Calvary Chapel

The rise and fall of Fort Lauderdale’s superstar preacher

 
 
Pastor Bob Coy speaks to his congregation Dec. 16, 2012, at the Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale.
Pastor Bob Coy speaks to his congregation Dec. 16, 2012, at the Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale.
Joe Cavaretta / Sun Sentinel

jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

From the pulpit of Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, pastor Bob Coy would sometimes recount stories from his un-pious past as a means of leading his legions of parishioners on the path to salvation.

In his sermons, the cocaine-addict-turned-preacher would mimic the voices of the topless dancers he once managed or the gangster who would page him to make cocaine runs — jobs he quit in 1981 when, he said, he left a life of drugs and womanizing to save his soul.

Coy, 58, stepped down late last week. The church, announcing his exit, cited a “moral failing” on the preacher’s part, but did not elaborate.

The scandal has rocked the megachurch, which in three decades has grown from a dozen members who met in an Oakland Park funeral home into one the biggest Evangelical ministries in the nation with 20,000 or more parishioners.

The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Coy on Monday.

Church leaders said they hoped to guide him through a process of “full repentance, cleansing and restoration.’’

Parishioners were asked to pray for Coy and his family. He and his wife, Diane, have been married for 30 years and have two teenage children.

The sprawling Calvary Chapel carried on as normal Monday, with parents taking their kids to school and people going in and out of the complex in the 2400 block of Cypress Creek Road.

“He had such a huge following. This is going to be a big change for the church,’’ parishioner Darby Loomis said.

Church members reached Monday said they were disappointed but bent on forgiveness.

“He did a lot of good for a lot of people,” said Mitch Guertler. “Like he always said up on stage — don't follow him, follow Christ. He's a sinner like the rest of us. It’s too bad."

No one answered the door at Coy's two-story Coral Springs house Monday afternoon.

The well-manicured home in the gated Windsor Bay community had two cars parked outside, the shades drawn and an American flag waving in front.

Church leaders announced Coy’s departure at Sunday’s service, which drew an estimated 7,500 congregants. Coy was not present. Leaders said assistant pastors would take over his various ministries.

Coy began his career in his late 20s when his brother took him to a Calvary Chapel in Las Vegas in hopes of getting him to clean up his life. Calvary Church was founded in the 1960s when Pentecostal pastor Chuck Smith began preaching to hippies who had been rejected by mainstream churches. Coy felt welcomed by the ministers and began studying the Bible. He worked his way up the church ranks, despite no formal seminary training.

In 1985, he piled his meager belongings into a U-Haul and moved to Broward County with plans to open his own church. He earned money working as a shoe salesman while preaching on weekends.

Within 10 years, Coy’s laid-back sermons, combined with his boyish good looks, T-shirts and khaki slacks, captivated thousands of followers who sought a spiritual connection that resonated with their everyday lives. Describing his approach as somewhere between Billy Graham and Billy Crystal, Coy attracted baby boomers, lapsed Catholics and others who found more traditional houses of worship hidebound and irrelevant.

Over the years, the church moved to a 75-acre tract, built a 3,800-seat mall-sized sanctuary, added children’s and youth ministries and a skateboard ramp, and opened nine other regional campuses across South Florida.

Calvary became one of the fastest growing non-denominational churches in America, moving into the digital age and luring younger members from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Coy’s Active Word ministry on radio, TV and digital media spread the word to thousands, transforming him into a religious rock star.

News of Coy’s resignation first broke on a blog Friday and quickly spread. The blogger, Alex Joye-Grenier of Calvarychapelabuse.com, said he believes that some of the church’s leaders have abused their power.

“This illustrates that these guys are men. They are sinners like everyone else,” Joye-Grenier said.

It is not the first time Calvary Church has been hit by scandal. In 1994, a former youth pastor admitted he had molested an 8-year-old boy he lured to his home from a nearby mall. At the time of his arrest, James Gould worked as property manager at the church’s Pompano Beach campus but had previously worked for six years as a youth pastor and director of youth development.

David Kling, professor and chair of University of Miami’s department of religious studies, said resignations due to “moral failings” are not unheard-of. He cited the examples of Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In some cases the ministries they founded survived. In others, they did not.

“It's difficult to know what will happen at this time, but the one thing that you can say for sure is that it won't be the same church it once was,” he said.

Membership and donations may fall off depending on how the church and Coy respond to the scandal, Kling added.

“If there is sincere contrition, there is often-times forgiveness. It doesn't mean there's not a price to pay, but there is an effort to move on.,” he said.

Congregants reached Monday said that Coy’s undisclosed indiscretion should not diminish the good work he has done in the church.

Jorge Goodman of Miami Beach pointed out that during Coy’s tenure, the church has helped with issues related to foster care, homelessness, drug abuse and children with special needs.

“God has done so much through his life,’’ he said. “It's a great loss for our community.”

Miami Herald staffer Stefania Ferro contributed to this report.

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