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Church Universal shifting focus away from Prophet

Billings Gazette/April 2, 1999

CORWIN SPRINGS (AP) - The president of the Church Universal and Triumphant says the religious sect is shedding its focus on spiritual leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet, becoming less authoritarian and more decentralized.

President Gilbert Cleirbaut noted that with Prophet ill and retiring, church needs to end its "codependence" on her and members need to become more "interdependent" on each other.

There are no plans to appoint a new spiritual leader after Prophet retires, Cleirbaut said in a recent interview.

"The torch has passed," he said. "All of us now have to become spiritual leaders."

Cleirbaut said Prophet and her late husband, Mark Prophet, were appointed by the spiritual entities the church calls "Ascended Masters," not by humans.

Over the years, church followers were told Prophet was one of two people through whom the Ascended Masters relayed messages. The other was her first husband, who founded the church in 1958.

"We have to be spiritual, more loving and service-oriented toward mankind," he said.

In addition, the church will no longer depend on its former "authoritarian" style of leadership used by Prophet, Cleirbaut said.

Toward that goal, the church is looking at ways to reduce its staff at its headquarters in Corwin Springs. Staff cutbacks already have reduced the number of employees at church headquarters from 476 to 171 in the past 2 1/2 years.

Cleirbaut also said he has requested a survey to determine exactly how many members the church has; none has ever been conducted.

Cleirbaut estimated, however, that membership dropped by about 50 percent during the church's so-called "shelter phase" 10 years ago, when Prophet warned of a possible apocalypse that never happened. He said he believes the church has now regained perhaps 30 percent of the lost membership.

Church Universal and Triumphant teachings incorporate elements of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Use of alcohol and tobacco is denounced, as is gambling.

Prophet, who was diagnosed last fall with Alzheimer's disease, announced at the church's annual New Year's conference that she would retire as spiritual leader.

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