COVINGTON — Who is a member of the church and how does one become a member of the church? The answer to these questions could be a crucial issue in deciding the future of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oxford.
A hearing between opposing factions at the church was held this week before Newton County Superior Court Judge Sam Ozburn. Arguments in the motion for partial summary judgment that were heard Wednesday laid the groundwork for the trial that is to be held next week.
The Mt. Zion lawsuit was filed after worshipers arrived at the church on Mt. Zion Road near the Georgia International Horse Park as usual one day in August last year to find the doors locked and with no trespassing signs posted. Congregants learned that Clayton Dial, also known as "Skeet" Dial — who served as the church's lone deacon — and his daughter, Angela Ballard — who had served as the financial officer for the church — had transferred all the church property to the nonprofit, God's Hope Builders Inc.
At issue in Wednesday's hearing was how the church's constitution dictates the processes by which individuals can become members of the church.
Attorney Robert Stansfield, who represents defendants God's Hope Builders Inc., Ballard and Dial, is seeking to remove four individuals as plaintiffs in the suit. Stansfield also brought into question the legitimacy of many of the other plaintiffs' membership to Mt. Zion, including the pastor and his family.
Stansfield said the church's articles of incorporation and bylaws that were adopted in 2005 strictly define membership to the nearly 200-year-old church, and lay out three paths to securing membership.
One way a person can join Mt. Zion, he said, is to make a profession of faith that he believes in and will conform to Southern Baptist principles.
The other two ways involve sending a letter of recommendation or statement from another church of "like faith and order," Stansfield said, the definition of which is a "term of art."
In other words, he said, a Methodist or an Assembly of God member cannot achieve membership to Mt. Zion by a letter or statement because that statement of faith does not "adhere to the Southern Baptist faith."
"The (current) pastor (Chris Allen) is, by his own admission, an Independent Baptist," Stansfield said. "He's never been affiliated with the Southern Baptist church."
Furthermore, he said, a special called meeting of the church body must be called to confirm membership, something that was not done the majority of the time, even in the case of Allen.
Stansfield said the church's governing documents dictate that the pastor must be a member of the church, but neither Allen nor his family — many of whom are also named as plaintiffs in the case — never became members.
Nonetheless, he said, none of the individuals listed as plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit against his clients because "the title holder and the only alleged injured party is the corporation."
"The members suffered no detriment," Stansfield said. "They come to church, put money in the plate and go home. … Their only damages is they have to worship someplace else."
Not so, said Mike Waldrop, who represents the plaintiffs, Mount Zion Baptist Church of Oxford, Georgia Inc., Martha Day, et al.
Waldrop argued that no special meeting of the church needed to be called to confirm membership. He said it was evident by action and deed that membership to Mt. Zion is conferred when individuals attend a service, walk the aisle and profess to the pastor their desire to become members. At that time, the pastor would announce that person's intent to join the church and call for a vote of the members.
"It's a custom of practice," Waldrop said. "Those individuals intended to join, and to the best of their knowledge, they are members. … A corporation cannot allow people to become members, lead them to believe and treat them as though they are members and then the corporation come back later when lawyers get involved and say, ‘No, you're not a member.'"
This, Waldrop said, is what the defendants are doing. Neither Dial nor his daughter, Angela Ballard, raised any objections or concerns that the church was not adhering to its bylaws when people presented themselves to be members. Indeed, nothing was said about the pastor's service during the time since he was hired in March 2010 until the lawsuit was filed in August, Waldrop argued.
"You can't lie in the bushes and you can't enjoy the fruits of a misunderstanding when it's convenient to do so," he said.
Waldrop said Allen operated with the understanding that when the church voted to hire him as pastor, they were effectively voting him in as a member.
Waldrop said it is nonsensical that the church would vote him in as pastor, pay him, allow him to act in the service as pastor, treat him as the pastor and then say they're not sure he is the pastor.
Even so, when questions of membership were raised during a contentious church meeting in July, congregants tried to correct any perceive irregularities, including taking votes on their membership once more.
Ozburn said he believed a "determinative issue" in the case is how to legally resolve the disparity between how a church is prescribed to act by its governing documents and how it acts in practice.
Waldrop said these arguments about membership obscure the real question at the center of the dispute, which is whether defendants Dial and Ballard could legally convey the church, the land and all its assets to God's Hope Builders Inc.
Ozburn said he will likely make a ruling on the issues heard in the motion hearing for partial summary judgment Tuesday. The bench trial is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday before Judge Ozburn.