It almost felt like returning to the scene of the crime.
Back when I was digging around on TV preacher Robert Tilton, people often called to say they had spotted him in a high-dollar shop at the Galleria or at the Westin Hotel there.
The Galleria Westin was where Bob and his wife, Marte, stayed while in town after they had secretly moved to a mansion in California.
Well, when Marte Tilton agreed to visit with me the other day, where did she suggest we meet? At the cafe just outside the Westin Hotel in the Galleria.
It felt a little weird. But I guess we're all creatures of habit.
To be honest, I lost interest in Brother Bob a long time ago. People still ask me about him. And I tell what little I know – that he moved to South Florida and carries on with a smaller, cheesier version of his TV ministry.
But it's Marte I have continued to wonder about. She's the one who stayed around – through the collapse of their church, through their divorce, through Bob's quick marriage and messy second divorce, through the laughingstock that the name Tilton became.
"God has done a lot of healing in my life," she said as we visited over coffee. We had found a quiet table out of the way, overlooking the ice-skating rink.
"I don't remember a lot of things – which I'm glad about. Obviously I wouldn't be sitting here today with you if I remembered a lot," she said, laughing.
And I laughingly told her how hurt I was to not get a single nasty mention in her recent book, The Only Way Out Is Through – Courage In Times of Trouble.
Rightfully, she gives credit for the ministry's public disgrace to Diane Sawyer's PrimeTime Live exposé. But Marte still insists that the central accusation of that program – that prayer requests went straight into the trash – was wrong.
"They were absolutely wrong. I set the system up. I knew how it was supposed to work," she said.
But on the other hand, she doesn't contend that the ministry was innocent. "I don't blame the media for all this," she said. "It has to do with the heart."
In her book, as well as face to face, Marte is frustratingly vague about the sins of the ministry. "There was a shift in our hearts," she said. "It was gradual. I can't say exactly how or when it happened."
But what happened?
"I can't speak for Bob. I was just trying to keep up. I became a workaholic instead of ministering to the people. When you don't have time to open your Christmas gifts for six months, you've got a real problem. Our focus had been lost.
"As for Bob, I don't know what happened. But obviously something happened in his heart or he would not have dropped his family as he did."
That's about all she will say about her ex-husband. She said they have spoken only twice in the last year.
"I don't hate him. We had 25 wonderful years together. We had four wonderful children. How could I hate him? I don't know why things happened like they did. But I know that God did a lot of good things in those 25 years, and that's what I try to look at."
The Tiltons have two grown children and two teenage sons who live here with Marte. She asked that I not specify their suburb.
"My kids have suffered a lot because of their last name," she said.
My biggest problem with the Tiltons was always one of stewardship. The ministry brought in $70 million a year at its peak, and the Tiltons controlled every cent. They lived like royalty – with no deacons to answer to, no elders, no oversight of any kind.
Yet Marte still sees no problem with their lifestyle. "Obviously it was a higher level than a lot of people lived. But not higher than a lot of high-profile ministers."
And what became of the millions of dollars in church property that she and Bob controlled?
"I have no idea," she said. "After the divorce, I was kicked out and cut off."
Since the divorce, Marte has operated a small gifts business. For a while, she sold from a kiosk at Vista Ridge Mall in Lewisville – feeling conspicuous and humiliated.
She speaks some at pastor conferences and women's retreats. But she knows she doesn't have the charisma of her ex-husband.
"I'm more of a behind-the-scenes person," she said. "My real gift is administration. I'm an organizer, for goodness' sake."
She hopes to turn that gift into consulting work for private schools and ministries.
As Marte talks, her voice warms most when she recalls those early days – when she and her exuberant young husband first got saved, when he felt called to begin a tiny church.
"Nobody could bring people to the Lord like Bob. It was thrilling and all so exciting," she said.
"Our hearts were pure."
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Marte Tilton: Our Hearts Were Pure
Here's an oldie but goodie from 2001 - A Steve Blow column in the Dallas Morning News where he visits with Marte Tilton on the occasion of her book, The Only Way Out is Through, being published.
Posted by Randy at 8:51 PM