COVINGTON -- The congregation of a nearly 200-year-old Newton County church has instituted a lawsuit to prevent the church and property from being given away.
Worshipers arrived at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Mt. Zion Road near the Georgia International Horse Park in early August and were stunned to find the doors locked with no trespassing signs posted, according to Conyers attorney Mike Waldrop.
The congregants found that the lone church deacon, Clayton Dial, also known as Steve Dial, and his daughter Angela Ballard, former church financial officer, had transferred all church property and financial assets, ("And when I say 'all,' I mean 'all,'" Waldrop said. "Everything from the sanctuary to the cleaning supplies to the song books.") to God's Hope Builders Inc.
Named in the lawsuit are defendants God's Hope Builders Inc., whose registered agent is Clarence Hall of 1849 Flat Shoals Road, Conyers; Angela Ballard of 2163 Ga. Highway 81, Oxford; and Clayton "Steve" Dial of 2151 Ga. Highway 81, Oxford.
Attempts by the Citizen to reach the defendants for comments for this story were unsuccessful.
Waldrop said the situation developed when the church fell on lean times and membership and attendance dwindled. Already a small congregation, attendance fell to about 20 each Sunday. The seven-member deacon board was reduced to only one man, Dial, and his daughter, Ballard, was in charge of the church finances.
But early in 2010, a new pastor was called to the church and the membership was rejuvenated.
"Attendance grew to where there were up to 50 to 75 people, basically tripling attendance," Waldrop said. "Everything seemed to be going reasonably well."
That is, until the new pastor and church members began asking for financial records of the church. According to the church bylaws, a financial report was to be submitted monthly, but Waldrop said no financial records had been made available since September 2009.
"Ballard wouldn't let anybody see the records and wouldn't provide a monthly report," Waldrop said. "That became frustrating and some began to believe and speculate that some alleged impropriety was taking place ... began to suspect her of mishandling funds."
The lawsuit states, "By June 1, 2010, Defendant Ballard was under a lot of pressure to make the financial records of the Church available for review. Defendant Dial, who is Defendant Ballard's father, began to become worried for his daughter. He realized that his family no longer controlled the church. He saw that the membership in the church was growing almost every Sunday, and he realized that each time a new member joined, his family's voting strength was diluted.
"On Sunday, July 4, 2010, Defendant Dial notified the church that a called business meeting would be held the following Wednesday, July 7, 2010, to deal with membership issues, and that he, as the church's only deacon, was freezing membership so that no new members could join the church for a 50 day period.
"It was not coincidental that the 50 day membership freeze was designed to attempt to ensure that no new members were accepted into the church which would further dilute his family's control and voting power prior to the church's annual business meeting, which was scheduled for Aug. 11, 2010."
"Things got testier," Waldrop said, adding that the business meeting turned into "a knock down, drag out" affair, with Ballard and Dial leaving the meeting early, but not before they had contended that many of the people there were not members at all.
Waldrop said those left at the meeting tried to correct any perceived irregularities, going so far as to vote on membership once more for themselves, although they had no doubt that they were all members.
They also voted to remove Angela Ballard from the positions of financial secretary and secretary of the corporation.
The lawsuit alleges it was after this that "Defendants Dial and Ballard conspired to gut shoot both the members of the church and the church itself. They developed a plan to secretly divest the church of all its assets."
Waldrop said the two, without any vote by the membership of the church, conveyed the church's real and personal property and financial assets "for no consideration whatsoever" to God's Hope Builders of Conyers.
"The emotional viciousness, hatred and complete lack of respect and concern for the feelings of the members of the church which Defendants Dial and Ballard supposedly loved and served is incapable of being described by words alone," the lawsuit states.
Waldrop said when the pastor contacted Clarence Hall of God's Hope Builders he was told by Hall that he now owned and held deed to the property and that the church would no longer have access to it.
When Waldrop was consulted, he contacted a member of God's Hope Builder's board of directors, Joe Hughes, former pastor of Heritage Hills Baptist Church, and asked if the church might obtain special permission to hold homecoming services at the church. Hughes told Waldrop he would ask Hall and reported back that Hall had refused the request.
Waldrop said that Hall did call him on Aug. 14, and indicated he would be willing to transfer the real and the personal property back to the church for "a fee," but that he would retain the church's financial accounts.
When Waldrop inquired as to the amount of the fee, Hall told him it would cost the church $100,000.
"Defendant GHB, Inc. did nothing to earn the real and personal property of the church, paid nothing for the real and personal property of the church, and exchanged nothing of value for the real and personal property of the church. However, after holding the real and personal property for one week and two days, Defendant GHB, Inc. wanted the same church that either purchased or was given all of the referenced land, that paid to build all of the buildings situated on the referenced land, and that purchased all of the personal property located in the buildings to pay $100,000 to return its own property to them," the lawsuit states, adding that it was adding insult to injury to retain the financial accounts which were comprised of tithes and offerings to that church.
At this time, an emergency restraining order has been granted the church to prohibit God's Hope Builders from "altering, leasing, renting, removing, concealing, giving away, commingling, wasting, encumbering, transferring, spending, trading, destroying or otherwise disposing or secreting any real, personal or financial assets" of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
"It is clear the moral right is on our side," Waldrop said. "The legal right remains to be determined by the court."