Lee McFarland experienced a meteoric rise in the corporate world, first at Honeywell Aerospace, then at Microsoft Corp. As director of worldwide operations at the Redmond, Washington-based computer technology company, McFarland amassed a $160,000 annual salary, $50,000 in yearly bonuses, and 16,000 shares of Microsoft stock.
Yet in 1996 McFarland walked off the fast track to vast wealth, spurning an offer to become a Microsoft general manager. Instead, he acceded to God’s call to pioneer an Assemblies of God church in Surprise, Arizona. He made $22,000 his first year as pastor.
Canvassing neighborhoods with clipboard in hand, McFarland repeatedly heard residents of the fast-growing community explain they didn’t attend church because they didn’t find sermons applicable to everyday life, and they didn’t want to dress up or hear money pitches.
McFarland intentionally adopted a casual attire when preaching, made Bible stories relevant to modern American situations, and avoided dire pleas for donations.
Nine years after launching, Radiant became the fourth largest in the Assemblies of God. By 2010, Radiant held five weekend services, with a total average attendance of 6,359. The adulation McFarland received in church circles proved equally as dazzling as commendations garnered in the corporate world.
Yet in 2011, McFarland’s idyllic life came to a crashing halt. McFarland confessed to moral failure, resigned from the church, repented, and submitted to a two-year period of healing and restoration.
Subsequently, a couple who formerly attended Radiant, filed a $6.6 million lawsuit against McFarland, the church, and the Arizona Ministry Network, making graphic claims of how McFarland had breached his pastoral and counseling duties over an 11-month period by manipulating the wife.
McFarland’s wife, Sandy, a skilled scanning electron microscope technician, easily could have supported herself. But Sandy recognized Lee’s genuine sorrow and repentance, and stayed in the marriage, now in its 36th year.
In the aftermath of the crisis, McFarland thought about switching careers again, even coming to the brink of opening a Chick-fil-A franchise. Yet every new vocational door McFarland sought to walk through closed.
Phoenix Dream City Church Senior Pastor Tommy Barnett encouraged McFarland to stay in the ministry. After a two-year rehabilitation process overseen by Barnett, the AG reinstated McFarland’s ministerial credentials in 2013.
Barnett, 79, acted as a spiritual father to McFarland, who turned 59 on July 5. Barnett convinced McFarland that he had many good ministry years ahead.
“So many ministers who go through the rehab process don't return to full time ministry,” says Arizona Ministry Network Superintendent Stephen L. Harris. “Lee is a great example of one who fell, went through the process, and is restored to ministry, successfully pastoring again. I am very proud of him!”
“Lee embraced the restoration process in a very exemplary way,” adds AG General Secretary James T. Bradford.
“Satan wants to label us with our failures,” says McFarland, who speaks forthrightly about his fall. “God says OK, that was for a season, but that’s not who you are.”
In his attempt to return to the pulpit, McFarland sparked much interest from pastoral search committees — until internet hunts revealed the pending lawsuit.
In early 2015, SoCal Ministry Network Assistant Superintendent John Johnson notified McFarland of a lead pastor opening at Covina Assembly of God, where Johnson's daughter-in-law JoAnn Johnson is executive pastor. Church members voted to hire McFarland just before settlement of the lawsuit against him.
McFarland says he has safeguards in place to prevent a recurrence of the sin.
“I’m acutely aware of where I’ve been,” McFarland says. “You learn a lot about yourself if you go to weekly counseling for two years.”
Those sessions spurred McFarland to unearth childhood hurts he never had confronted. McFarland also came to realize he had brought the workaholic demands of the business world into ministry. But while 60-hour weeks may be the norm at Microsoft, McFarland succumbed to the added stress of always being on call in ministry. He reached the point of downing a case of energy drinks every week to battle exhaustion, a habit that led to poor decision-making.
McFarland says he now cultivates healthy ways of dealing with stress such as walking or reading a book, rather than caving to damaging triggers.
Throughout his ministry, McFarland always has been a topical and expository preacher, a humorous and self-effacing speaker. Just as he preached openly about his struggles at Radiant, he remains transparent about his failures at Covina. That has given him an inroad to reach millennials, many of whom have absentee dads.
“People are more willing to listen to someone who’s traveled through intense hurt and pain — and talks about it from the pulpit — than someone who just says life’s always been good,” McFarland says. He says he submitted to the rigorous AG restoration process, in part, to be an example to young people who looked up to him, especially his two children, Josh, 25, and Krissy, 24.
Although the suit has been settled, the lurid accusations still are on the web.
“The Lord lets you go through a fire because He knows you will be a better person afterwards,” McFarland says. “My struggles are out there for anyone to see, and that’s humbling.”
Although Covina Assembly, like Radiant, is a megachurch — topping 2,400 in weekly attendance — McFarland says he isn’t interested in crowd size or glamour. McFarland, who has been a trainer with the AG’s Church Multiplication Network over the years, says he wants to help church leaders guard against temptations and decipher detrimental tendencies before they lead to isolation that causes a fiasco. He laments that he didn’t take a sabbatical in 14 years at Radiant.
“Anyone who is struggling, who is feeling empty or burned out, should take a break and get healthy,” McFarland advises. “That’s better than crashing in a spectacular failure that hurts the witness of the church.”