Staff photo: Erin Evans. This church building and surrounding property has been the subject of litigation for several months as two factions argued over whether the lone deacon of the church, Clayton "Skeet" Dial, had the authority to give the church and its assets away to God's Hope Builders of Conyers. In an order handed down Wednesday, Judge Samuel Ozburn found he did not.
COVINGTON -- God's Hope Builders Inc. must return the property and assets of Mt. Zion Baptist Church to church members.
Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn issued an order Wednesday in the case that pitted the pastor and more than 30 members of the church against the church's sole deacon, his daughter and God's Hope Builders.
The lawsuit was prompted when Clayton "Skeet" Dial and his daughter, Angela Ballard, conveyed in August all Mt. Zion's property and assets to a nonprofit organization, God's Hope Builders Inc., in Conyers. Dial served as the church's only deacon and Ballard served in various functions at Mt. Zion, including church clerk and treasurer.
A schism between Dial and Ballard and the pastor became heated during a congregational meeting held last July when Dial accused several congregants, including the pastor, of not being true members of the church. The members and Pastor Chris Allen learned of the conveyance only after arriving to church as usual one day in August and found no trespassing signs on the property and the doors locked.
The church members then sued Dial, Ballard and God's Hope Builders Inc., alleging the transaction was illegal. A three-day bench trial was held in May.
In his order, Ozburn answered two primary questions raised in the case: Was the transfer of the church property and assets "in the usual and regular course" of the church's activities and did the members of the church approve the transfer of the property. To both, the judge answered, "No."
"The unconditional transfer of all assets of the church for no consideration did not further any ... activities or purposes for the existence of the church," Ozburn wrote. "The reasons stated by defendant Clayton Dial for the transfer clearly show that this transfer was not in the 'usual and regular course of the activities' of the church."
In his testimony in May, Dial, who has been a member of Mt. Zion for more than 50 years, said he gave away the historic church, property and assets in an effort to preserve its Southern Baptist heritage. Dial said he feared Pastor Allen was taking overt steps to move the church toward an Independent Baptist doctrine; so giving the church away would assure that did not happen.
However, Dial admitted that he gave the church away to Clarence Hall with God's Hope Builders Inc. with no conditions or expectations of how the property would be used.
For his part, Hall said he intended to hold the property until a Southern Baptist church could be placed there, but he also admitted he was not bound by any agreement with Dial or Ballard to do so.
The judge, who had raised concerns during trial about the court being asked to decide matters of faith, threaded the needle in his order.
"This court clearly must avoid 'intrusion or excessive entanglement into ecclesiastical matters,'" he wrote, thereby declining to rule on the reasons Dial gave for conveying the property.
"However, conveying all property of the church unconditionally for no consideration to a third party will obviously prevent the church from conducting any activities, much less the very activity for which it was created," Ozburn stated.
In answering the question whether the members approved the property transfer, the judge tackled another critical question in the dispute: who are, in fact, members of Mt. Zion?
Ballard and Dial contended that most of the 37 plaintiffs in the case, including the pastor and his family, were not properly admitted as members and, therefore, had no standing in the case. Furthermore, they presented as evidence a resolution bearing 18 signatures of those they claimed were bona fide members of Mt. Zion and who agreed with the conveyance of the church to God's Hope Builders.
The judge looked skeptically at this resolution, pointing out that this "document is not dated, is not signed by defendant Angela Ballard as secretary of the church, and there is no seal affixed to it."
The defendants also claimed that Pastor Allen and his family could not have become members simply by transferring their letter of membership from another church since their previous church was Independent Baptist and not Southern Baptist.
Again, walking that fine line, the judge refused to delve into comparing doctrinal beliefs of churches. He did, however, point out that witnesses called by the defense to testify about doctrinal beliefs of Southern Baptists could not agree on what distinguishes a Southern Baptist from an Independent Baptist.
Ozburn then looked at each plaintiff's path to membership and determined whether they had become members of Mt. Zion through various methods, such as by statement of faith or transfer of letter from another church.
"However, regardless of the identity of the church members, the conveyance of all the property of the church by the defendants was not ratified or approved by the church membership," Ozburn wrote. "... Because of this failure to ratify or approve the transfer, it is unlawful."