Members of a Lexington congregation have filed a lawsuit to block the lead pastor and his wife from spending church money or making any real estate transfers.
Cameron McDonald is accused by two Southern Acres Christian Church members of concentrating power and financial authority among himself, his wife and one other staffer in a series of moves that dissolved a larger governing board, altered the organization’s operating rules and eliminated churchwide approval votes on changes, according to court records.
Most of the other church staff members have been fired by the pastor or have quit, according to a third member.
The lawsuit provides an unusual public view of controversy over the inner workings of a church. It was filed Monday by James Keogh and Chad Martin who were concerned about the direction, financial management and viability of the church, according to court documents.
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McDonald’s attorney, Austin Wilkerson, would not comment on the lawsuit. He said McDonald remains with the church. Although criticized repeatedly in the lawsuit, McDonald was praised by a former lead pastor who left the church about 10 years ago.
Nevertheless, Keogh and Martin want the court to throw out McDonald’s revised bylaws and the board McDonald put in place to make decisions about church policy and spending, according to the lawsuit. In addition to McDonald, his wife, Erica, and Pastor Tim Jones are on the board. All three are on the Southern Acres payroll or receive payments from the church, which is a first in the church’s history, according to the lawsuit.
It’s “flagrant self-dealing and conflict of interest,” the lawsuit said.
The board, which consisted of nine people in May of 2016, was reduced to just three members in October of the same year. The 2013 bylaws in place before McDonald changed them required “no fewer than five but no more than nine” members, according to the court documents. The congregation was not allowed to vote on board members.
Because of the rules changes, McDonald cannot be removed without a unanimous vote of the board, excluding the senior pastor and his or her immediate family, the lawsuit said. Consequently, Jones would be the only person who could remove McDonald.
In addition to tossing the current board and bylaws, the congregation members want the court to order a new election of a new board.
McDonald became the lead pastor at Southern Acres in 2006, when he took over for Wally Rendel, who held the position for more than 30 years. Rendel said he presented McDonald to the congregation and it approved him as Rendel’s successor by an overwhelming vote of 400-2.
“Cameron is an excellent communicator, has a very supportive wife and comes from a strong Christian family from his home in Louisville,” Rendel said Wednesday.
In 2006, Southern Acres had a membership of around 1,000, Rendel said. He no longer has any contact with the Lexington church; he is a minister at Jessamine County Christian Church.
Rendel said there were never any lawsuits or legal issues in his tenure at Southern Acres. “No, no, no. Absolutely not,” he said.
Cameron and Erica McDonald have ties to Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, which ranked as the seventh-largest in the nation in 2016, according to a Courier-Journal article. An article on Southeast’s website said Erica grew up at the church and Cameron was a preaching intern there. “Cameron said he owes everything to Southeast,” the article stated.
The friction at Southern Acres escalated Sunday when Lexington police were called to the church for a dispute among parishioners, according to police spokeswoman Brenna Angel. No charges were filed, she said.
One member of the church, Chance Staley, said many attempts were made prior to Sunday to meet as a church body to address issues, but the senior pastor refused.
“Therefore, members of the congregation attempted to inform the rest of the members, however, before anyone was able to speak, an undercover police officer threatened arrest,” Staley said.
A police officer who attends the church was there when arguing started and reported the incident, Angel said.
Church member Debora Zaglul said when McDonald started his sermon Sunday, some parishioners spoke up and said they wanted some answers to questions about church finances. McDonald was not cooperative and some were told to leave.
“I had to be escorted out. I had to explain to my 9-year-old child ... that our church had kicked us out, and that was traumatizing to her,” Zaglul said. “I wasn’t angry, I hadn’t raised my voice.”
After the showdown during the sermon, a group of around 75 congregants met in the lobby and voiced their concerns about the issues, and they were met by uniformed officers who were called to remove them, Staley said. Everyone willingly complied and there was never any sense of physical threat, Staley added.
Only Cameron and Erica McDonald and Jones remain on staff at Southern Acres, as the rest of the staff has either been terminated or has quit, according to Staley.
Stacey Green, who was the church office manager and assistant to the lead pastor, posted to Facebook on Sunday that she had been terminated from her job after she was contacted by a state trooper about the church’s finances.
“I was contacted by a state trooper about the finances & asked if I would cooperate to which I said yes. Immediately after all the locks on the church were changed along with accounts/passwords and I was terminated with no other reason why other than Cameron, Erica & PT (Jones) were “protecting” the church.”
Green said it was the McDonalds and Jones who changed the locks and passwords. The church website still listed Green as office manager and assistant on Wednesday.
Southern Acres, located on Harvard Drive, was chartered in 1972.