By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sam Gipson is a preacher's kid. He grew up in church; he knows right from wrong. His wife, Pam, is a sweet woman--soft-spoken, genteel.
Their spacious home with its perfectly manicured yard is the largest on their street in the Denton County suburb of Corinth. They're an upper-middle-class family--friendly, hardworking, devoted to the church. But they are no longer members of Agape Christian Fellowship. They knew it was time to go well before any accusations against Bishop Terry Hornbuckle became public.
Sam was invited to visit Agape by one of his co-workers. Initially, the Gipsons were thrilled. Business was handled in an orderly way at Agape; the ministry's operations were carried out with excellence, and the church had a well-developed outreach ministry. Hornbuckle had the ability to break down the Word in a way that was meaningful and relevant to their lives. In February 2001, they became members.
They quickly noticed that Terry Hornbuckle was a man who wanted to be somebody. "He always talked about who he hung out with," Sam says. "He would say, 'I'm friends with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin and T.D. Jakes.'"
It was common practice for Hornbuckle to directly address prominent members of the church from the pulpit. Once he spotted a woman whose husband was a doctor. "Where's your husband?" he called out to her. "Tell him to caaaaallme on my ceeeeeeell phone."
If you wanted a personal relationship with the bishop, you had better have some status. He made it painfully clear--ordinary church members couldn't run with him.
Former Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter could, of course. He regularly attended Agape. When he was cut from the team at training camp in 2004, Hornbuckle immediately flew to California to console him. He made sure his congregation knew exactly where he was going.
"I know some of y'all want to hang around me," he told the crowd at a Saturday morning men's fellowship. "But if you don't carry around $800, $900 or $1,000 in your pocket, you can't hang around Bishop." He frequently spoke of himself in the third person. "I can go to the bank and get anything I want. They stand up when they see me coming."
Renee Hornbuckle and the other church leaders had similar attitudes. "You had to be an athlete's wife to even get close to Renee," Pam says. She worked as a paid staff member in the church nursery, where she often watched the leaders' and athletes' children.
"Many times they wouldn't say thank you or even acknowledge me when they came to pick up their kids," she says. "And if a football player's child was in there, it was made clear that we were expected to treat them better than the other children."
For their 40th birthday party, Terry and Renee hosted what they called the 40/40 Gala. Ticket prices were based on how close your table was to the Hornbuckles' table. The best seats in the house went for $500.
Hornbuckle's favoritism caused some concern in the Gipson household. But the bishop's sex-laden sermons sounded the alarm.
When a particularly pretty preacher's wife from another church visited Agape, Hornbuckle acknowledged her presence by asking her to stand up. After spending several uncomfortable moments doting on how beautiful she was in front of Renee and his congregation, he told her, "Tell your husband not to let you travel alone."
But for Sam Gipson, the final decision to take his family and leave was made during a service when a man in the audience was physically confronted by Hornbuckle and his security guards. During the service, Sam could see the security whispering to each other and talking to the bishop during worship time.
Then he noticed that Hornbuckle was becoming increasingly agitated. Something was about to go down.
As soon as the music ended, Hornbuckle jumped up. He explained to the crowd that there were people who hated Bishop. He told them that there were haters who talked bad about Bishop. "If you don't want to be here, you can leave," he said. "It won't hurt our feelings. You can just leave."
He didn't stop there.
"There's somebody in the audience right now who's been talking bad about Bishop."
He motioned to one of his security guards to identify the perpetrator. The guard moved past the Gipsons toward a man seated in the crowd. He pointed.
Other security guards surrounded the man. The congregation watched in shocked silence.
From the pulpit, Hornbuckle taunted him. "Talk about me now. Yeah, go ahead and talk about me now. Bishop works out. And Bishop still has some fight in him--so talk now."
The man got up and quietly left the building.
Sam Gipson couldn't believe what he'd just witnessed.
In September 2003, he and his wife severed their ties with Agape.