After Living Hope Church’s move into former Kmart building, troubles mount for the Bishops
Securing $5 million to purchase the “promised land” was a huge leap of faith for John Bishop’s flock, but there was no turning back.
Living Hope Church had closed and posted for sale all of its properties — including its main campus in Brush Prairie — in its quest to purchase an empty Kmart building in central Vancouver.
“I really don’t have a Plan B,” Bishop, then-senior pastor, told The Columbian in September 2011. “I have faith. It could be that I’m standing on that stage saying, ‘We’re done. Here’s a list of other churches in the area. It’s been a fun 15 years.’ ”
Although the decision to move to the Kmart building drew ire from some congregants, others bought entirely into Bishop’s vision. He wanted to use the larger space to create a full-service community and social services center.
“It was the hardest season of our ministries for sure,” Bishop, 55, said in a recent phone interview with The Columbian. “I think it defined a lot of people in ways they don’t want to talk about.”
Living Hope obtained a temporary 90-day occupancy permit from the city of Vancouver and entered into a no-cost lease with Kuni Enterprises, which owned the building at 2711 N.E. Andresen Road. The church moved into the former Kmart in January 2011. Coincidentally, years earlier the Kmart building had been Bishop’s first contract for his cleaning business.
During the first Sunday service in the new building, the congregation gave more than $400,000 toward its purchase.
The monthslong fundraising campaign yielded all kinds of donations from followers: cars and a motorcycle, a fixer-upper duplex in Camas, $10,000 in gold coins, diamond rings, and vacation money from a family who had been saving to visit a theme park.
Wealthier congregants invested in Living Hope Promised Land LLC, which would hold the mortgage on the property. Bishop promised investors a 5 percent guaranteed return.
“I thought it was a pretty good idea,” former Living Hope board member Ron Webb, 76, said of the Kmart move.
Living Hope worked with Seattle company Affinity Financing LLC to establish the limited liability corporation. The church had to come up with a lump sum that went to Affinity, and then Affinity issued checks to investors, said Webb, the managing member of the LLC and mediator between the church and Affinity.
“Bishop had no control or management over the LLC,” Webb said. “He had nothing to do with the way the money was handled or the payments.”
The Kmart building and property belonged to Living Hope Promised Land LLC, and it was the church’s obligation to make interest payments to the LLC’s investors. There was a five-year expiration date on the LLC, with the potential to be extended by a vote of the members, Webb said.
Webb personally invested $100,000, he said, and also tithed and financially backed other special projects at Living Hope.
Church member Janette Koop, who had been with Living Hope since the merger with Prairie Community Church in the early 2000s, said she was unsure about the Kmart move.
“On a personal level, I felt we were biting off more than we could chew,” said Koop, 74.
Still, she said she believed in Bishop.
“I thought John was just on fire for the Lord at the time. John had a gift, an unusual gift,” Koop said. “But the harder you work for the Lord, the harder Satan works to take you.”
The Kmart church
It took a few months longer than anticipated, but by fall 2011 Living Hope secured $5.2 million to finalize the purchase.
Living Hope held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to honor the church’s grand opening, its 15th anniversary and the donor who gave the first $10,000 toward the purchase. The Bishops brought the ribbon to donor Jennifer Peters, who was in hospice care after being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, according to Columbian archives.
Webb said it didn’t take much effort to make the cavernous discount store into a more functional auditorium space by hanging curtains to cordon off areas.
As Living Hope settled into its new home, John Bishop stayed true to his vision of helping the homeless and hungry. The church’s “Live Love Center” fed as many as 150 to 200 people every Sunday and provided free clothing for the poor. On cold winter nights it also opened up the building as a shelter and gave away food, sleeping bags and other supplies.
In 2013, the church collected 19,600 pounds of pet food in seven days, setting the Guinness World Record. The chow was delivered to several local animal charities.
The prom for teens and adults with developmental disabilities held in May 2015 was one of Living Hope’s most beloved community events and a massive undertaking. About 350 guests turned out for the joy-filled dance party. Many had never been to a prom before.
Living Hope’s growth was recognized worldwide, “but it was never only about numbers,” Bishop said in a recent email exchange with The Columbian.
“It was the people that were helped, the five semi-trucks that went in the wake of Katrina. It was the tens of thousands of homeless and less fortunate, it was the countless marriages saved from ruin and the multiple people who had cancer and were miraculously healed,” he wrote. “It was the over 10,000 people baptized, and it was being a church ‘for the rest of us.’ ”
Pastor Glen Johnson, 59, of Vancouver’s Faith Center Church, said Living Hope has always been an asset to the community.
“They’ve done a tremendous job of helping people over the years,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who feel like they owe John a lot for changing their (lives).”
Faith Center and Living Hope didn’t often work together, Johnson said, but they had business dealings. The churches were neighbors at the Andresen location, but having two churches next to each other didn’t work. As a solution, Living Hope purchased Faith Center’s building and, in return, sold its Brush Prairie campus to Faith Center. The sales were a win-win for everybody, Johnson said.
But as Living Hope continued to thrive, turmoil brewed in the Bishops’ personal lives.
In December 2012, the couple’s son, David, then 27, was sentenced in Clark County Superior Court to 14 months in prison for possession and delivery of heroin, court records show. Bishop wrote in his 2013 book “God Distorted” that he enabled his son, and that led to trouble.
Bishop wrote that he didn’t want his son to “feel the unworthiness” he experienced as a child, and as a result, he was always his rescuer.
“I couldn’t shield him from an addiction to heroin. I couldn’t protect him from the law. I couldn’t shield him from jail. And sadly, he couldn’t spare himself either, because he had never learned about consequences of poor choices when he was growing up,” Bishop wrote.
Jerry Romano, 66, who in the past had helped Living Hope, said Bishop called him often to chat about their sons’ issues. Romano’s son also struggled with drug addiction, he said.
But it was also no secret among John Bishop’s inner circle that he, too, struggled with substance abuse.
Romano said Bishop had issues before he started drinking. “He was enough of a mess,” he said, adding that Bishop recognized he was a mess but that Jesus loved him anyway.
“We all have that character, that dualism in us. I think poor John got in over his (head),” Romano said.
Gerry Breshears, 71, a theology professor at Western Seminary and Bishop’s former mentor, said that over time Bishop’s alcohol abuse got significantly worse.
By summer 2015, Bishop had derailed.
Church leaders said Bishop went “off the grid” for a couple of months during a mission trip in Los Cabos, Mexico, where he also owned a vacation home. He didn’t stay in contact with people in Vancouver.
Bishop says that’s not what happened.
A group of 20 people from Living Hope were bringing 3,000 pairs of shoes to Cabo as part of the mission trip but were prevented from bringing the shoes across the border. Bishop said he took this personally and stayed 20 days in Tijuana, Mexico, to facilitate the shoes’ crossing. He and his wife then went to their vacation home in Cabo San Lucas, where he spent time writing, he said.
The vacation home and its purchase more than a decade ago was completely unrelated to the church, he added.
When he returned to Living Hope in September, he was confronted in a leadership meeting about abusing alcohol and being unfaithful in his marriage. He admitted to both, but said the transgressions had nothing to do with his summer in Cabo.
“It is an epic tragedy, when I look back at what I did. Not only was there a city left with different emotions, I sinned; moral failure is a horrible thing, and the aftermath takes a toll on any marriage — most don’t make it,” Bishop wrote in an email to The Columbian in July.
Bishop stepped down as senior pastor in November 2015 to go through 30 days of intensive inpatient treatment at Passages Malibu Addiction Treatment Center in California. However, it was his understanding that the leave of absence would be temporary, he said.
Judy, a former congregant who wished to only be identified by her first name, said rumors about Bishop’s alcoholism and multiyear affair were circulating before the church addressed the congregation.
“We were so angry, as you can imagine, so I attended (that service) to see how it would be handled,” she said. “It was the most ridiculous service, in my opinion, ever to handle a disclosure of that magnitude to the church congregation.”
Judy said they were told first that Bishop was an alcoholic and had been unfaithful. Then there was a prayer for Bishop to be restored. Much of the congregation felt he should have been restored to being pastor immediately.
The church’s bylaws called for Michelle Bishop, now 55, to assume the role of senior pastor in her husband’s absence. Breshears said he tried to help her through that process.
But not long after her husband stepped down, there were allegations of severe misuse of church money. Michelle Bishop ordered an audit of the church’s finances, and then, at a Dec. 12, 2015, board meeting, stepped down as senior pastor and board member.
“My daughters, their husbands, my wife and I were all fired, my family for no wrongdoing, all six of us on Dec. 17, 2015,” John Bishop said in his recent email exchange with The Columbian.
Pastor Neal Curtiss, now 62, and other staff members found there were money shortages when it came time to pay staff and expenses, the church board told congregants in an email Jan. 8, 2016. The church had $180,000 in back debt so it had to trim the budget, which included laying off a few staff members, according to the email.
The audit reviewed “payment of personal and business expenses, use of credit and debit cards, use of funds for purposes other than for which they were collected, and similar matters,” the email read.
Bishop has repeatedly denied any financial wrongdoing and said he never had access to bank accounts nor stole anything.
“When the accusations were in reality circling the globe, and after now almost three years, I asked (church leaders) at the conclusion of the forensic audit that my wife ordered, what was the result? The church to this day was never honest about the results because it was all trumped-up gossip and allegations,” Bishop wrote in a recent email.
He specifically asked if there were any substantiated findings of fraud or embezzlement, he said, and was told nothing criminal was found. “Never has there been public vindication or exoneration,” Bishop wrote.
Doug Frazier, current co-lead pastor at Living Hope, declined to speak with The Columbian about Bishop or allegations that church money was mishandled.
Some sources suggested that federal investigators were looking into the allegations. When The Columbian contacted a spokeswoman with the FBI’s Seattle office, she said, “The FBI is aware of the fraud allegations, however, we don’t typically confirm or deny investigations.”
In the months following his fall from grace, Bishop worked to restore his sobriety and marriage.
His oldest daughter, Katie, wrote in a Facebook post in March 2016 that her father was out of treatment and had been sober for more than three months.
“He is better than I’ve seen him in years. … I have seen a spark in him that has rose up like when he first started the church, and he is falling more madly in love with not just my mom but Jesus every day,” she wrote.
Her parents were in the process of a restoration program, she wrote, and were working with Faith Center Church.
Johnson said he tried to help the couple through a difficult time. He interviewed them during a service, which he hoped would be part of their healing process.
“He is doing better than ever and so are we as a couple and as a family,” Michelle Bishop wrote in an April 2016 Facebook post. “Unfortunately, John wasn’t given a chance to say to the whole church body how sorry he was for his choices, and how horrible he felt that he hurt everyone so deeply.”
She said that the couple had enrolled in marriage counseling, specifically for senior pastors and their wives.
But as the Bishops worked to regain their footing, their financial situation became unmanageable.
The Bishops filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in the Western District of Washington in March 2016 and later listed their custom-built Battle Ground house for sale. Their Lexus automobile was also voluntarily repossessed.
In their bankruptcy filing, the Bishops claimed that Living Hope owed them $28,000 for reimbursement and unpaid wages between Nov. 14 and Dec. 17, 2015. They also threatened a possible claim against the church for defamation, court records show. John Bishop said it was their attorney’s idea to include the potential claim in the paperwork and said they never intended to pursue it.
In the year prior to filing, the Bishops say they donated $26,125.92 to the church for tithes and offerings automatically withdrawn from paychecks. They also gave $500 in charitable contributions over a five-month span to Faith Center Church.
Bankruptcy records show the Bishops reported that their gross income between Jan. 1 and March 29, 2016, was only $62 but that friends and family had given them more than $8,000.
For the 2015 calendar year, the Bishops reported their combined gross income was $158,982.80. They were also given $6,000 in donations from friends and family and $151,158 from the church as a housing allowance and charitable donation, bankruptcy records show. This was the only year reported, however, that included the sizeable housing allowance. John Bishop said in a phone interview that every Living Hope pastor received a housing allowance.
The year prior, the couple’s combined gross income was $150,762.01. John Bishop was also given a $25,000 book royalty advance from publisher Random House, records show.
Their bankruptcy was discharged in July 2016, during which time their assets totaled $951,384, and their liabilities were $969,727.29. John Bishop reported being unemployed and Michelle Bishop reported making a few thousand dollars representing It Works, a multilevel marketing company that sells skin care and nutrition products. The couple anticipated owing $24,000 to the government for unpaid taxes, records show.
In December 2016, five months after their bankruptcy was discharged, Michelle Bishop reported that the couple’s house was burglarized when she was out of town, according to call records from Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.
The Bishops reported nearly $67,000 worth of items stolen, including cameras and equipment, home entertainment electronics, tools and jewelry. Michelle Bishop reported that her grandmother’s ring, a family heirloom valued at $11,000, was also taken, a report filed with the sheriff’s office shows.
However, in their bankruptcy filing eight months earlier, the Bishops only reported owning $11,550 worth of household items.
Efforts to reach their bankruptcy attorney and the bankruptcy trustee to inquire about the discrepancy were unsuccessful. John Bishop said they turned in everything that was required of them to their attorney, and they weren’t required to turn in an inventory list of their belongings.
The couple filed an insurance claim with Nationwide Insurance. It’s unclear if their claim was paid. A spokesperson with the company declined to comment, citing privacy considerations.
Then, about a month after the burglary call, Michelle Bishop called 911 again to report that her son and husband had broken into the house after she told them to leave. They reportedly took her cellphone and pushed her. She said she planned to get a restraining order. The men left while she was giving the report, and then she refused to answer the dispatcher’s questions. The dispatcher labeled the call a civil issue, according to CRESA call records.
The Bishops began cutting ties with the community they had called home for so long.
In spring 2017, the couple and their adult children held a moving sale at their Battle Ground home, which sold for $575,000. It was initially listed for $705,000.
They largely remained quiet after that, until John Bishop’s startling arrest at the U.S.-Mexico border in December.
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