Pastor gets the boot

Parson departs amid Richmond Christian Center’s move to survive

Cindy Huang | , Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/26/2015, 11:36 a.m.
More than a year after filing for bankruptcy, the Richmond Christian Center is gaining a fresh shot at survival after ...
Mr. Parson

More than a year after filing for bankruptcy, the Richmond Christian Center is gaining a fresh shot at survival after seizing financial power from founding pastor Stephen A. Parson Sr.

The pastor, who launched RCC in his living room more than 31 years ago, is no longer a member of the

church’s ruling Board of Trustees and has been stripped of control of the church’s bank account.

While he is still listed as the church’s pastor, Mr. Parson also has left the RCC pulpit to take a sabbatical. He took leave after his $5,000-a-month salary and payments for his home and for child care were halted and leases on two luxury vehicles he and his son, Mark Parson, drove were terminated.

Mr. Parson’s abrupt departure Feb. 12 from the church’s four-member board followed a report by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court-appointed trustee, Bruce Matson of the LeClairRyan law firm. Mr. Matson’s report found that the pastor had “abused his position” by using church funds to pay unauthorized expenses.

At the same time, Mr. Matson stated in his report that RCC’s congregation remains committed to the church. In his view, RCC should be able to emerge from bankruptcy once its debt is restructured and its property appropriately managed.

As a result, Mr. Matson advised federal bankruptcy Judge Keith L. Phillips this week that he would not support the sale of the RCC property to a Henrico church, Mountain of Blessings Christian Center.

That sale appeared likely just three months ago. Mountain of Blessings was the highest bidder Nov. 20 when RCC property was auctioned under a court order to pay off the church’s debts. Mountain of Blessings bid $2.1 million for the property, including a 10 percent premium due the auctioneer.

Mr. Matson reminded Judge Phillips that he had authorized the sale, but had never required RCC to sell the property.

“This is a horrible situation,” Bill Baldwin, the lawyer for Mountain of Blessings, told Judge Phillips.

The judge essentially set aside Mountain of Blessings’ request to uphold the auction result.

“The process must mean something,” said Mr. Baldwin, adding that the church he represents has “money in the bank” and “a real commitment” to buy the property.

He also questioned whether RCC could succeed without a pastor. “We know who isn’t there now...but who will be there?”

RCC once was one of the largest African-American churches in Richmond with thousands of members. However, it has since dwindled to a congregation of about 450 loyalists.

Mr. Parson put the church into bankruptcy protection in 2013, with debts of more than $2.3 million.

He took the action to forestall foreclosure by a Missouri lender, Foundation Capital Resources, which is owed most of the money. The debt stems from a $4.4 million loan FCR made to RCC in 2005. The church still owes about $1.5 million on the loan, plus about $600,000 in interest.

According to the trustee’s report, the church ran into serious financial problems after FCR refused to reduce the monthly payment from $30,139 a month to $13,698 after RCC sold a small Chesterfield County shopping outlet it owned in 2011 and paid off $2.5 million of the FCR debt.

A representative for FCR told the bankruptcy judge the company might consider renegotiating the debt now that Mr. Parson is no longer involved, but has not committed to a new deal.

“We’re weighing our options,” Paul Campsen, an attorney for FCR, told the Free Press after a court hearing Tuesday to settle RCC’s future.

Mr. Matson, in his report, stated he planned to restructure the debt repayment if FCR did not do so voluntarily. He said that would be key to enabling the church to achieve financial stability.

The trustee also reported that Mr. Parson’s claims to have found another lender willing to refinance the FCR debt did not prove credible. Mr. Matson found the only interested lenders Mr. Parson turned up wanted huge fees that the RCC could not afford.

In response to a Free Press query, Mr. Parson maintained that he had acted with integrity on behalf of the church despite Mr. Matson’s finding that the minister “had unfettered access to debtor’s cash flow and abused his position for several years to the detriment” of the church.

Mr. Parson also said he made the decision to leave the board and to take a break from preaching at RCC.

“This has been one of the largest battles of my life,” Mr. Parson said. “I’m tired.” Mr. Matson, in his report, stated that terminating payments for Mr. Parson’s home and car expenses is saving the church $1,100 a month. His salary was stopped in December.

The trustee also stated that he is working to recover $54,000 from Mr. Parson, another minister, Tony Fisher, and Omega Title that allegedly was paid as a deposit to refinance the church debt. Mr. Matson also is seeking to recover $25,000 of church money from Mark Parson, who he said used it to open a currency trading account.

Mr. Matson also stated he is demand- ing $3 million from another son, Steven A. Parson Jr., for unpaid rent from a lease the son agreed to on RCC property. The trustee stated he also is seeking the return of air conditioners and other equipment that he said Mr. Parson Jr. improperly removed when he broke his lease with the church.

Mr. Matson told Judge Phillips on Tuesday that he has “confidence” that the RCC congregation can repay the church’s debts, noting that the members contributed almost $450,000 in tithes and offerings in 2014.

The church also has prospects for renting church property that currently is not used, including a gym and repair shop. The rent would provide additional funds, he said.

Mr. Matson told Judge Phillips that he plans to present his restructuring plan to the court on April 1. He believes RCC will be back on sound financial footing and able to leave bankruptcy protection by late summer.

“It sounds encouraging,” Judge Phillips said.