A battle for control of the Church of God of America Inc. has been underway since the organization’s main worship house and headquarters on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Danville burned to the ground on Jan. 31, 2010, and $918,000 in insurance money was collected.
Now the feud has moved from the church’s pews and meeting halls into the courtroom.
Three Somerset men who identify themselves as church elders and trustees and claim to represent the church itself, along with 27 people identified as church members, have filed a lawsuit in Boyle Circuit Court alleging that Tim Napier, bishop and president of the church, and three others have misappropriated church funds for their own use while acting without proper authority to rebuild the church in Danville and locking the doors of sister churches in Somerset and Shelbyville.
The plaintiffs, represented by Lebanon attorney Ted Lavit, are asking for a court order to stop construction of the new $1.5-million Church of God facility underway on Perryville Road and prevent Napier and the other defendants from taking any further actions on behalf of the church.
The lawsuit also asks that plaintiffs be allowed access to the Somerset and Shelbyville churches, and all church records and financial transactions, and that the church be repaid for “the misappropriation and embezzlement of church funds” by Napier and the others.
Napier, a Danville native and owner of Kentucky Tours and Travel in town, has not yet officially responded to allegations made in the complaint. But during an interview Thursday with his attorney Bill Erwin present, Napier categorically denied any misuse of church funds and said the plaintiffs are pretenders to any authority within the Church of God of America and are trying to sabotage his efforts to rebuild the church in Danville, where it was founded and incorporated in 1919.
“I think a lot of it is jealousy and envy. It’s an attack of good vs. evil,” Napier said. “They do not want to see the vision I have for this community to come to fruition. This is an attack to destroy it. Some of them want to rebuild in Somerset, but this is the town for this church to grow.”
Irwin said he plans to file a motion to dismiss the complaint this week on the grounds that the plaintiffs have no legal standing to make any claims of authority within the church.
“It’s a bizarre case. When we walk into court, I’m going to say I represent the Church of God of America and Ted Lavit is going to say he represents the Church of God in America,” Erwin said. “The difference is, I have documents from the Secretary of State’s office and they have some documents they downloaded from the Internet.”
According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs Eric L. Barnes, his son Justin Barnes and William Fay, all of Somerset, are ordained elders of the church and claim that Napier was never properly elected to the position of president by elders as required by church bylaws. Actions taken by Napier as president are therefore unlawful, including the purchase last year of 14 acres on Perryville Road where the new church is under construction, the complaint contends. Napier lives two houses down from the new church site.
The elders, by majority vote, asked Napier to resign his positions twice in 2012 but he “refused to relinquish his claimed position as bishop and president,” the lawsuit maintains.
Napier said during the interview that he assumed the role of bishop and president of the church in 2006 following the death of his predecessor. “I went through all the services and ceremonies to be officially named bishop and president,” he said. Irwin said Napier is listed as president on the church’s incorporation papers on file in the Secretary of State’s office.
No one questioned Napier’s leadership roles “until all of a sudden the church burns and there is money,” Napier said.
Napier said he appointed Eric Barnes and Justin Barnes to serve as pastors of the Somerset and Shelbyville churches, respectively, but described their relationship with the church over the years as on-again, off-again, and that he has terminated them from those positions. He said he wasn’t sure what connection Fay has to the church, and said that most of the 27 other plaintiffs did not regularly attend services.
According to documents attached to the lawsuit, the three plaintiffs met at a Somerset restaurant on Jan. 9 for a meeting of church elders and were the only three in attendance, after other elders and trustees — including two of Napier’s co-defendants, Charles Johnson and Perry Cunningham — failed to show up.
During the meeting, Eric Barnes and Justin Barnes appointed newcomer Fay as an elder, and the three of them voted to hire Lavit to file a lawsuit on their behalf “to determine the acting authority of the Church of God of America Inc,” according to records of the meeting attached to the lawsuit.
The three also decided that all official licenses issued by the church in 2012 had expired, and then issued new ordained elder licenses to themselves as “elders who have shown that they remain part of the Church of God of America.”
The complaint alleges various improprieties with church finances. Co-defendant James L. Hines, the church’s corporate treasurer, made unauthorized use of the church’s credit card on numerous occasions for himself and his family, and Hines received a $10,000-$15,000 loan from church funds that was not authorized, the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs also claim that all four defendants have used the $917,690 in insurance proceedings for “their personal benefit.”
Napier flatly denied that any misuse of church funds has occurred. Hines’ use of the credit card was authorized, as was the $13,000 loan to Hines that is being repaid on schedule, he said.
Irwin said Danville accounting firm Robinson, Hughes & Christopher was hired to review all of the church’s financial records and nothing irregular turned up.
“Every account is in good order and nothing is amiss related to the insurance money, the building account,” Irwin said. “There may be arguments over where the money is being spent, but there is no question as to whether the money is being spent appropriately.”
For Napier, the schism and resulting lawsuit have been painful. He grew up in the church, which had about 75 members at the time of fire. The church still meets regularly at the First Christian Church on Lexington Avenue, but its membership has dwindled to about 25.
“I’ve been a member of this congregation for 46 years. My parents have been integral parts of the church. It makes me hurt to see this type of thing going on, with no merit at all,” he said.
Despite the turmoil, Napier said efforts to rebuild the church are continuing on pace. About $100,000 in donations, about half coming from area churches and businesses, have been raised so far, he said. He said he expects the new chapel will be ready for worship before the end of the year.
After the motion for dismissal is filed this week, Irwin anticipates the case will get a hearing before Circuit Judge Darren Peckler within 30 days.