By Aaron West • The Bulletin

The sermon that David Fisher had prepared on a recent Sunday for the congregation he pastors in Prineville was about a topic he said God told him that it needed to hear: forgiveness.

After all, when an international religious organization is suing you, saying you ignored its rules and policies, changed the locks on its building, and illegally took control of one of its churches, there’s bound to be plenty to forgive — or ask forgiveness for.

The emotional burden his congregation at Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville has carried has grown steadily since parting ways with the Oregon District of the United Pentecostal Church International last October. That’s when Fisher became pastor and took control of the Pentecostal church building. In response, the district filed a lawsuit against him, alleging that his selection as pastor was illegitimate, and that he’d illegally taken over the church building. The accusations are not easily forgotten.

“There is hurt, absolutely,” said Fisher, a 38-year-old dental assistant who has the support of the congregation to lead the church. “The people are stressed, and you can see the hurt in their eyes and hearts. How they’ve been treated by the district and their pastors over the last several years — those things hurt. But we just need to look over them and forgive and move forward.”

The district’s bylaws, lack of local support, and poor judgment in who it sent to pastor the church has led the dwindling congregation of about a dozen — down from more than 30 several years ago — to say it has had enough, say Fisher and other church members.

“We get nothing from them — no recognition that we’re alive,” said Bill De Ascentis, who has attended Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville for about 30 years. Former pastors — there have been four over the past 10 years — have resigned without warning, he said, and they have left the church doors locked for months at a time until district leaders sent a replacement.

Meanwhile, Fisher isn’t allowed to be a pastor under the tenets of the church because he divorced his wife, Amanda, earlier this year, and according to church bylaws, licensed ministers can’t be divorced.

“They make up these bylaws, but they’re the rules of men, not the word of God,” De Ascentis said. “We believe in the message of the church, and we believe the Bible about salvation. But nobody that’s left in the church likes what UPCI is doing.”

Lawsuit filed

Unlike the divine encouragement that guides Fisher’s preaching, the United Pentecostal Church hasn’t been as supportive of his actions.

The church’s Oregon district, which is based in Gresham, is suing Fisher to relinquish control of Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville, the only Pentecostal church in Crook County. Church officials say that Fisher and his renegade congregation has unlawfully taken over their church building, and the district leaders want it back.

According to the district, the door Fisher has unlocked every Sunday morning since October 2016 — when he changed the locks to the building — isn’t his to open, just as the congregation he has pastored since a church election the district calls illegitimate made him its preacher isn’t his to lead.

And the church money Fisher uses to pay the bills? It was stolen from the church bank account, district leaders say.

“It just totally violates all the bylaws,” said Rev. Dan Sargeant, who serves as the UPCI district secretary. “If a church is going to leave the organization, there are certain procedures and hoops it has to go through. None of that was done. They just changed the locks and took over. And (Fisher) divorced his wife — he’s living with somebody else. The guy who’s presuming to be the pastor of the church is violating the morals and ethics of the church. It’s a sad situation.”

Whose church?

The church property, a small building on NE Elm Street the size of a single-family home, is at the center of the lawsuit filed by UPCI. According to county property records, the building is valued at $122,385 and owned by Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville. A jury will hear the case this summer.

The organization’s leaders in Gresham maintain that Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville belongs to its licensed minister, Senior Pastor James Bigelow, and by extension, the United Pentecostal Church itself. The district confirmed Bigelow as the church’s pastor in February 2015, and they say he was illegally kicked out of his job — and the church building — when the congregation elected Fisher as its pastor and he changed the locks last October.

“It’s an outlying area out there, and sometimes a lone ranger gets going on his own and feels like he has ownership,” Sargeant said.

In the district’s lawsuit, Bend attorney Greg Hendrix requests that a judge return physical possession of all church property to the control of Bigelow, as well as require Fisher to stop claiming to control Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville. The fundraiser money that Fisher took — about $10,000 — needs to be returned as well, the suit states, and compensation should be paid for any damage that has been done to the building. Additionally, the registration change that Fisher made with the Oregon Secretary of State, which lists him as the president of the religious nonprofit, needs to be changed.

Fisher and the congregation, on the other hand, say that Faithpoint Ministries of Prineville belongs to the church members themselves. Bigelow isn’t part of the church anymore, members say, and not just because Fisher peeled Bigelow’s name off the sign that’s in front of the church building.

The Prineville congregation points to a letter Bigelow wrote to the church last summer, stating that he would resign as a senior pastor in October 2016. Church members at Faithpoint Ministries accepted his resignation, Fisher said, and even though Bigelow changed his mind a few months later and rescinded his resignation before October, the congregation chose not to approve his return.

“We didn’t want Bigelow,” said De Ascentis, the longtime church member. “We were going to break off and go independent. That’s the only way we could get anything we wanted. If we let Bigelow back in we could kiss the church goodbye.”

Sargeant said that Bigelow had written a letter of resignation, but changes followed.

“He was in the midst of resigning,” Sargent said. “But he didn’t follow through with it. The organization asked him to hang on for a while.”

A new pastor

Instead of taking Bigelow back, the congregation relied on local church bylaws that it said allowed them to reject Bigelow and elect Fisher. When Bigelow wrote letters to Fisher, De Ascentis and other church members to inform them they were kicked out of the church in Prineville, the congregation ignored them, Fisher said. And when Bigelow changed the locks to the church before he left for vacation in October, Fisher said he had them changed again so the congregation could keep using the building. That was also the day the church hired an attorney to help, he said.

When Bigelow returned from vacation in late 2016 and found that the locks had been changed, De Ascentis said he “blew up.”

“To me that seemed like a pretty un-Christian thing to do,” he said. “When he got back and he saw David had changed the locks he was furious. He didn’t know what to do. He started a lot of arguments that I couldn’t believe. About him not resigning, about him still being the pastor. And how he was going to make things really tough on us if we didn’t straighten up.”

Bigelow and UPCI District Superintendent Ted Graves declined to comment because of the lawsuit. Hendrix, the district’s attorney, wasn’t available for comment.

Preaching forgiveness

On Sunday morning after prayer, the Faithpoint Ministries congregation, the men dressed in suits and the women in long dresses, sang old church hymns as they were played on the church piano.

“He lives, He lives, salvation to impart! You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart,” church members sang, before sitting down in the pews that face the pulpit in the church sanctuary.

Fisher stood before them and glanced at his notes. He would be preaching from First Corinthians and also the Gospel of John, books of the Bible that address God’s teachings on forgiveness.

“If you love someone you don’t keep a record of their wrong,” he told the congregation.

Fisher’s message on Sunday mirrors what the Prineville church plans to do if it loses the lawsuit, he said. Instead of assembling in the church building, everyone will just gather to worship in a park or in the public library. Church members don’t want to steal the church building if it’s determined that it doesn’t belong to them, he said. But they don’t want to be a part of the United Pentecostal Church organization, either.

“It’s an opportunity we’re exploring just in case,” he said. “We don’t want to not have a service. We’ve gone through that enough when the doors were locked on us.”

As for United Pentecostal Church, Sargeant said that the district had initially considered just letting bygones be bygones. But ultimately it was decided the property — and having a church body in Prineville — was important enough to the organization to fight for, he said.

As the congregation of Faithpoint Ministries and the district leaders who want the building back both know, building a church from the ground up can be difficult.

“It’d be nice to be able to put a man in there who will establish a real church that will thrive and grow in Prineville,” Sargeant said. “Anything that has to do with building a good church, there can be resistance. It’s like carving a cave out of hard stone.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829, awest@bendbulletin.com

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