The initial complaint that drew police to a disorder among parishioners at a Lexington church two weeks ago involved the alleged misuse of $100,000 in church funds, according to documents released by police this week.
Police responded to Southern Acres Christian Church on Nov. 19 for a complaint that “a known suspect took $100,000 from the church fund and exercised control over those funds with the intention to deprive the church thereof,” according to the case report released by Lexington police.
Since that disorder two weeks ago, turmoil has continued at the non-denominational church in south Lexington. Some church members filed a lawsuit to block the lead pastor and his wife from spending church money or making any real estate transfers.
Then last Sunday, some members of the church put fliers on cars in the church parking lot, outlining a series of financial allegations against lead pastor Cameron McDonald during his 11-year tenure.
The fliers written by the church’s financial team cite overspending from McDonald’s church credit card, excessive cell phone bills and a misuse of church funds meant for a “mortgage pay-down” initiative.
Austin Wilkerson, the church’s attorney, said the financial allegations against McDonald are being investigated internally, and McDonald has never written a check as pastor.
“Pastor Cameron’s credit card and cellphone bills are disclosed monthly to staff or volunteer finance team members to protect Pastor Cameron from types of attacks he is facing right now,” Wilkerson said. “We have initiated a full review of the church’s finances. We expect the financial review will fully exonerate Pastor Cameron.”
The lawsuit, filed last week by church members James Keogh and Chad Martin, came after concerns over the direction, financial management and viability of the church, according to court documents.
McDonald was accused in the lawsuit of concentrating power and financial authority among himself, his wife and pastor Tim Jones, court documents show.
Since 2015, the church has had three elder boards, which govern the church body. The entire elder board resigned in December 2015 and a new one was hand-picked the next month by McDonald and never voted on by the church, church member Chance Staley said. That elder board resigned between August and October of this year, according to Staley.
The current elder board is comprised of Cameron and Erica McDonald, and Jones. The 2013 bylaws that were in place before McDonald changed them required “no fewer than five but no more than nine members,” according to the court documents.
Because of the changes in the bylaws from McDonald, which weren’t approved by the congregation, Jones would be the only person who could remove McDonald from his role, the lawsuit said. McDonald cannot be removed without a unanimous vote of the board, excluding the senior pastor and his or her immediate family.
In a statement, Wilkerson said he expects the financial review to fully exonerate the church’s pastors, finance team and staff.
“Southern Acres is aware of the lawsuit against it. We are disappointed these church matters are being litigated in the courts,” Wilkerson said. “We hope the lawsuit will not go forward and this can be resolved through Christian mediation.
“We encourage the church to patiently let the process play out,” Wilkerson said. “We look forward to correcting the record. We have initiated a full review of the church’s finances and will share that with our church community once it’s complete.”
A response to the lawsuit is being prepared by the church, Wilkerson said, and he expects the lawsuit to be dismissed.
“SoAcres Church is governed by the authority of the Bible which requires internal church disputes regarding governance, membership, or other church matters be resolved through Christian channels of dispute resolution,” he said.
Many private meetings occurred with McDonald over the last few weeks in which elders, leaders in the church and traveling ministers pleaded with the pastor to address the concerns with the church body, according to the flier placed on cars Sunday. Instead, McDonald allegedly had every lock in the church changed, according to the document.
“The money given to the church is the hard-earned work of every donor in this congregation,” the document stated. “We can no longer stand by while the money is allowed to be spent at one man’s discretion with no accountability or transparency. Money is not the most important thing, but is a symptom of a larger issue.”
In the past two weeks, the entire church staff aside from the McDonalds and Jones was either terminated or quit, Staley said. The Southern Acres website lists only Cameron and Erica McDonald as “The SoAcres Team.”
Jones, who wasn’t previously listed on the church’s website as a member of the team, is a paid member of the church’s staff, according to court documents.
According to the case report released this week, a complainant told Lexington police on Nov. 19 that a donation of $150,000 was made to the church to pay the church mortgage, records show. Of that money, the complaint said, $50,000 was allegedly placed into the mortgage account and the other $100,000 was placed into the general account, which wasn’t authorized, according to police records.
According to that complainant, “the church is in debt due to the misuse” of money, the case report says.
No charges were filed, according to police spokeswoman Brenna Angel. Police relayed the complaint to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, which advised that it was a civil matter because the money reported as being misappropriated had been placed into the church checking account and was still directly linked to the church, according to police documents.
Staley said McDonald should be removed from his role, and he said that is what the majority of the congregation also feels.
“I don’t want him to be lead pastor anymore. I don’t think he is fit for leadership,” Staley said. “I love the man, but he just really got caught up in something.
“I don’t think we’re angry. Jesus taught love,” Staley said. “Sometimes love is holding people accountable and not enabling them to do bad.”
The McDonalds combine to make $103,000.08 per year, according to minutes from September’s Elder Board meeting.
When McDonald became the lead pastor at Southern Acres in 2006, he and his wife bought a new home from Cutter Homes for $232,890, Fayette County property records show. They sold that house in August 2014 for $237,900.
In June 2016, the couple bought a farm with a house in Nicholasville on Sycamore Lane for $530,000, property records show. The 96-acre property has a 4,104-square-foot log house, according to property records.
The Sycamore Lane property is listed as the address for Sycamore Lane Ministries, a nonprofit that the McDonalds formed and registered with the state in September 2016. Worship nights are held at the barn on their Sycamore Lane property.
Sycamore Lane Ministries is not affiliated with Southern Acres Church, Wilkerson said. He said there is no conflict of interest between the two churches.
“As with any business, conflicts of interest are determined based on the decision being made,” he said. “A conflict of interest could come up, but such a conflict can be resolved by following the proper procedures.”