Dozens of members of a Lexington church continue to try to force out its pastor even though a lawsuit against him was dropped.
A uniformed Lexington police officer barred some members from the church Sunday, causing more criticism and backlash.
The lawsuit filed in November by two Southern Acres Christian Church members accused pastor Cameron McDonald of concentrating power and misusing church money. It was dismissed by Judge James Ishmael on Friday.
“Last week, my clients agreed that the lawsuit should be dismissed because this is a matter the church’s congregation must decide internally, prayerfully and peacefully,” said Joe Bilby, attorney for the plaintiffs.
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“At least 54 members of the congregation believe Southern Acres needs a fresh start with new leadership,” Bilby said. A letter with their names was delivered Friday to the remainder of the congregation.
Some of those 54 were targeted by the officer Sunday and told to leave or face charges, according to church member Chance Staley and a recording of the officer’s remarks.
Staley documented his encounter with officer White, who met Staley outside the church entrance. White gave Staley his last name and badge number. A patrol car was parked near the entrance.
“If you do not abide by my lawful direction, of you cannot be on this property, then it becomes criminal trespassing, which in the state of Kentucky is an arrestable offense,” the officer told Staley.
The off-duty officer was hired and paid by the church because “veiled threats” were made against one of the pastors and there was concern critics would “try something during service,” according to the church’s attorney, Austin Wilkerson. Off-duty work is permissible if approved by the police department.
“It’s disgusting,” Staley said Monday of being turned away. “Anyone who has ever gone to a church has heard the lines, ‘you are welcome; come as you are.’ Even a non-believer knows that. To be told, ‘you are not welcomed here’... They are creating an exclusive club ... and this is not of the Christian moral values.”
Wilkerson said the the church received information from a concerned family that the group who filed the lawsuit was going to try something during the service.
“The family was concerned enough not to attend,” Wilkerson said in an email. “Shortly after that report, veiled threats were made toward one of SoAcres Church’s pastors. Church leadership decided it would be prudent to restrict access of some people to ensure a peaceful worship service and for the safety of our families, the pastors, and the church.”
Staley said there was never talk of any disruption occurring at Southern Acres.
A resolution to remove McDonald, his wife, Erica, and their friend Tim Jones from their positions as pastors and board members; elect a new board of elders; and implement a new set of operating rules was included with the letter sent to the congregation. A vote on that resolution is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 4 before worship. The new rules would be similar to ones in place before McDonald changed them.
“The full congregation will have an opportunity to vote for a change in leadership on Feb. 4,” Bilby said.
Under McDonald’s October 2016 version of the bylaws , he cannot be removed without a unanimous vote of the board, excluding the senior pastor and his or her immediate family. McDonald also reduced the members of the board to himself, his wife and Jones, the lawsuit said when it was filed. Consequently, Jones would be the only person who could remove McDonald.
Because the bylaws were never approved by the church’s congregation, they are not valid, according to Staley and the church members who filed the lawsuit.
“We don’t have to recognize them,” Staley said. “They are not legally binding, and that was the purpose of the lawsuit initially.”
Wilkerson said the bylaws were validly amended. He earlier said the actions taken by the church were done in accordance with the Bible, according to court documents.
Because of the dispute, a financial review of the church began in November and based off the preliminary results, there is not a single penny missing, Wilkerson said.
“The preliminary financial review that was presented to me fully exonerates Pastor Cameron McDonald and indicates the claims of financial impropriety against Pastor Cameron were without merit or misconstrued by those opposed to him,” Wilkerson said.
The letter sent by members of the church detailed actions from the past three months and the vote plans in two weeks.
“We believe that Southern Acres is moving in the wrong direction — pastorally, communally, and financially — under the stewardship of our senior pastor, Cameron McDonald,” the letter says.
The letter outlined locations — the parking lot, street, or nearby park — where the meeting and vote could occur if the congregation is not allowed to vote inside the church.
“If a majority of the members present vote against the resolution, then we will accept and respect the church’s decision to retain Cameron as its senior pastor,” the letter says. “If, on the other hand, a majority of the members present vote in favor of the resolution, then we will insist that Cameron must accept and respect the church’s decision by turning over the keys and other church property to the newly elected board of elders.”
If McDonald is removed from his role with the passing of the resolution, the newly-elected board of elders would begin a search for a new pastor.
After the officer was stationed at the church Sunday, it’s unclear what will happen on the day of the vote.
Police have been called to the church previously. On Nov. 19, Lexington police were summoned to the Sunday service for a disturbance.
According to the case report, 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 a general account, which wasn’t authorized, according to police records.
Some parishioners spoke up in that November service and said they wanted answers about the church’s finances, but were told to leave by McDonald. Later, about 75 congregants gathered in the lobby and voiced their concerns about the issues, and they were met by uniformed officers, Staley said.
Everyone willingly complied, and there was never any sense of physical threat, Staley said. No charges were filed, according to police spokeswoman Brenna Angel.
Wilkerson said there has been more police presence at the church in recent weeks as well.