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Judge ponders verdict in Mt. Zion Baptist Church case

File Photo

File Photo

COVINGTON -- Closing arguments have been filed in the case involving members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church who accuse a fellow member of improperly giving away the church's property and assets.

In August, Clayton "Skeet" Dial and his daughter, Angela Ballard, conveyed 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 as church clerk.

The congregation of Mt. Zion, including its pastor, learned of the conveyance only after arriving to church as usual one day to find 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.

After three days of testimony in May, Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn permitted attorneys in the case to

submit their closing arguments in writing by June 10.

Defendants' position

Robert Stansfield, the attorney representing the defendants, laid out in his closing arguments the reasons why Dial was legally permitted to give away the church's assets. He further argued that most of the plaintiffs in the case -- members of Mt. Zion, including Pastor Chris Allen and his family -- are not, in fact, members, and, therefore, have no standing to bring the action against Dial and Ballard.

One of the claims made by Dial during testimony was that he feared Pastor Allen was attempting to move the historically Southern Baptist church toward an independent Baptist doctrine.

Stansfield stated Allen took several steps in this direction, such as recruiting only independent preachers for stewardship events and a revival; promoting a summer camp sponsored by an independent church; making no efforts to communicate with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association or Larry Cheek, its associational missionary; and failing to participate in any mission activities of the Georgia Baptist Convention or Stone Mountain Baptist Association.

Because of these actions, Stansfield stated, "the transfer of property was in the usual and regular course of the (church's) activities."

Indeed, the conveyance was made to Clarence Hall, principal in God's Hope Builders, not as the ultimate act of control by Dial and Ballard, as the plaintiffs argue, but instead was made to ensure the Mt. Zion property be maintained as a Southern Baptist institution, Stansfield argued.

"The transfer was made to a trustee, God's Hope Builders Inc. to ensure that the property was to be used by and for a Southern Baptist congregation consistent with (Mt. Zion's) articles and the bylaws," Stansfield stated.

Furthermore, Stansfield argued, many of the "members" in the church are not members at all, having been improperly admitted to the church by Allen.

Stansfield delineated several examples to show that Pastor Allen failed to properly admit new members to the church, and acted instead in contradiction to the church's bylaws. For example, Stansfield asserts that no specially called meetings were held to admit new members. Indeed, Stansfield argues that this violation extends to Allen and his family, who were also not properly admitted as members of the church despite his being hired in March 2010 as pastor of Mt. Zion.

Stansfield also claims that Allen failed to ask for votes for membership on several occasions when people presented themselves for membership, negating the claims of many plaintiffs that they are indeed members of the church.

Stansfield said these actions were not merely oversights by Allen, but rather were calculated to take the church away from its Southern Baptist roots.

The attorney wrote that two witnesses associated with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association testified, "the strategy in insuring that a weak Southern Baptist church is transformed into (an) independent church is to add enough members who are of the independent Baptist tradition or enough new members who are not connected to the Southern Baptist tradition is to outvote the old members."

Plaintiffs' side

Michael Waldrop, who represents Mount Zion Baptist Church of Oxford, Georgia Inc., argued in his closing arguments brief that the claim by Dial that he gave away the church property and assets to protect its Southern Baptist tradition is a "red herring."

Waldrop stated that Dial testified that he never heard the pastor say his plan was to take the church independent, and in fact, it was Dial who authored a letter in 2009 to the Stone Mountain Baptist Association stating that Mt. Zion was withdrawing from the association.

Even if Dial were concerned about the direction Pastor Allen was taking the church, Waldrop continued, he never asked Allen to become more involved with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association.

Dial also never raised a concern about the way new members were admitted to the church under Allen's leadership nor did he ever voice an objection to an applicant becoming a member. Furthermore, Dial did not object to these new members' participation in church meetings reserved for members.

"Any of those actions might have been reasonable," Waldrop stated. "Defendant Dial acted far outside the usual and regular course of the church's activities when the only course of action that he considered was to give away all the church's assets."

Waldrop countered Stansfield's interpretation of Mt. Zion's bylaws governing new members. Waldrop argued in his brief that "specially called business meetings" can be called by the chairman of the deacons or the pastor with no advance notice, including during a regular church service. Votes on membership are to be taken during regular church services.

Waldrop concluded that when Allen presented new applicants for membership at the end of worship services, that action satisfied both provisions.

"Defendant Dial cannot now, when it is convenient and strategically advantageous to do so, claim that the plaintiffs are not members of the church," Waldrop stated.

With regard to the conveyance of the property to God's Hope Builders, Waldrop challenges Dial's assertion that he was protecting the church's Southern Baptist heritage.

"Both Defendant Dial and Clarence Hall of Defendant GHB admitted that ... Dial and Ballard gave all the church's assets to Defendant GHB with no strings attached," Waldrop wrote. "Defendant Dial admitted that he did not know any of the directors of Defendant GHB, and he did not even know of Defendant GHB until a few weeks before he transferred all of the church's assets."

Waldrop concluded his closing arguments by stating that the conveyance of the church's land, buildings, contents and approximately $50,000 in the bank, "totally bankrupted" the church and "completely and totally disenfranchised each member of the church."

"Likewise, the corporate church itself was not protected by Defendant Dial's actions, but instead was divested of over half a million dollars in assets for which it received absolutely nothing in return," Waldrop said.