WEST PALM BEACH — Newly appointed Pastor Steven Flockhart abruptly abandoned the pulpit at First Baptist Church West Palm Beach late Friday after The Palm Beach Post questioned the fabricated education credentials he used to land the post.
Flockhart, 40, submitted a one-line resignation to church leaders, said the Rev. Kevin Mahoney, executive pastor of the venerable church along the Intracoastal Waterway. It was effective immediately.
A closer look: Steven Flockhart's résumé
"He admitted he lied. He has apologized for that and he's asked for forgiveness," Mahoney said.
A top Baptist minister, the Rev. John Sullivan, president of the Florida Baptist Convention, was traveling from Jacksonville to lead today's services at the church. Flockhart was not expected to attend, Mahoney said, but told church leaders he would write an apology letter to be read to the congregation.
If a written apology isn't received, Ben Bassett, chairman of the church's personnel committee, will read a statement announcing Flockhart's resignation, Mahoney said.
Although church leaders had welcomed Flockhart with much fanfare last month, Mahoney said, it was clear he couldn't continue to lead the church.
"His integrity was compromised, and, frankly, integrity is paramount for the character of a pastor," Mahoney said.
Flockhart declined comment, referring questions to Mahoney.
The résumé Flockhart provided to the church made it appear he held bachelor's and master's degrees from two respected institutions. But a background check by The Post found he actually obtained bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees through correspondence courses offered by a Georgia theological school that isn't accredited by a recognized agency.
Flockhart's résumé also said he is "currently obtaining a second master's from Southeastern Theological Seminary." But officials there said he never obtained a master's degree from the school in Wake Forest, N.C., and is not now enrolled.
Jay Todd, an assistant registrar at the 56-year-old school, said Flockhart did take two online classes in the spring as a non-degree-seeking student.
"Your facts are correct," Mahoney said when asked about Flockhart's resumé. "There is absolutely a problem with the résumé."
The discovery of Flockhart's phony credentials followed an Aug. 13 report in The Post that he had run up large debts while leading a church in Georgia eight years ago, leaving it in near financial ruin.
Mahoney said First Baptist began its own investigation of Flockhart's educational background even before The Post contacted it. Flockhart, Mahoney said, told him he had a bachelor's degree from Columbia International University, an accredited institution in Columbia, S.C. School officials said he attended to two years but never obtained a degree.
"He admitted he lied," the executive pastor repeated.
'Significant endorsement' impressed church
Mahoney downplayed the significance of the résumé, describing it as just a brief biography that Flockhart had provided the search committee through his mentor, the Rev. Johnny Hunt.
The endorsement from Hunt, the pastor of a 14,000-member church in Woodstock, Ga., was a key reason Flockhart was tapped to lead First Baptist after a three-year search, Mahoney said. Southern Baptist's fundamentalist wing reveres Hunt, who was expected to be elected the convention's president this year before he unexpectedly withdrew from consideration.
"That is a significant endorsement because Johnny Hunt is a leading pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention," Mahoney said. "He's respected in both religious and secular circles."
The only part of Flockhart's résumé that checked out was his assertion that he had been accepted at Liberty Theological Seminary "to begin working on a second doctorate."
Officials there initially told The Post he was not enrolled. Later, they said they discovered he paid his registration fees directly to seminary President Ergun Caner.
"The pastor is enrolled and has paid in advance," said Ron Godwin, executive vice president and CEO of Liberty University. "I love those kind of students."
He said Flockhart did not turn up in university records because Caner apparently recruited him. A Turkish-born Muslim, Caner converted to evangelical Christianity, then set off a firestorm in 2002 by describing the prophet Mohammed as a pedophile possessed by demons.
"Dr. Caner has a wide outreach to church leaders all over the United States and, as president of the seminary, enrolls a number of pastors individually," Godwin said.
Besides, Godwin said of Flockhart: "He's a good friend of our chancellor, Dr. Jerry Falwell."
Better known as the founder of the once politically powerful Moral Majority, Falwell also helped found the university in Lynchburg, Va.
Poor quality of résumé a shock
Shortly after Flockhart's appointment in West Palm Beach, The Palm Beach Post reported his financial troubles at a church near Dalton, Ga. Macedonia Baptist Church in Dawnville sued to force him to repay a debt that had ballooned to $162,799. The lawsuit was filed after he left in 1989 to head up Crosspointe Baptist Church outside Memphis, Tenn. It alleged that he used church credit cards for his personal use and wrote checks to himself without permission from church leaders.
He repaid the debt last year, church leaders said.
While in Dawnville, he was slapped with a $36,150 judgment by American Express Travel-Related Services Co. and a $8,617 lien from the Internal Revenue Service. He ultimately paid both.
When asked through Mahoney about the judgments, he initially denied they existed. When shown Georgia court papers, Mahoney reported that Flockhart then recalled the financial problems and said they had been taken care of.
Mahoney, who served as executive pastor of First Baptist during the three-year search, said he was not a member of the pastor search committee and did not know why the panel did not more fully investigate Flockhart's background.
David Gille, chairman of the pastor search committee, has said members were taken by Flockhart's skills as a preacher and his ability to draw people to the church. During the eight years he spent at Crosspointe, membership grew from about 300 to 2,300, Flockhart said in media interviews.
"The main reason the pastor was chosen was his outstanding evangelical skills," Gille said last month. "We felt at this stage in our church's life, that's what we need."
Others who reviewed Flockhart's résumé at The Post's request said they were appalled by its lack of substance and specificity.
"I've never seen as poor a quality of résumé for a pastor of a significant church as this résumé," said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn.
Titled Salvation/Calling, the résumé takes up less than one page. At the top, Flockhart described his conversion at a 1985 revival and how he became a pastor, emphasizing his close friendship with Johnny Hunt.
Flockhart's résumé doesn't mention any of the churches where he served. He lists the names of three schools he attended but doesn't include any dates or specific degrees he obtained.
Under the list of three schools, he wrote "Bachelor's Degree, Masters and Doctorate of Ministry," without specifying which degree came from which school.
Mahoney said he assumed that, because both the schools and degrees were listed in order, that Flockhart had gotten a bachelor's degree from Columbia International University, an accredited university in Columbia, S.C., and a master's from Southeastern Seminary, which is also accredited.
Parham, who is head of the 15-year-old organization that provides ethical information and resources to Baptist congregations, said he interpreted the résumé the same way. He voiced surprise when told that Columbia and Southeastern reported Flockhart did not hold degrees from those institutions.
"It advances the perception that he is a graduate of those schools," he said of Flockhart's résumé. "That is intentionally misleading a congregation."
Covington Theological School in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., was the only one on Flockhart's resumé to confirm he received a degree.
"Covington Theological School: That's a red flag," Parham said.
It touts its accreditation from an agency that is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and is an outgrowth of a now-defunct company that was once charged with fraud.
"This is one of those schools I wouldn't recommend anyone go to," said Rick Walston, author of Walston's Guide to Christian Distance Learning: Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally.
Covington's Web site says it is accredited by Accrediting Commission International. Once known as the International Accrediting Commission, it changed its name and moved to Beebee, Ark., after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri, according to an article by John Bear, who has collaborated with Walston and has served as an expert witness on diploma mills and fake degrees.
The school's downfall proved to be a sting operation in which it accredited a school set up by a Missouri assistant attorney general. To make his fake school as outrageous as possible, the state lawyer listed the Three Stooges and other TV characters as faculty members. The school motto, when translated from Latin, was: "Education is only for the birds."
When the head of the International Accrediting Commission agreed to accredit the school, he was charged with fraud.
Lack of résumé's review criticized
Ray Warren, records director at Covington, remembered that Flockhart first registered for the school's correspondence course in 1999 and then took some time off. Records show Flockhart got his bachelor's in ministry in 2003, his master's of ministry in 2004 and his doctorate of ministry in 2005, Warren said.
That means Flockhart didn't have a college degree when he was pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Georgia, or until five years after he arrived in Millington, Tenn., where he persuaded the congregation to build an $11 million sanctuary.
In sermons, he has told members of First Baptist Church West Palm Beach that he never graduated from high school and instead got a GED. He has said that he has an "earned doctorate," emphasizing that his journey from school dropout to the top of academia shows what the Lord can do once people accept him into their lives.
Flockhart didn't need a degree to become pastor of any Southern Baptist church, said John Revell, an associate in convention relations at the Southern Baptist Convention.
"If I was going to wager a guess, most pastors have formal theological training," he said. However, he said, it is up to local churches to decide whether to require it of the pastors they choose to lead them.
Flockhart said he was "licensed to preach" in 1986 by Rev. Hunt and ordained by Hunt in 1990.
Hunt appeared via videotape at Flockhart's first service at First Baptist last month and gave a ringing endorsement of his protégé. Like Flockhart, he also lists a degree from Covington on his résumé. It says he holds an honorary doctorate from the school.
Parham said Flockhart's résumé should have been examined more closely.
"If Southern Baptist laity ever take Jesus seriously, they will protect themselves from false shepherds," Parham said. "Jesus told his followers in Matthew 10:16, be wise as serpents. That means Baptist laity and leaders have to practice discernment."
Mahoney described Flockhart as "remorseful" in meetings with church leaders.
"I think it's tragic," he said of the events that led to Flockhart's resignation. "But I believe it's in the best interests of our church."
He said he didn't know what Flockhart's future holds. But he said he wishes him the best.
"Steven Flockhart is one of the most gifted communicators of the gospel that I have ever heard," Mahoney said. "Do I think Steven Flockhart will again have an opportunity to preach the gospel? Yes. Do I think it will be at First Baptist? No."