Voice of God

The rise, fall, and 'groovy church' resurrection of the Seahawks' P.A. announcer, Pastor Randy Rowland.

In the control room of Qwest Field overlooking the endzone, Randy Rowland sits behind a microphone, waiting for the Seattle Seahawks to take on the San Diego Chargers, alternating sips of Diet Coke and decaf coffee. He's trying to keep his vocal chords both wet and warm. "That just makes your voice more loose," he says. Which is important because the tall 53-year-old with the scruffy gray beard is the official Seahawks announcer, the voice that reverberates throughout the stadium—introducing players, guiding fans through plays, and saying things like: "Gentlemen, will you all remove your hats?"Minutes before the Christmas Eve game, Rowland jokes about his days as a wild Tacoma high-school student, driving around in a green ex–Forest Service truck and answering to the nickname "Smoky."

"I believe it has something to do with cannabis," Rowland explains, as one of his two spotters, Darren Kochansky, squeezes into the tight space behind him and begins to rub his shoulders. "Ohhh, homeboy Darren," Rowland laughs. "Smear me with that oil."

And then, he's on: The teasing, conversational voice becomes the booming,omnipresent voice of authority around the stadium—what God would sound like if he called football games.

Perhaps it's not entirely incongruous, then, that Rowland has a very different kind of job in his non-Seahawks life: He's a pastor.

Three hours earlier, Rowland, who turned to ministry after a career as a radio sports broadcaster and music DJ, sat on a wooden chair behind a small round coffee table on the stage of Greenwood's Taproot Theatre. The locale is the Sunday morning home of Sanctuary, a congregation founded by Rowland that is affiliated with the Christian Reform Church. Wearing a thick gray cardigan and whimsical tie, he read a Longfellow poem called "Christmas Bells," an ode to God's presence in the midst of war, which Rowland chose as an allusion to the current Iraq entanglement. Rowland shared the stage with a young painter named Scott Erickson, whose job was to react to the sermon by use of his own medium, which he did by coveringa canvas with a cross overlaid with the word "Arrival" and a lamb radiatingyellow light.

"I've never seen anybody painting in church before," a parishioner whispered during the service.

Rowland's acquaintances recognize that he specializes in the unconventional and innovative. The author of several books, including one entitled The Sins We Love, he teaches courses on bringing pop culture into church at Fuller Theological Seminary, a California-based school with a Seattle branch. One time, Rowland took a bunch of pictures of the solar system off the Internet and made them into a slide show that he projected in church—to the soundtrack of Bruce Cockburn's "Lord of the Starfields." He also has a favorite Simpsons episode that he sometimes plays during sermons. The punch line—"You are so banished"—is a send-up of the Garden of Eden story.

Those who are familiar with Rowland know that his current pastoral persona is a much mellower incarnation of himself. Five or 10 years ago, anybody who had visited Rowland at his former Presbyterian church would have seen a rock and roll pastor with a ponytail and an air of rebellion grounded in the belief that the church, up until that point, had gotten it wrong. Looking to bring religion into the secular heart of Seattle culture, Rowland started his church near the Seattle Center, taking note of its relatively close proximity to Sub Pop Records, which was then presiding over the grunge frenzy. The Church at the Center, named for its location, met at Uptown Cinemas and attracted national media attention. The church's motto: "real, relevant, and a little bit radical."

"It was the new groovy church," says Pastor James Kearny, who succeeded Rowland as pastor of the church, which later merged with another to become Capitol Hill Presbyterian. "But there was a lot of youthful pride and arrogance."A series of power plays and conflicts involving Rowland caused the church, in essence, to implode.

Presbyterians have a way of dealing with alleged sins within the church through a court system that looks very much like a secular one. In September 2003, on the second day of a two-day church trial, Rowland pleaded guilty to 21 counts of abuse of power and breach of confidentiality. Such trials are rare, numbering less than one a year in the Seattle region over the last 11 years, according to Dennis Hughes, clerk of the Seattle Presbytery, which oversees all Presbyterian churches in the area. Rarer still is the magnitude of this case. "Twenty-one allegations is a lot," Hughes says. "I've never had anything close to it." (Hughes refuses to disclose details of the charges.)

Yet what happened at Church at the Center is a matter of debate fraught with feelings of bitterness and betrayal, one that reveals the stakes at play in church life and the level of dysfunction into which it can sink. Friends and foes alike describe the Rowland of Church at the Center as a puzzle of contradictory traits: a dominant personality who could also be very humble, a man who asked a lot of questions but didn't always listen to the answers, and someone who could be both punishing and forgiving. Rowland's trajectory, encompassing both Church at the Center and Sanctuary, also sheds light on the promise and perils of what is often labeled the "emerging church"—those postmodern ministries with hardcore bands, hipster followings, and outwardly casual pastors with charisma to burn.

"When things go weird in the church," says Pastor Kearny, "it makes everything else pale."

As Church at the Center was imploding, so was Rowland's health. He was obese—nearly 400 pounds—and had developed diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and edema, conditions that he says affected his mood and memory.

"I was on the brink," he says, reflecting on his past over a cup of raspberry tea at Greenwood's 74th Street Ale House. Eventually, Rowland would undergo gastric bypass surgery, lose 200 pounds, andbegin what feels to him like a new life. But that was not until Church at the Center blew up in his face.

It was the rotund, ponytailed, and rebellious Rowland that physical therapist Brent George met 14 years ago when he and his fiancée arrived at University Presbyterian Church for premarriage counseling. Rowland had by that time left his radio career behind, having last worked as sports director for the now-defunct KING-AM (1090), and was leading a contemporary Sunday night service at the large, established University District church.

"We're sitting in the office and in walks Randy," George recalls. He took note of Rowland's untraditional appearance and looked around his office. "A picture of Jesus is on one wall. On the other wall is a picture of Eric Clapton." Then a long-haired 24-year-old who liked to play the drums, George said to himself, "OK, I can totally relate to this dude."

When Rowland started a new church with the encouragement of the Seattle Presbytery and University Presbyterian, George and his wife joined. "What first attracted me to the church was just Randy—someone who could deliver amazing sermons that had specific application to everyday life," George says. Rowland's side gig with the Seahawks, which developed after he left KING, added to his appeal, evidence of a gregarious personality and a multifaceted life. It was a completely different pastoral image than George knew from growing up in the Catholic Church.

"Then there was the music," says George, who joined the church band. "It was a way for me to worship in and of itself. We would play everything from Jimi Hendrix toRolling Stones to Van Morrison."

The church band also rocked to tracks by Fugazi, Modest Mouse, and a number led by a parishioner who was a singer in the punk band Blender Head. "I asked him to do a song and punk it out," Rowland recalls. Afterward, he says, the parishioner threw his arms around him and told the pastor that no one had ever asked him to share his gift before in church. Rowland, who encouraged everyone to share their talents, believed that "all truth is God's truth," whether you find it in scripture or a song by Nine Inch Nails.

"Randy opened possibilities that hadn't been open in Seattle before," says Leslie Fox, an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a counselor and attended Church at the Center. "You didn't eliminate the culture around you. You brought it with you. You could just be who you were." The opportunity to do so attracted a wide range of people, many of whom hadn't gone to church in a long time, if ever.

"We had street people there; we had people from Microsoft," Fox says. Her son Chris, now a philosophy professor at Newman University in Kansas but then a somewhat lost Ticketmaster phone agent who played bass in the church band, also remembers parishioners such as an indie filmmaker and a poet who, sadly, ended up overdosing on drugs.

Quickly growing to several hundred members, the Church at the Center won the title of "organized" church from the Seattle Presbytery in record time. One of the things that endeared Rowland to many parishioners is that he talked about his own life, revealing that he was adopted by a former Air Force colonel, a tough man whose approval he had always sought.

"Because he seemed to be candid with people, people were candid with him," says Chris Fox, who remembers one early band retreat in which all the musicians opened up about their life stories. Fox, by his own definition, was "basically a very depressed alcoholic." Someone at the retreat observed: "I guess we're like the church of broken toys."

That level of personal honesty madethe church feel real to Fox. But he also came to see disturbing signs. When he joined the church, he had very long hair. Then, he says, "I showed up one Sunday having chopped all of it off." Rowland, Fox recalls, was spitting mad: Having longhaired young musicians in the church seemed crucial to the image Rowland wanted to maintain.

Fox felt that many members of the congregation followed Rowland's lead in part because they didn't have the church experience to question how things should be done. He says, however: "If someone stood up to Randy, he would go after them....He would yell at them and turn other people against them.

"[And] the big issue," he says, "was always Randy's salary."

According to Rowland, after presiding over Church at the Center with little or no salary for the first four or five years, he eventually earned around $80,000 annually, a figure he believes is proportionate to pastor salaries elsewhere. Others, though, considered his compensation excessive, and questioned why he earned roughly double what his underlings made. At one point, a vote among the congregation over whether to give Rowland a raise (following Presbyterian procedure) resulted in a tie, which sunk the proposal.

"After the meeting, Randy attacked us with the full force of his power and in a spirit of anger," wrote two parishioners in a letter to the Seattle Presbytery, which charged Rowland with abuse of power. "He never spoke directly to us—only behind our backs." (The parishioners provided the letter on the condition of anonymity.)

Rowland says his response to the meeting was not anger but devastation at what seemed to be a lack of confidence in him. He immediately handed in a resignation letter, but says church elders talked him into staying.

"We see more churches start today than at almost any time in church history, and yet they're closing at a faster rate than ever as well," says Dwight Friesen, a theology professor at Mars Hill Graduate School, a Seattle seminary not affiliated with Mark Driscoll's Ballard church of the same name.

The growth is spurred in part by a realization among mainstream denominations that if they're going to reverse their decline, they need to "plant" churches that willattract new converts and a younger, more diverse demographic. This experiment runs parallel to the emerging church movement that began mainly among nondenominational ministries about 15 years ago. Spurning megachurches as staid, hierarchical, and institutional, the movement branded a new style that embraced the larger culture and world outside the church, often using untraditional formats and locations. Friesen himself leads a deliberately small congregation of about a dozen people, who once met in a dumpy Bellevue motel bar and have since moved their venue to the professor's Bellevue home, thus making it both a "house church" (due to its location) and a "simple church" (due to its bare-bones structure), according to the current lexicon.

However, Scott Thumma, a researcher with the Hartford Institute for ReligionResearch in Connecticut, believes that starting a church is like starting a business—the odds are against you. He says: "Any time you have a new congregation, essentially everyone is a convert or a new person. [The attitude is] 'Here's a new place. It might fit my needs. It might not.'"

"There's this willingness to bail," confirms Friesen.

Church conflict can be about many things, Wilson says, but given a setting where notions of morality loom larger than life, a dispute inevitably "escalates into a battle between light and darkness." Such conflict can be even harder to resolve, Wilson and others say, when everybody in a church is figuring out everything anew, where rules and boundaries are works in progress.

When James Wellman, an ordained Presbyterian minister who chairs the comparative religion program at the University of Washington, heard about the Rowland church court case several years ago, he saw another likely factor at work: the tendency of innovative churches to be run by charismatic pastors with outsize egos. Explains Wellman, "It just has an ethos: 'I don't have to be accountable because I have power; my power is my charisma.' It lends itself to an egomaniacal abuse of power."

Originally, many of the new-style pastors strove for a humbler model, consistent with a more democratic, free-flowing view of the church. But, says Friesen, "It didn't take very long before book deals were being signed." And pastor blogs began sprouting up. (His own: www.dwightfriesen.com.) "There's that desire to be cool, the desire to be in some ways controversial," Friesen adds.

Mars Hill's Driscoll, who blends an emerging church style with retro views, is no stranger to controversy. His recent blog postings (on TheResurgence.com) comparing female religious leaders to "fluffy baby bunny" rabbits and bemoaning "pastors' wives who really let themselves go" backfired. After much criticism in the religious and larger community, he apologized and pledged to scale back what he conceded was "inflammatory" language.

While Driscoll has managed to keep his sizable flock together post-dustup, Spencer Burke, a well-known figure in this movement who founded a blog called TheOoze.com, says, "Probably in emerging churches, the dissatisfaction is going to happen quicker." Especially, Scott Thumma adds, among a group of young and previously unchurched people who aren't primed to respect pastoral authority as a given.

"Everything was about Randy and his ego," says Kearny, who had been friends with Rowland before assuming control of his floundering church and, Kearny says, spending countless hours "listening to people cry" over the meltdown.

Rowland, on the other hand, suggests that he didn't assert himself enough. Mulling over conflicts that erupted with staff, he says, "I was trying to be everybody's daddy and Mr. Nice Guy." Later, though, he adds, "I'm not a wimpy leader"—and says founding a new church "takes an entrepreneurial, more aggressive style."

For many years, Church at the Center's parishioners met in the dim light of Uptown Cinema, rushing out before the first matinee of the day, the smell of popcorn in the air. Eventually, the congregation decided it was time for a building of its own. So the church, which seemed to be in perpetual financial crisis due to ambitions that outstretched its budget, launched a capital campaign. Rowland took an active role in raising money—too active, some believe.

Even though donor records were supposed to be kept confidential by an elder, it was thought that Rowland knew what everyone gave. Kearny says his predecessor would take people to lunch and then "use strong-arm tactics to get them to give more."

"People felt that they had been given reason to trust and hope again," Kearny says. "And in the end, they felt like they were being used."

Fund-raising is a highly charged issue among churches. Today's parishioners—particularly the younger ones who are attracted to new-style ministries—often don't have ingrained habits of giving.

"Some young, successful people would throw $10 a month toward the church and wonder why we were in financial trouble," says Kathy Pritchard, a financial consultant who was a former elder in the church.

"[Rowland] may have understood himself as challenging them [parishioners] to spiritual maturity," says Patricia Killen, an acting provost and professor of American religious history at Pacific Lutheran University. At the same time, Killen says it is rare for pastors to directly pressure congregants for money; that job is usually handled by a stewardship committee. "It protects the pastor from favoritism toward those who give more," she says.

"That's one view," Rowland counters. "There's another school of thought that says pastors need to step up [to fund-raising]. People's giving is a part of their spiritual wellness. If someone is not willing to share with others, that's a real spiritual issue, just like lying or cheating."

For his part, Rowland says he has given away so much money—sometimes in excess of 10 percent of his annual income—that he claims to have been audited by the Internal Revenue Service, which sees unusually large charitable filings as suspicious.

There were other conflicts as well. Rowland felt that staff members were trying to usurp his power, and when some people complained, the pastor spread private, embarrassing information that had been confided to him. The two parishioners who sent the letter to the Presbytery wrote that they had been on the receiving end of Rowland's gossiping. On one occasion, Rowland revealed to the pair that an unmarried member of the congregation was pregnant—"a fact she had told to him in confidence that very day," according to the letter.

"Oh," Rowland says, leaning his head back while sitting at the 74th Street Ale House, recalling, after a long pause, the pregnant woman in question. He says he revealed her situation not out of malicebut in order to marshal support for her. He allows that he probably discussed the matter at a staff meeting (though the letter was written by parishioners, not staffers), adding that in a number of cases, he fell afoul of a Presbyterian rule change of which he was unaware. Rowland says he learned at seminary that pastors could discuss matters that parishioners confided to them among their staff—asking the staff to pray for a parishioner, for instance. But he says the Presbyterians later adopted a more Catholic model, where the confidence stops with the pastor.

This confusing mix of charges and explanations landed in the Presbytery's lap after several people associated with the church filed complaints. In some denominations these issues would not be a big deal. After all, they were not on the scale of, say, the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church. But they were extremely upsetting to those involved, a testament to the profound disillusionment that can occur when a religious awakening goes sour. "There's still an incredible amount of hurt," says former finance elder George Karschney. Indeed, Chris Fox considers the breakdown at Church at the Center to have been as traumatic as anything he has ever experienced, including the kidnapping and rape of one of his graduate students. "There's almost nothing worse than a church schism," he says.

Following the Presbyterian system, the complaints about Rowland generated an investigating committee, composed of Seattle-area ministers and elders. That committee decided that the complaints merited more than 20 charges of abuse of power and breach of confidentiality "We hold our clergy to a pretty high standard," says the Presbytery's Dennis Hughes. "They are not to tear people down, use abusive language, cut people to the quick, or tell other people's private information."

A prosecuting committee took over the task of proving the charges against Rowland before what's known as a Permanent Judicial Commission: nine ministers and elders who act as judge and jury. An unprecedented number of witnesses, perhaps as many as 60, were set to testify at the trial. But Roland short-circuited the process by pleading guilty to all counts.

"On the second day," Rowland recalls, "I said, 'I don't want to deal with this. I'm going to walk away.'"

Following his plea, the Permanent Judicial Commission ordered that Rowland be barred from office for six months while he underwent a "rehabilitation program" that included assessment by a forensic psychologist, therapy that would be monitored by an "oversight committee," and mentoring by another pastor. But Rowland opted out of the whole process. Instead, he ended up switching over to the Christian Reform Church, a relatively small but long-standing denomination grounded in the Calvinist tradition of the Netherlands. The church's officials knew about his transgressions, says Rowland, and asked him for a psychologicalevaluation—but did not insist that he complete the ordered rehabilitation.

One of the people who guided him through the denominational switch wasAllen Likkel, who supervises new church development for the Christian Reform Church in Michigan but once lived inSeattle and attended Church at the Center. While Rowland's critics feel that he has never accepted responsibility for his behavior, Likkel says he was impressed by Rowland's vulnerability and transparency as he addressed concerns about his past. Says Likkel, "Randy responded by owning what he needed to own."

In person, Rowland evinces a wounded quality that's tough to put a finger on. Thin, even reedy after his gastric bypass surgery, his physical gait seems a little halting, perhaps as a result of his health problems, which contrasts with his larger-than-life sound in the Seahawks booth. And yet, he still displays his particular style of charisma, manifest not so much in soaring oratory or physical presence but in an infectious eagerness to deeply engage the world.

Sitting in Greenwood's Green Bean coffeehouse clad in a black wool jacket and matching cap one December day, he says he uses the term "missional" to describe Sanctuary, the ministry of some 100 people he founded two years ago. "One of the things we want to do is to get the church into the community—not to get the community into the church," he explains. He means that in the most local of ways: At the heart of Sanctuary's mission is development of the Greenwood neighborhood in which the church is situated.

The coffeehouse he's sitting in is a reflection of that. As the church was starting up, it bought what was then a run-down tavern and turned it into the Green Bean, a quintessentially Seattle space with big windows, large painted canvases on the walls, and shade-grown coffee at the bar. The church runs the Green Bean through a nonprofit subcorporation, and donates 60 percent of its tip jar take to causes ranging from Zimbabwean orphans to Tent City to the local Boys & Girls Club.

As at Church at the Center, Sanctuary does not operate out of any building that is a recognizable church. Its offices occupy a big, open second-floor space on Northwest 85th Street that it shares with several other "incubating churches," as Rowland calls them, within the CRC. (In addition to his ministerial responsibilities, Rowland has a regional role within the CRC, helping to nurture new churches.) He muses that their unconventional digs are a manifestation of the "collapsible, movable, portable church of the 21st century."

One of the churches, Emmaus Road, is headed by Eric Likkel, son of CRC official and Rowland mentor Allen Likkel. Eric, who on a recent day could be found at the office sporting hiking boots and tousled blond hair, is a jazz clarinetist with Origin Records who started what was originally a church of twentysomethings in a Belltown space run by a ministry for homeless teens. Also floating in and out of the office are two recent seminary graduates who hope to bring religion to the burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood by starting a house church in condominiums they plan to live in. There's a drum set in the corner of the office so that the church bands can practice, and off to the side is a small prayer room painted a deep, otherworldly blue and decorated with Greek Orthodox icons.

"Let's put the Jewish girl under the icon of Jesus," Rowland jokes, directing me to a chair in the prayer room as I join a staff meeting in progress on a recent Wednesday morning. Even after his Church at the Center experience, he seems to be one of those people who can't help spouting personal information—his own as well as others'. In the course of the staff meeting, he will laugh about his college-age daughter's underwear habits, a staffer's new diet (necessitated by an iron deficiency), and the same staffer's marriage prospects—with no offense seemingly taken.

A glimpse of how this tendency might tread on dangerous territory emerges as Rowland begins to lead staff through a discussion of their spiritual aims in working with parishioners. Rowland and his five twentysomething staff members, brimming with laughter and idealism, had all read a book called Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples. And now they were coming up with their own vision for what it meant to be a disciple. Rowland distributes a couple of case studies he has written, based on parishioners from two of his previous churches, whose names have been changed. One refers to a woman who found out her live-in boyfriend was cheating on her, and has "weathered a tough season of sorrow, depression, and despair" that has compelled her to see a counselor and take antidepressants.

Among those affiliated with Sanctuary, a number of people know something about Rowland's past troubles, if only his version of them. Some Church at the Center parishioners even followed him to his new church.

"He's really changed," says former Church at the Center parishioner Kathy Pritchard, who after a period of feeling like she never wanted to go to church again, recently decided to give Sanctuary a try. She sees Rowland as a better listener and a softer presence who she can't believe she sometimes has to strain to hear. "He's really a good man."

Over lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant near Sanctuary, Mark Mohrlang, the church's new music director, who signed on with some trepidation after hearing about Church at the Center, reflects on a discussion with Rowland that he finds encouraging. On a recent Sunday, with the Seahawks in a crucial playoff game against the Chicago Bears, the pastor took the stage in a team jersey and ended services with a cheer: "Go Seahawks!"

That seemed to conflict with an earlier agreement between Rowland and his staff which stated that his role as a Seahawksannouncer should not intrude uponservices. And so, staffers asked him about it.Mohrlang notes that Rowland could have said, "I'm the pastor. If you don't like it, leave." But he didn't. The conversation, Mohrlang says, was low-key and nonaccusatory.

Preaching on Christmas Eve, Rowland touches upon the vagaries of power as he addresses the way God would handle the issue. "He governs and rules with a love, a kindness, a gentleness, and a patience that you and I probably wouldn't employ if we were in charge of the universe," says Rowland. "[God could say,] 'The garbage needs taking out, there's something that needs to be fixed...and I won't wait till tomorrow.' But this is an enduring, patient God—who gives everybody a shot and a second chance."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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