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MESA, AZ (CBS5) -
The Living Word Bible Church is no ordinary church. And the man behind - and in front - of it all is Pastor Tom Anderson, a leader who certainly knows what it takes to engage a congregation.
Anderson is among a group of preachers across the U.S. that refer to themselves as prosperity preachers. But many people in Anderson's congregation claim his message has led them down a patch of financial ruin instead of riches.
One glance around the $10.2 million domed property at Brown and Val Vista roads in Mesa tells you Anderson, at least at one time, has reaped the rewards of his "prosperity" ministry. There are skylights, a waterfall, a Starbucks shop, bookstore, rock wall, recording studio, soda fountain and castle, all elements more commonly tied to an amusement park rather than a church.
"You have to give them options," Anderson told CBS 5 Investigates. "You have to give them different types of music. "You have to give them a certain level of entertainment. Everything has become entertainment today. To compete with the world you have to have some stuff, so I do a little Elvis. We have karaoke that pops up on the screen and they can sing with me."
Don Enevoldsen preached at Living Word for years. He says he also served on the church's board and ghost wrote about a dozen books for Anderson, the most popular How to become a Millionaire God's Way. The book is based on Anderson's sermons and provides advice that goes beyond the traditional tithing message. It's advice more commonly associated with a financial adviser.
"I can encapsulate in a nutshell: If you tithe, God will protect all your stuff so the Devil can't take it away from you," Enevoldsen said. "If you give offerings over and above the tithe, which would be 10 percent of your income, that opens the windows of heaven and pours out a blessing and you have to invest in something for that blessing to have something to multiply, and that investment would usually be real estate."
Enevoldsen said Anderson provided advice on many different financial matters.
"He would talk about what kind of houses to buy, what kind of neighborhoods to look for, how long you should live in them before you sold them," Enevoldsen said. "He gave advice on how to buy and sell cars. He gave advice on how to invest in the stock market. He gave a lot of pretty specific advice."
And it was that advice that Enevoldsen said many people followed.
"An awful lot of people had bought into this bad financial advice and were so wrapped up in investments that when the economy collapsed they believed they couldn't lose because God would bless their investments because they had tithed and gave offerings," Enevoldsen said. "A lot of them ended up upside down a half-million dollars or more in just a matter of a month or two because they believed what the pastor said."
Enevoldsen choked up as he recalled the investment results of many in the congregation.
"I began to really see the damage that was being done to people I knew well and began to realize by writing these books and sitting in these board meetings and never saying anything, that I was really complicit in the damage," Enevoldsen said.
Eventually Enevoldsen left the church, but said other followers continued to find financial ruin.
"We lost $60,000," said former member Preston Gaiser.
Gaiser was closer to Anderson than most. He was an elder at the church and also Anderson's personal arms bearer, a security guard of sorts.
"We ended up taking equity out of this house and bought another house," Gaiser said. "Our plan was to keep it three to six months and sell it - just to kind of test the waters. Since I was so close to Tom and he's dealing with these people all the time, I almost felt the pressure that I should be doing it too, you know, even though it was not me."
Even after losing thousands on the investment, Preston said he dutifully followed Anderson's preaching, believing that because he had tithed, God would financially take care of him.
"I kept trying to hang on saying 'it's got to get better,'" Gaiser said. "'It's got to get better. It's got to get better.'"
Anderson admits people have lost money following his philosophy.
"Absolutely," Anderson said. "Because stuff happens in this world. It just means that whatever you get stolen you can get back seven times."
CBS 5 Investigates dug into Anderson's background and learned he received a master's degree in business administration from Golden Pacific University in 1986, which was eventually shut down by the Hawaii attorney general for being a diploma mill. His Ph.D. came from an unaccredited university.
And, most profoundly, CBS 5 Investigates learned that the man who preaches that the road to riches runs through his church filed for bankruptcy last year.
Anderson said he has told members of his congregation about the bankruptcy. At least some of them.
"Immediately on doing it, I made the announcement I had to take my net worth down to $300 in order for Chapter 7 - you have to do that," he said. "For those that understand what that means, then they understand what I did."
As far as coming right out and admitting it: "That would be foolish," Anderson said. "For the people that need to know, knew. For the people that didn't need to know they didn't know."
During a 45-minute interview with CBS 5 Investigates, Anderson blamed his bankruptcy on a number of different factors, including a mysterious unidentified bank, a man at a bank and members of his own congregation.
"The Living Word Bible Church tithes dropped from $10 million to $4 million over the past few years, but the overhead didn't. So a tremendous amount of my money had to go into the church to make sure the staff and mortgage were paid," Anderson said. "I even gave my cars. I gave everything to keep this church alive."
Some former members of the church, such as Gaiser, are still paying for Anderson's advice.
"Yes, we are still paying for it," he said.
Yet the power of forgiveness is truly an amazing, powerful quality, as exhibited by Gaiser.
"I love Tom, I really do. I love Maureen, I love the boys. I don't blame them for what happened," Gaiser said.
Anderson has no plans to let bankruptcy slow him down. In fact, he says he has big plans for the Living Word Church, which includes an $18 million expansion. The new church, Anderson said, would resemble a mini city, complete with a 10,000-seat sanctuary.
Copyright 2012 CBS 5 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
Former church members question AZ pastor's financial adviceMore>>