records show. And that December, the Bishops and their friends Dave and Diane Clinton defaulted on a $150,000 loan. They later agreed to pay $110,132.22, according to records filed in Clark County Superior Court. Dave Clinton declined requests to be interviewed.

By May 2009, the business was inactive, and their commercial building in Orchards went into foreclosure, public records show. The county later sold the building at auction.

The following spring, the Internal Revenue Service issued another notice of federal tax lien against Bishop for $70,065.14. It was paid off five years later, records show.

Bishop said that his business took a big hit after he began devoting his attention to the church.

Despite the financial woes and leadership turmoil, Bishop moved his vision forward of reaching people in unconventional ways.


People walk past the Living Hope Church entrance inside Vancouver mall in 2010.

The Columbian files

By Easter 2010, Living Hope began renting the former Mervyn’s department store in Vancouver Mall, because the church needed more space and hoped to attract new members. Bishop said it was an obvious choice because the church had grown so much, and he wanted to consolidate the campuses — they were costly and isolated.

“There was a magic about it, a vibe. There was something about it,” he said of the mall, adding that he thought Living Hope would be there forever. “And then all of the sudden, Cinetopia wielded its financial sword, and we’re out.” (The former Mervyn’s was demolished and replaced by a cinema.)

The shakeup led Bishop to loftier big-box store dreams.

At the end of the church’s nine-month lease at the mall, Bishop told The Columbian that there were tentative plans to move into a former Kmart, an 85,000-square-foot building on a sprawling, centrally located property at 2711 N.E. Andresen Road.

But the “promised land” came with a $4.8 million price tag, a big ask for Living Hope’s followers.

“I know in my heart if this didn’t happen I would have to resign,” Bishop told Charisma News in October 2011. “How could I lead a church and say this is our promised land and it didn’t happen? Either I wasn’t listening to God or something went terribly wrong.”

Fall from grace

Part 1: The making of a man of God

Part 2: The best show in town

Part 3: Can’t have two tigers on the hill’

Part 4: Blue Light Special brings new crises

Part 5: Finding new paths

Part 6: Reflections of a single-wide trailer

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