HAMMOND — A northwestern Indiana megachurch fired its pastor Tuesday amid a police investigation into the independent Baptist congregation and a college it operates.
The First Baptist Church of Hammond issued a news release saying pastor Jack Schaap committed "a sin that has caused him to forfeit his right to be our pastor." It said church representatives were cooperating with police.
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich told The Times of Munster that his department began a criminal investigation of the church and Hyles Anderson College after talking with high-ranking representatives of the congregation. He declined to identify the target of the investigation or other details.
First Baptist elected Schaap its pastor in February 2001, a month after the late Rev. Jack Hyles died of a heart attack.
Schaap, now 54, is a Holland, Mich., native who came to northwestern Indiana in 1977 to attend and graduate from Hyles-Anderson College, which Hyles founded four decades ago. He met and married Hyles' youngest daughter, Cindy, and served the church early in his career as an assistant youth director, bus captain and mentor to young students. He preached and taught in the college, and was its vice president for four years before becoming pastor. Schaap committed himself to carrying on Hyles' fundamentalist view of the Christian faith.
A telephone message seeking comment was left at Schaap's home in Dyer.
Hyles' charismatic leadership as pastor of the church beginning in 1959 helped it grow into a megachurch with hundreds of church buses transporting thousands of worshippers across northwest Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs to what it bills as the "World's Largest Sunday School."
The congregation has 15,000 members, church spokesman Eddie Wilson said.
The church also operates two K-through-12 schools in the Hammond area and has hosted large conventions of religious leaders.
The church's website states that under Schaap, First Baptist moved into a new 7,500-seat auditorium, doubled its average weekly attendance and sent mission teams to Africa, Thailand and India.
Tuesday's announcement comes 19 years after the church was rocked by the conviction of a deacon, A.V. Ballenger, for fondling a 7-year-old girl in a Sunday school class.