Once led by a player on the Christian right, Tri-City Baptist Church in Independence downsizes

On July 26, 2015, Kevin Williams preached his last sermon as the senior pastor at Tri-City Baptist Church in Independence.

Williams, who was leaving for a similar position at a church in Edmonton, Alberta, acknowledged Tri-City’s delicate financial position in his parting message. He told the worshipers he was was excited to watch the flock “as you look to the Lord in eliminating the debt.”

A few months later, Tri-City sold its campus on a hill overlooking Interstate 70. The congregation now meets in a rented building in Blue Springs — quite a fall for a church that once operated a K-12 school as well as a seminary.

Williams became Tri-City’s senior pastor in 2012. He succeeded a man named Carl Herbster, who led Tri-City for 28 years. At one time, Herbster was a rising star on the Christian right. He had a show on KBMZ 980, worked to shut down strip clubs and traveled to Jefferson City to oppose regulation of church-run day cares. He was part of the Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri, which advocated for the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage voters passed in 2004 by a wide margin.

His clout extended beyond the Midwest. Herbster was president of the American Association of Christian Schools and, later, established a more overtly political operation, People Advancing Christian Education. When John Ashcroft, the former Missouri governor and U.S. senator, emerged as the choice for attorney general in the administration of George W. Bush, Karl Rove said Herbster was one of the religious leaders who had spoken on Ashcroft’s behalf. In 2002, Herbster joined with Charles Colson and three other prominent evangelicals in writing an open letter to Bush supporting his case for using force to disarm Saddam Hussein, calling it a “just cause.”

Herbster was a man with status in the conservative Christian political movement. But Tri-City became an unstable base amid questions about his management of church affairs. A growing ministry began to contract.

In 2011, Herbster announced to the church that he was “transitioning out of the pastorate,” according to a post on Tri-City’s Facebook page. Last year, he and his wife sold their home in a subdivision near the church. Originally from Indiana, Herbster is now the interim pastor of Community Baptist Church in South Bend, Indiana.

The Kansas City Star depicted Herbster as a rising force in a 1993 profile. “There’s a saying among parishioners at Tri-City that there really are only two kinds of people in Kansas City: people who know Carl Herbster and people who are going to know Carl Herbster,” the story read.

At the time, the church drew 1,200 worshippers a week and had a $30 million master plan. There was room to grow. The church, which used to be based in Raytown, had purchased 115 acres in eastern Independence shortly after Herbster became pastor in 1983.

Located at 4500 Selsa Road (now Little Blue Parkway), Tri-City was completing a gymnasium and a cafeteria when, in 1999, a new interchange opened at Selsa and I-70. The church began offering a second service on Sunday mornings, and Herbster talked about selling some of the church’s land to finance its next phase of construction.

Tri-City looked poised for great things. But Herbster found he had doubters in his pews.

In 2002, two church members uneasy with Herbster’s stewardship sent a letter to other members challenging the church’s practice of issuing promissory notes to members. The securities were not registered, which prompted an investigation by the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office. The church agreed to refund the remaining deposits and pay $15,000 into a state-run investor education and protection fund.

Around the same time, Tri-City took out a $1.6 million loan. Herbster signed for the loan himself and used the money to get the American Association of Christian Schools through a rough patch. Church members did not find out about the loan until after the fact.

The discovery of the loan prompted a thorough review of church finances. The church, it turned out, was $15 million in debt. (The audit also revealed that the church’s business manager, Dwight Free, was stealing money; in 2006, Free was sentenced to a yea and a half in federal prison for embezzling $1.2 million.)

The Star reported on the turmoil in 2003. Herbster acknowledged he needed to work to rebuild the trust of some members. But he remained a man in control. “I’m going to be me and do what I think is the right thing to do,” he said.

Herbster had the support of the church’s deacons. Together, they argued that the church’s debt was manageable because of its assets. Indeed, even after selling a parcel to Blue Ridge Bank and Trust around the time the interchange opened, Tri-City owned 70 undeveloped acres. In a letter to church members, a deacon named Dave Hawkins said there were two offers, totaling $15 million.

In the end, however, Tri-City did not accept a straight cash offer for its land. Instead, Herbster signed papers putting the undeveloped land in the control of a new company, Trinity Real Estate Development, run by church insiders. (Mark Bainbridge, who had replaced Dwight Free as the church’s registered agent in corporate filings, was a vice president of Trinity.)

The Pitch contacted Herbster and other church officials in 2005 to discuss the arrangement. Only Hawkins, who was by this point no longer a deacon, spoke at any length. Hawkins described the sale of the land “as kind of a tiered deal.”

Pressed for details, he added, “I think the public information is that it’s an $18 million purchase price. I don’t know the intricacies of it, but it’s a certain amount at one period of time and then more later and more later, et cetera. It might be a two- or three-year deal, I don’t know.”

However the deal was structured, Tri-City continued to be on shaky ground financially. Debt, as Williams’ sermon attested, lingered.

Trinity, meanwhile, began preparing the land for sale. Taxpayers helped. In 2005, the City of Independence created a tax-increment-financing district, making $7.7 million in project costs eligible for reimbursement, to be paid by future tax collections.

With Dial Realty of Kansas City acting as consultant, Trinity sold parcels in early 2008 to Drury Inn & Suites, Children’s Mercy Kansas City, and the Corner Café.

Progress stalled with the financial crisis of 2008. Only a portion of the land the church used to own has been developed. The rest now belongs to a bank. In 2013, Valley View Bank acquired Trinity’s remaining parcels in lieu of foreclosure. The land is for sale.

Trinity dissolved last year after not filing an annual report with the state. Eugene Ruiz, Trinity’s executive director, did not return phone calls.

The Pitch was unable to find a church official willing to discuss how Tri-City made out in its deal with Trinity. A call placed to the church in Blue Springs ended abruptly when I identified myself to the man who answered phone. “We’re not at all interested in speaking to you,” the man said. “Goodbye.”

Tri-City Baptist Church sold its Independence campus  last fall. (In aerial photos, the sanctuary and later additions resemble the zigzag pattern on Charlie Brown’s shirt.) The sale price recorded at the county was $8.5 million.

Tri-City appears to have used the cash to finally pay off debt. Around the time of the sale, it retired loans with three lenders. Some of the debt predated the transfer of the church’s property to Trinity.

The buyer was an existing church, First Baptist Church Blue Springs, which continues the use name after relocating its main campus to Independence. (First Baptist also offers a Sunday service at an elementary school in Grain Valley.)

The videos and photographs on the First Baptist website suggest a more casual and modern style of worship than what Tri-City had offered. None of the male staff members are wearing coats or ties in their photos; a few have goatees. “We believe that the church should be culturally relevant, while remaining doctrinally pure,” a web page stating the church’s core values says.

Herbster, meanwhile, continues to preach against the social change he finds objectionable. In a recent sermon — the audio is posted on the South Bend church’s website — he complained, among other things, about a new rule that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide sex reassignment surgery.

“We’re having a hard enough time taking care of our VAs,” Herbster, who did not respond to phone and e-mail messages, said. “Now they’re going to start helping them become a different gender if they want to be. It’s crazy what’s going on in our society.”

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