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Focus of trial still on faith

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on the second day of the trial concerning the status of Mount Zion Baptist Church. The trial will resume May 17.

COVINGTON -- After two full days of testimony, the trial involving Mount Zion Baptist Church will take a three-week break. Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn said the case will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 17.

Much of the testimony from witnesses on Wednesday concerned how devoted Mount Zion was to the Southern Baptist faith.

The case centers on whether two longtime members of the church -- Clayton "Skeet" Dial and his daughter, Angela Ballard -- had the right to convey the property, possessions and assets of the church to a nonprofit organization, God's Hope Builders Inc., which is headed by Clarence Hall of Conyers.

The conveyance occurred Aug. 5 without warning to members of the church who learned of it when they showed up for services as usual one day and found the doors locked and "no trespassing" signs on the doors.

The members filed a complaint against Ballard, Dial, Hall and God's Hope Builders.

Ballard and Dial have contended that Mount Zion's pastor, Chris Allen, was improperly packing the church with friends and family in an effort to move Mount Zion away from its affiliation with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association and to become an Independent Baptist church. Dial, who serves as the church's sole deacon and director, testified Tuesday that he conveyed the church and its assets to God's Hope in order to protect it from losing its Southern Baptist identity.

Darrell King, who is the missions project specialist with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association and has been a longtime preacher, served as pastor of Mount Zion Baptist in 1995. He testified that he recommended and helped the church incorporate that year.

"Mount Zion has always been a Southern Baptist church from its inception and has been connected to the Stone Mountain Baptist Association," King said.

He said Southern Baptist churches act in cooperation with other Southern Baptist churches, the local association -- in this case the Stone Mountain Baptist Association -- the state convention and the national Southern Baptist Convention. He referenced the Baptist Faith and Message, which is a manual that "expresses the faith of the Southern Baptist Convention."

King said a member church will participate in "certain events and activities, and work together to finance, pray for and be a part of other ministries."

During King's testimony, Ozburn cautioned attorneys Michael Waldrop and Robert Stansfield that the testimony was beginning to wander into the murky waters between law and theology. The judge said it was a key area that he will have to decide when making his ruling.

King said it was not possible for a minister ordained at an Independent Baptist church to be ordained at a Southern Baptist church. He said if a church withdrew from its local association, it would no longer be Southern Baptist, but instead independent. King clarified "independent" in this sense was simply an unaffiliated church versus Independent Baptist, which is one of 19 types of Baptist organizations.

Attorney Stansfield, who represents the defendants, asked King what the effect would be if a Southern Baptist church employed a pastor who was ordained as an Independent Baptist.

"The search committee would be very foolish and would be going against all recommendations to not look for a pastor of like faith and order," King said.

Ten of the last 12 pastors at Mount Zion have been Independent Baptist preachers, a fact that King said was "very concerning."

In his experience, King said weak churches are particularly vulnerable. He said generally when Independent Baptist ministers become involved with Southern Baptist churches, they either merge into the customs or a division occurs relatively quickly between the church and the pastor and the pastor leaves.

Chris Allen, who was ordained Independent Baptist, was hired as pastor of Mount Zion in March 2010. Allen testified Wednesday that his affiliation was of little to no concern to Dial, when he brought Allen to the church.

"Brother Skeet told me, 'We know you're an independent preacher and we're a Southern Baptist church. If it doesn't matter to you, it doesn't matter to us,'" Allen said.

"He said, 'In fact, if you want to go Independent, we'd be OK with that.'"

Allen said he was not interested in making any moves to sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, but was more concerned that the church's membership had dwindled from more than 100 to just 15 or 20 people.

He said during cross-examination that he did not attend Stone Mountain Baptist Associational meetings nor participate in any of those activities. He said he did not adhere closely to the Baptist Faith and Message and did not pass out copies of it to new members.

"Things we do are consistent with the Baptist faith. When I look for a church manual, I go to the Scriptures," the pastor said.

He said he was surprised that his status as an Independent Baptist preacher was an issue for Dial.

"Being told by the CEO and chairman of the deacons that we don't go to meetings and we don't support anything outside of missions, I said fine," Allen said. "If I had been told to begin with that the church was deeply rooted Southern Baptist, then yes, that would have been taken care of."