A Lexington church’s property has been placed in the protective custody of a court-appointed overseer after allegations of fraud, improprieties and serious wrongdoing, according to a new judge’s ruling.
The court’s master commissioner James H. Frazier III will be in charge of all property of Southern Acres Christian Church for which he’ll be able to take care of expenses and other business, Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled Thursday. The move will safeguard the church and its properties while a heated dispute between senior pastor Rev. Cameron McDonald and a group of parishioners is addressed. That group says they were elected church elders and McDonald was ousted as pastor in a vote last month.
On Sunday night, the group went in and “took lawful and legal possession” of the building, then announced it in a post on the church’s Facebook page, saying they “thank Mr. McDonald for his past service and wish him well in his future endeavors.”
McDonald had asked the judge to force the group of parishioners who locked him out of the church to give him the key. He wanted Bill Powell, who he appears to consider a ringleader, held in contempt of court for gaining unauthorized access to the church, changing the locks, accessing documents in McDonald’s office and causing the posting of a Facebook announcement that church services had been temporarily canceled and the pastor removed.
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Powell led those activities before the court had a chance to rule on Powell’s request for a court-ordered eviction, according to McDonald’s latest legal filings. A hearing on the eviction had been rescheduled for March 13, but the group of McDonald opponents didn’t wait, entering the church “under cover of darkness” about 10 p.m. Sunday to change alarm codes and go through records, McDonald’s complaint says.
At 10:56 p.m. Sunday the group’s attorney, Joe Bilby, sent an email to McDonald’s attorney and McDonald notifying them that the group “took possession” of the church building, according to McDonald. The next day, Powell filed a church annual report with the state claiming he and others were the board of directors of the church.
Powell and other parishioners have accused McDonald of financial irregularities, including using $100,000 of a member’s donation to help pay the mortgage on the $530,000 Jessamine County home of the pastor and his wife. In addition, the group has argued in previous court documents that McDonald got rid of staff and previous board members, concentrating power in the hands of himself, wife Erica and friend and fellow pastor Tim Jones without approval from the congregation.
McDonald has repeatedly denied he did anything improper, and a financial review “revealed no wrongdoing,” his attorney Joshua Harp said.
“We will continue to explore whether there is some mechanism for resolving things outside the court house,” Harp said in an interview. “We are still considering whether we have constitutional concerns with the judge’s ruling.”
Over a series of weeks this winter, opposing parishioners were locked out of church services with an off-duty police officer on site to enforce that ban.
There are three pending court cases involving the church.
Aside from two cases naming McDonald as the defendant, a separate legal complaint filed by “Southern Acres Christian Church of Lexington et. al.” names Bill Powell and 10 others as defendants claiming some of them were named to the church’s board without authority after holding a vote and meeting in an park near the church that was not properly conducted. Some of those who voted were not church parishioners or attendees, McDonald argues in that suit.
The group’s decision to remove McDonald and its order to McDonald that he leave the church premises and turn over control of the church were improper, McDonald argues. The 173 who voted against McDonald did not include a similarly sized group of parishioners who “declined to attend the meeting” but were worshiping inside the church at 301 Harvard Drive.
McDonald has more support among church members than has been reported, Harp said Thursday.
When the earlier lawsuit and complaints were filed against McDonald, he repeatedly argued the courts were not the place to solve church issues. But the pastor was forced to go to the courts after the lockout, Harp said.
“We have no choice,” he said.
Harp has asked that the suit against the 11 parishioners and one of the suits against McDonald be combined, since they deal with many of the same issues regarding the governance of the church.
Of the pastor’s continued fight, Harp said, “They believe they are doing the right thing.”