Testimony: Church given away to keep it Southern Baptist

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

COVINGTON -- Preserving its place as a Southern Baptist church was the driving force behind Clayton Dial's decision to give away all the property and assets of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, according to testimony given Tuesday in Newton County Superior Court.

In August, without warning to its members, Dial conveyed the nearly 200-year-old Mt. Zion Baptist Church and all its physical assets to God's Hope Builders Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Conyers. Attendees learned of the conveyance only after arriving at the church as usual one day to find the doors locked and no trespassing signs posted.

The corporate entity of the church, Mount Zion Baptist Church of Oxford, Ga., Inc., and a number of the congregants, including Pastor Chris Allen and his family, then filed a lawsuit against Dial, his daughter Angela Ballard and God's Hope Builders Inc. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged Dial and Ballard gave away the church because they feared the number of new members coming to the church was eroding their control over the church.

Dial took the stand Tuesday before Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn and said he took the "extreme remedy" of conveying the church to God's Hope Builders because he feared that Pastor Allen was taking steps to move Mt. Zion away from its affiliation as a Southern Baptist church to become an Independent Baptist church.

When plaintiffs' attorney Michael Waldrop asked how he knew this was Allen's intent, Dial said he had heard rumors from a couple members at the church.

"Maybe he mentioned it one time from the pulpit," Dial said.

He said this fear was "the main reason" he conveyed the church and its property to God's Hope Builders.

Waldrop then questioned Dial's commitment to the Southern Baptist association. Waldrop referenced a letter Dial -- who serves as the sole deacon and director of Mt. Zion Baptist Church -- sent in 2009 to the Stone Mountain Baptist Association, which is an assembly of local Southern Baptist churches, saying Mt. Zion wished to withdraw from the SMBA.

Waldrop also pointed out that Allen is not the only Independent Baptist preacher to have been called by Dial or voted on by him to serve as Mt. Zion's pastor. In fact, 10 of the last 12 pastors have been ordained as Independent Baptists, he said.

Waldrop then suggested Dial and Ballard -- who served as the church's financial officer -- became nervous that the family's stronghold over the church was slipping as membership increased under Pastor Allen, who came on board in March 2010.

Dial testified he became concerned that individuals were improperly being accepted as members to the church. Not bringing up his concerns to the pastor or other members "was a mistake on my part," he said.

Instead, he had his daughter call an attorney, Michael Wetzel, to serve as a mediator for a special called business meeting in July.

Wetzel testified that emotions at that meeting reached a fever pitch when certain people who believed they were members of the church were asked to leave because their names did not appear on the official church roll.

In an effort to clear up any confusion, Wetzel said, "I asked what would keep people from becoming members today and Mr. Dial stood up and said, 'I have lost confidence in you,' so I left."

During his testimony, Dial said he did not remember Wetzel offering that as a solution at that meeting.

Clarence Hall, one of the directors of God's Hope, was also called to testify. He told Waldrop he accepted the conveyance of the church and its assets because Larry Cheek, associational missionary with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association, suggested that would be a good way to preserve Mt. Zion as a Southern Baptist church.

"It was a safeguard to ensure Mt. Zion remained a Southern Baptist church," Hall said. "The church has got a pretty good history with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association."

According to the SMBA website, the Stone Mountain Baptist Association was originally formed as The Rock Mountain Baptist Association in 1839 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church with 588 members in 16 churches.

Hall admitted he had virtual free reign to do whatever he wanted with the church.

"I can house Martians if they come down, but if Martians do come down, they'll be Southern Baptist," he said.

Testimony in the case will continue today beginning at 9 a.m.