Testimony examines history of Mount Zion

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

COVINGTON -- Court testimony revealed Tuesday that a charitable foundation with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association turned down the opportunity to receive all the Mt. Zion Baptist Church property, paving the way for another individual with ties to the SMBA to accept the conveyance.

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. The congregation of Mt. Zion, including its pastor, learned of the conveyance only after arriving at 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.

Testimony in the case presented before Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn revealed that prior to the conveyance Dial and Ballard had been in regular contact with Larry Cheek with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association in Conyers.

The SMBA is an organization of the Georgia Baptist Convention that works with 98 Southern Baptist churches in the local area. Mt. Zion is a member of the SMBA.

Mt. Zion has a history of suffering from steady, declining membership and a near-revolving door of pastors. For years, the Dial and Ballard families have held most of the leadership positions in the church. For instance, Ballard served as the church secretary and treasurer and clerk. Dial has served as the church's only deacon, and has referred to himself as CEO of Mt. Zion.

Cheek said Tuesday that he refers to Mt. Zion as "a family church," one that lends itself to turmoil.

"There've been problems in that church for years -- it's no secret," he said.

Cheek related a conversation he had recently with Mt. Zion member George Gibbs in which he said the only way to solve conflict in a church controlled by a large extended family is for other church members to "outlive them, outlast them and outvote them."

The relationship between the SMBA and Mt. Zion hasn't been smooth sailing either. Cheek said Pastor Daniel Jones -- one of the many independent Baptist pastors to have worked at Mt. Zion -- told him he was not interested in the Southern Baptist organization. Indeed, Dial sent a letter on behalf of the church during Jones' tenure in 2009 seeking to withdraw from the SMBA.

Cheek also testified that he had been unable to contact current Pastor Chris Allen since he was hired in March 2010. Cheek said he asked Gibbs to have Allen call him.

"I was told by Mr. Gibbs that the pastor did not want to meet me. He said he was an independent Baptist and had no intention of being a Southern Baptist," Cheek testified Tuesday.

However, during his testimony Tuesday Gibbs said he never told Cheek that Allen said that.

"I didn't say anything of the sort," Gibbs said. "I told him maybe we could have lunch or dinner some time. I did not say anything about him not wanting to have anything to do with (Cheek)."

Membership at Mt. Zion under Allen steadily climbed until July 2010. However, Dial testified earlier he feared the new members were improperly admitted by Allen in an attempt to formally move the church away from its Southern Baptist roots.

After unilaterally imposing a 50-day membership freeze in July, Dial and Ballard sought help from Cheek at the SMBA.

Cheek suggested Dial and Ballard meet with executive committee members of the New Work Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization within the SMBA that is designed "to raise, receive and manage endowment funds to be used to purchase new church sites and provide construction financing for ... new Southern Baptist churches," according to its website.

The New Work Foundation uses the assets to plant new churches, in the hopes that the new church will grow and ultimately purchase the property from New Work Foundation.

Cheek said upon hearing the proposal to take ownership of the Mt. Zion property, the New Work Foundation's attorney advised them against receiving it due to the internal conflict at the church. However, Hall, who was at the meeting and is a member of the executive committee, decided his nonprofit -- God's Hope Builders -- would accept the Mt. Zion assets.

While God's Hope Builders is not formally affiliated with New Work Foundation or the SMBA, Hall testified that they share similar goals.

"It is the intention of God's Hope Builders to hold the church property until another Southern Baptist church is placed there," he said.

Hall added that church services are now being held in the fellowship hall at Mt. Zion and that two churches have expressed interest in the property.