CHARISMA/December 1993, by J. Lee Grady
Wayman Mitchell says his 800 fellowships are not authoritarian, just misunderstood.
Undaunted by charges of authoritarianism and the recent resignation of several of his top leaders, charismatic preacher Wayman Mitchell says he’s not putting the brakes on plans to start more churches around the world. Meanwhile, one of the most successful pastors in Mitchell’s movement says the group is making a sincere effort to correct its problems.
Mitchell, 63, an unknown in many circles, started his network of churches in Arizona in 1970 when the Jesus movement’s impact was spilling over from Southern California. He was affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel at that time, but Mitchell grew frustrated with ecclesiastical polices and broke away from the denomination in 1985, bringing with him about 150 small fellwoships he had planted.
Mitchell’s group officially called Christian Fellowship Ministries, is a network of some 800 churches in 51 countries. Also known as the Potter’s House movement, the group is headquartered in Prescott, Ariz. The U.S. churches use names such as The Door, Victory Chapel and Potter’s House, and most of the congregations are located in the Southwest.
Mitchell describes his movement as a loose fellowship, not a denomination. “We’re sleepers,” he said of the group’s anonymity. “We haven’t sought publicity.”
Actually, Potter’s House has been the target of criticism in recent years, especially from cult-watchers who say the group is anything but loose in structure. Researcher Ron Enroth made reference to Potter’s House in his 1992 book, _Churches_That_Abuse_ (Zondervan). The Christian Research Institute faults Potter’s House for promoting inexperienced pastors, requiring excessive church involvement and encouraging authoritarianism.
Mitchell downplays the charges, and he said no cult-watcher has ever contacted him for firsthand information. “Authoritarianism? What does that mean? The family is authoritarian.” Mitchell told _Charisma_, adding that he thinks people misunderstand him or dislike his rigid stand on moral issues.
“Our preaching style is old-style Pentecostal,” he said. “we have very strict moral guidelines.”
Questions about Mitchell’s style of leadership prompted some of his most trusted colleagues to pull out of the group over the past three years. Ron Jones, a Colorado pastor who had worked with Mitchell since the early 1970’s, severed his ties in 1990. At least 100 pastors followed him.
“When you ge out, you realize how big the body of Christ is,” said Howard Pennington, who pulled his Kingman, Ariz, church out of the group this year. “They don’t fit the classic example of a cult.” Pennington said, “But it’s almost like whatever Wayman Mitchell says, you do.”
Other leaders said they were marked as traitors when they severed ties with Mitchell. Larry Neville, a missionary who planted dozens of Potter’s House churches in Asia, said he received about 40 letters from his colleagues telling him to repent after he broke away in 1991.
Another former Potter’s House missionary in Hong Kong, John McGovern, said Filipino leaders were told that Neville’s break with the group was tantamount to Lucifer’s rebellion against God. “The Filipinos were told to say publicly, ‘We renounce Larry Neville'” McGovern said.
“A lot of people stopped talking to us,” said Neville. “We lost friends.”
Neville blames the group’s problems on its “over emphasis on spiritual authority.” He still oversees dozens of churches in the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
Mitchell said he felt betrayed when his ministry partners deserted him, and he called the split “an assault on our structure.” But plenty of pastors in the group still remain loyal to him. One of the most articulate is Harold Warner, 43, a Tucson, Ariz., pastor who has won the respect of other charismatic ministers in town.
While admitting that mistakes have been made, Warner begs for Christians to understand that the Potter’s House movement was started by enthusiastic young converts, many of the former hippies who simply wanted to win people to Christ.
“Have we been guilty of being elitist? Absolutely.” Warner said. “But it isn’t deliberate. Some of it’s because we’re zealous. It’s been out of ignorance.’
Warner’s 800 member church, The Door, is known for its aggressive evangelistic outreaches. Most of its members became Christians as a result of the large concerts, block parties, gospel films and gang awareness presentations the church uses to win new converts.
Potter’s House has come under criticism mainly because of its heavy emphasis on evangelism, said Warner, who dismissed the cult charges.
“This cult word gets thrown around in an incredibly loose fashion,” Warner complained. “It’s ludicrous to say we exercise too much control. We just believe in accountability.”