The Rev. Fulton Buntain, who shepherded thousands with an upbeat message about overcoming life’s obstacles during his 40 years as pastor of Tacoma’s Life Center, died Saturday night. He was 86.
Buntain created one of the Northwest’s first megachurches – before the word was even coined. What separated him from other local religious leaders was the way he carried out a vision to care for people from cradle to grave.
On the campus of Life Center, he built a 750-student school, ages preschool through 12th grade, and a senior housing complex.
The Canadian-born Buntain retired as Life Center’s senior pastor in 2005, but retained the title of pastor emeritus.
He died at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community. Buntain’s health had deteriorated in recent months, said the Rev. Dean Curry, who succeeded him as pastor of Life Center. It remains one of Tacoma’s largest churches with Sunday worship attendance of about 4,000.
“He was like a father to me,” Curry said. “I have never met a kinder, greater human being.”
Curry, who worked with Buntain for 20 years, said Buntain would regularly give him money out of his own pocket to buy groceries, school supplies and pay rent for people anonymously.
“He just loved people,” Curry said. “He had a huge heart.”
A memorial service hasn’t been scheduled yet. Curry said it would take place at Life Center in the next two weeks.
In 2005, when churchgoers celebrated Buntain’s 40th anniversary as their pastor, they described him as an inspiring father figure who was always there to give a positive push.
With his four children looking on during those anniversary services, Buntain said everyone’s life – including his own – is bumpy at times.
“Tough times come, but tough people survive,” Buntain said in 2005. “You can make it.”
Brian Sonntag, the state auditor and a member of Life Center, explained then how he kept a pack of Buntain’s motivational statements – called “chinlifters” – on his desk.
Those spiritual quips Buntain became known for included:
• “The only time you fail is the last time you try!”
• “You have to be tough to hang on to your dream!”
• “You can’t change yesterday. You can learn from it.”
• “Things you appreciate tend to get better; things you depreciate tend to get worse.”
That last slogan was Buntain’s way of urging people to look on the bright side of life’s challenges – when a spouse is difficult or a job is stressful.
Buntain also took on challenges with more than slogans.
In 1982, at one member’s urging, Buntain started a 12-step group for alcohol and drug dependency at the church.
Buntain said in a 2005 interview the key to his success boiled down to one goal: “Find a need and meet it.”
“I am convinced that Jesus meant it when he said, ‘I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.’”
Buntain conceded he wasn’t perfect.
“I’m a pastor,” he said. “I’m not the pope.”
It wasn’t easy for him to retire in 2005. He cried in front of the church’s board of trustees and deacons that he chaired.
When he wasn’t busy leading his church, traveling or spending time with his family, Buntain liked to walk near his Tacoma home and play golf.
Buntain arrived from Long Beach, Calif., in the era of Vietnam and The Beatles, becoming the congregation’s seventh pastor in 1965. Under his leadership, the congregation grew in size and influence.
After a few years at South 12th and G streets, the church moved to its current site at South 19th Street and Union Avenue. The sanctuary there was destroyed by fire Nov. 30, 1975. In 1977, the church completed its current sanctuary.
On social issues, Buntain was thoroughly conservative. He opposed abortion and taught that homosexual behavior was contrary to his understanding of the Bible.
Despite the size of his church and an annual budget reaching $17 million, Buntain didn’t focus on taking controversial stands.
And more than going out into the community with new programs, Buntain concentrated on developing the many facilities on his church campus – and on inviting new people.
Many people know Life Center from its “Singing Christmas Tree” musical program, which attracts more than 20,000 people in December. He created the television show “Introduction to Life,” which included interviews and service broadcasts and aired for more than 35 years.
He also was a founder of Mission of Mercy, which funded hospital care and feeding programs for children in Calcutta, India.
Life Center is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. But Buntain led his congregation to a less ecstatic, more mainstream form of worship that would appeal to people regardless of their faith background.
The Rev. Robert Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., was a major influence on Buntain.
He attended Schuller’s church growth seminar, which led Buntain to transform his ministry in 1972.
Buntain said his ministry was to get people to heaven – and through the week.
He took pride in saying his congregation remained strong and undivided during his 40 years as senior pastor.
“I enjoyed the journey,” Buntain said in 2005. “It’s been a wonderful ride.”firstname.lastname@example.org