Deters: A Real-Life Nightmare, and a Possible Vision

There were a lot of nights like this by 1996.It’s Friday in Lincoln, Nebraska. June 26. There’s been an evening service at the First Church of the Nazarene, which is over now. A dozen people have remained behind, at first clustered in the sanctuary, then moving to a classroom. There they settle into chairs around a well-dressed middle aged woman, who talks to them earnestly for two hours.

The speaker is Priscilla Deters, and at some points she speaks as if her world is collapsing. She weeps. “If those terrible wicked people had not hurt [me],” she says, ” everything would be fine….If you only knew what I have been through,” she says, “these people will not get off my back.” She insists she is being persecuted for doing good deeds.

But then she dries the tears, and turns abruptly upbeat. “I am free and clear in California,” she insists, and “my businesses are thriving…they are growing all the time.”

Among her listeners are half a dozen couples, Nazarene ministers and their wives. They are uneasy and confused about what they are hearing. Four of the couples have invested money, a total of more than $72,000, with Deters’ Productions Plus.

Most of them have been told they were buying shares in large electronic signs, which were to carry paid advertising and be placed in shopping malls. They had been assured that profits from these signs were large and steady, and from this money they would get both interest payments and matching gifts, in rapid and reliable succession.

But they are worried about their money tonight. Some have received a few interest payments, which then stopped; others have received nothing. What, they want to know, is going on? Where is their money?

Deters repeatedly assures them that “I have the money, I definitely have the money”; and “yes, the money is in a safe place where they cannot find it.”

“They” are a mysterious coalition of persecutors, who seem to be coming at her from all directions.

But tonight she wants to talk specifically about one set of persecutors: the general Authorities of the Nazarene Church. They have placed an injunction against her, Deters insists, and she pleads with the group to lobby these leaders to lift the injunction so she can get back to her mission and pay back all that she owes these people, and more.

The ministers are surprised to hear that their church leadership is carrying on such a vendetta; more than one asks for evidence. Deters goes out to her car, and returns with a stapled sheaf of legal documents.

A minister scrutinizes it, and finds it is an affidavit, drafted by the General counsel for the Nazarene Church, and submitted to the California Department of Corporations. The affidavit was sent in connection with an injunction issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court in August of 1995, almost a year before.

The injunction has forbidden Priscilla Deters from offering what the court finds are “unlicensed securities.” It also froze her bank accounts, and appointed a receiver to take over all her assets, and redistribute them for the benefit of persons and groups with claims against them.

Flipping through the affidavit, the minister sees no direct connection between the statement and what may have happened to their money.

An injunction is certainly unfortunate, he says, and others echo him. But what about our money? When will we receive the promised interest payments, and matching gifts? Several of the ministers have assigned the promised matching money to their churches; but no matching funds have yet appeared, long after the date they were supposed to appear.

Deters’ answers to these queries are rambling and evasive, and the meeting finally breaks up.

Afterward, the ministers’ wives are particularly uneasy. One woman, who thought of herself as a good judge of character, found Deters “completely unreadable.” Another decided she was “either dishonest or delusional.”

All the same, just to be safe, one of the ministers writes a letter to the Nazarene authorities on behalf of those present. It suggests that if indeed the church was the body sustaining the injunction, that it be dropped, so she would have a chance to repay what she owed them. If she didn’t, the letter added hopefully, legal action could be reinstituted.

“I have no assurance that the action I proposed would have been successful,” the writer admits later, “nor do I know if it would have been feasible.”

It is not successful. By late that summer, with no money forthcoming, the couples are writing affidavits of their own, backing up a motion by the receiver to hold Deters in contempt of the injunction.

In January of 1997, Deters was convicted of civil contempt, and fined $2,000.

A vision

The Possibility Thinker’s Creed:

      • “When faced with a mountain,
      • I will not quit!
      • I will keep on striving
      • until I climb over
      • find a pass through,
      • tunnel underneath,
      • or simply stay and turn
      • the mountain into a gold mine–
      • with God’s help!”
    • –Robert Schuller, pastor of the Crystal Cathedral

Allow me a kind of fantasy.

Hard by Disneyland, what was originally called the Crystal Cathedral rises out of the southern California asphalt, it thousands of glass panes reflecting the light. From this prototypical, world-famous megachurch, the late Robert Schuller once preached what he called “possibility thinking” for years, to an audience of thousands in the sanctuary, plus millions more who watched his “Hour of Power” broadcasts, read his books, or nowadays tune into his website.

I’m imagining a Sunday morning in, say, 1982. The large Cathedral choir is singing their hearts out, perhaps in one of the large concert performances the Cathedral mounts periodically. The music might even be original, composed by the church’s talented staff.

In the choir is Priscilla Deters. She has been a gospel singer all her life. And she has needed the comfort and inspiration of the music. It has helped her through a recent divorce and other family traumas. It has also been a source of prestige, and money.

On this imagined morning, Priscilla Deters does more than sing, however. Amidst the music, she has a vision. It is a vision of a ministry all her own, one which would take her talents and make of them a way to, in one of her favorite phrases, “raise up the King of Kings.” As god blesses me, she realizes, I will be able to return a portion to others in the work of the church. God will use me and this work as a channel for his blessings to his people.

What kind of blessings?

Money. Everywhere she looks, there are ministries–churches, schools, missions–and they all need money. And the arts can be a way of assembling money for these ministries: especially multimedia concerts, which bring together lights and images with music, and when done right can draw large crowds.

How is this to happen? After all, Priscilla Deters is a schoolteacher, running classrooms rather than ministries. She has several children in school, with college coming on. Her elderly mother is in frail health. How is all this to happen?

She is not worried. If she was a Quaker, she would say, “Way will open.” But at the Crystal cathedral this is phrased another way:

“When faced with a mountain,

I will not quit!”

As a reporter I acknowledge that have no hard evidence that the event just described really took place. But I have ventured to imagine it because something like it did happen. Or at least, that is what Priscilla Deters appears to believe, and what those who still stand behind her believe also. She is a woman on whom God has placed his hand. Further, the setting is accurate: Deters did sing in the choir of the Crystal Cathedral for years. Also unmistakably historical is the fact that within two years, she really did have her own ministry: Productions Plus, which was registered as a business for the first time in Los Angeles County on January 9, 1984. By then she had also left teaching to pursue it.

In addition, she had acquired one of the best and staunchest supporters that Productions Plus would ever have: T. Eugene Coffin, a member of the Crystal Cathedral staff, an informal pastor to President Richard Nixon, and one of the most eminent evangelical Friends in America.

Priscilla Deters was on her way.

A detailed report of her career and its shocking outcome is posted elsewhere on this block as, “Fleecing the Faithful.”

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