COLUMBIA, S.C., JULY 15 -- A federal bankruptcy judge today appointed an independent examiner with wide-ranging authority to monitor Chapter 11 proceedings of the financially strapped PTL ministry.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Rufus Reynolds appointed William E.S. Robinson, a Columbia attorney, to investigate financial dealings of PTL and examine any money transfers of the ministry that appear to be fraudulent or illegal.

The court declined to act on a motion that PTL founders Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and thousands of their "lifetime partners" be declared creditors of the bankrupt ministry. The Bakkers' attorney, Ryan Hovis, said the court may act on that matter later.

"The issue was whether an examiner would be appointed," Hovis said after the 45-minute court hearing. "Whether the Bakkers are creditors was not the issue in this case. I'm sure sooner or later they {PTL} will raise the issue or I will."

Hovis had filed a motion asking the court to appoint an independent examiner and give the Bakkers and lifetime partners status as creditors.

But PTL countered with a request for an examiner with more specific powers and duties than Hovis requested and said the Bakkers did not qualify as creditors and had no standing in the court.

A lifetime partner in PTL is one who has contributed at least $1,000 in return for the promise of four days and three nights free lodging in the ministry's Heritage Grand Hotel each year for life. Many of the partners have contributed several thousand dollars, getting a partnership for each $1,000.

Lawyers for both sides said they were satisfied with the terms of the judge's order, approved from the bench and expected to be signed within the next few days.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Robert Potter issued an order today in Charlotte, N.C., convening a special federal grand jury that will begin meeting next month to hear testimony in the criminal investigation of Bakker and his former top aides.

Potter's order says the grand jury is to hold its first session Aug. 17 and continue "for one week every month as may be required." The investigation is expected to last at least six months and to examine evidence of tax, wire and mail fraud.

Potter's order doesn't spell out why the jury has been convened. But sources acknowledge the panel will hear witnesses and evidence in the IRS and Postal Service investigation of former PTL executives.

Reynolds gave the examiner until Oct. 1 to complete his investigation, which is to begin immediately, and until Oct. 10 to file a report with the court.

The judge also set a tentative timetable for completion of a reorganization plan by PTL, setting Dec. 22 as the date for a "confirmation" vote by the creditors and other interested parties.

Under the bankruptcy code, PTL has exclusive rights to devise a plan in the first 120 days under Chapter 11. After that, creditors and others may offer their own plans.

Reynolds said he had visited Heritage USA, PTL's Christian theme park in Fort Mill, S.C., on two occasions and was impressed.

"It's a real, real nice park," he said. "It has a great future, in my view. My feeling is there is no reason that it shouldn't be successful."

But the judge called for measures to "cut out the fat" in the PTL operation and suggested that with the park's immense popularity, PTL management should consider imposing a $1 admission fee. "It's feasible to charge people to get in," he said. "Most parks do."

In another development, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, PTL's new chairman, told the ministry's television audience today that if the lifetime partners are made creditors, the ministry and its retreat would be doomed.

"We have $70 million worth of debt and we are committed to paying that back over time. We just can't pay it all at once," Falwell said.

"But we have a major problem with our lifetime partnerships," he said, claiming the Bakkers had "sold $100 million to $180 million worth of partnerships" before they fled the ministry in disgrace.

"The problem is we have oversold by 325 percent when the Towers are finished . . . 600 percent without the Towers," he said in a reference to a hotel under construction at Heritage USA.

The PTL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors June 12.

Reynolds was asked by both sides to appoint an independent examiner. But PTL lawyers asked the judge to reject the Bakkers' motion for an examiner with broad powers, and to turn down their request to make both the couple and the partners creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings.