Church heads targeted in lawsuit

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

COVINGTON -- Control of Mount Zion Baptist Church has been a long-running battle in the church's history, based on testimony heard this week during a bench trial before Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn.

Former members, pastors and officeholders have testified that Clayton "Skeet" Dial, who is the church's only deacon, and his daughter, Angela Ballard, kept a tight rein on church growth over the years, withheld financial documents and were instrumental in the resignation of many pastors.

When Dial conveyed the church and its property suddenly on Aug. 5 to nonprofit organization God's Hope Builders Inc. and its principal, Clarence Hall, several members of the church, including Pastor Chris Allen and his family, filed a complaint against Dial, Ballard, Hall and God's Hope.

Membership trouble

Dial and Ballard have alleged that Allen was improperly adding members who were not Southern Baptists to the church rolls. They contend these new members were not properly voted on and, therefore, were not bona fide members of Mount Zion.

On July 4, Dial announced to the church that he, as chairman of the deacons, was implementing a 50-day membership freeze. A church meeting held a few days later on July 7 turned contentious when a moderator brought in by Dial and Ballard told many in attendance to leave because they were not listed on the church membership rolls.

When the moderator realized how volatile the issue was, he suggested that the attendees all vote again to clear up any membership discrepancies.

It was soon after this that Dial asked the moderator to leave.

On Wednesday, plaintiffs' attorney Michael Waldrop pressed church clerk Kelli Ballard -- Angela Ballard's daughter-in-law -- to explain why many of these individuals who believed they had been accepted as members at Mount Zion were not included in the church rolls.

Kelli Ballard was named to the position of church clerk in August 2009 after her mother-in-law held the job. She served for a little more than a year in that position.

Kelli Ballard said she would normally fill out membership cards for individuals who wanted to transfer their letter of membership from another church. She would give those forms to Angela Ballard to send off to the former church, which was then supposed to send back a letter of confirmation.

Kelli Ballard said she filled out cards for individuals she saw present themselves for membership at Sunday morning worship services. She said she did not attend many services, though, because she and Angela Ballard worked in children's church most Sunday mornings.

When Waldrop asked her how she would know if someone walked the aisle to become a member if she weren't in the sanctuary, Kelli Ballard said someone would have to tell her.

"Did you ever ask the chairman of the deacons (Dial), your mother-in-law or Chris Allen if anyone became a member after church?" Waldrop asked.

"No, I shouldn't have to," Kelli Ballard said. "They should come to me."

This practice stood in direct contrast to former clerks, such as Bettie Shepherd, who served as clerk at Mount Zion for more than 25 years. Shepherd testified that she routinely sent off the membership cards for new members to their former church the day after they expressed a desire to join Mount Zion. Shepherd said she took the initiative to find out who may have joined on those occasions she was not at church.

Under lock and key

How membership was handled was not the only concern raised about how business was handled at Mount Zion.

Angela Ballard served not only as the church clerk, but also as the church treasurer. Robert "Nick" Reed had been a member of Mount Zion for some time, but in the spring of 2009 he and some other members became concerned about how the church finances were handled.

"We saw some irregularities in the monthly financial statements, so I asked to see all the backup documents," Reed said Wednesday.

He testified Angela Ballard never gave him the financial records. Soon after he made his request, the church sent Reed a letter telling him he was no longer welcome as a member of Mount Zion.

This was not the only time Ballard was accused of not releasing financial documents.

Pastor Chris Allen also took the stand Wednesday. He said a few months after he was hired in March 2010, some members had questions about the church's finances.

"I had no idea what the finances looked like," Allen said.

He said he asked Ballard to prepare a full report for the next business meeting, but she did not have them in time for that June 23 business meeting.

Allen said Ballard also did not permit him to have access to the church's business office where membership and financial records were kept. He said he repeatedly asked Ballard for a key and she repeatedly refused.

"She asked why I needed it and I told her, because I'm the pastor of the church, the overseer of the church and I'm responsible for what happens here ultimately," Allen said.

Allen said he never received a key and ended up changing the locks so he would have access to the office.

Relations sour

Allen testified he was caught unaware that relations between him and Ballard and Dial had grown out of control. Allen said Dial seemed very satisfied with the work he was doing and was a "big encouragement to me," although he felt Ballard was increasingly frustrated with him.

It became clear that things had gone awry, Allen said, when Dial stood up at church a couple weeks later and announced the membership freeze with the culminating action of calling the membership of Allen and his family into question.

The trial in this matter will continue at 9 a.m. May 17.