Members to decide fate of Fourth Baptist Church’s funds, trustees

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 9/15/2022, 6 p.m.
The battle for control of Fourth Baptist Church will come down to an in-person congregational meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. ...

The battle for control of Fourth Baptist Church will come down to an in-person congregational meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19.

The shrunken congregation of the historic Church Hill sanctuary will vote whether to support a proposal spearheaded by the pastor, Dr. William E. Jackson Sr., to oust virtually all the trustees and the church’s finance committee or to block that action.

The fight has been underway since 2020 at Fourth Baptist, which was founded before the Civil War and now occupies a building at 2800 P St. that dates to 1884.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge on Sept. 8 cleared the way for the meeting with a decision on who would constitute an active member with the right to par- ticipate in the vote.

Judge W. Reilly Marchant upheld the position of the special commissioner who will oversee the meeting, Attorney C. Thomas Ebel.

Mr. Ebel had concluded that anyone who had contributed in 2021 or 2022 or in both years would be considered an active member – even if the donated amount was $5 or less.

In court, Mr. Ebel said the agreed- upon-list of active members included 298 people, well below the more than 500 people listed as active just 16 years ago. Another 25 people were eligible to have their voting rights restored if they made a contribution of any amount prior to the meeting, he said.

Dr. Jackson urged the judge to overturn Mr. Ebel’s decision. He argued that the church’s constitution and bylaws limit active members with voting rights to those who tithe, attend services regularly and are involved in the church in other ways.

Adoption of that would have disallowed nearly 70 people who had made only nominal donations since 2021, attorneys for Dr. Jackson and the trustees told the judge.

Judge Marchant said that the conditions Dr. Jackson wanted upheld, for the most part, were too subjective to be measured and could not be supported.

He said that recorded donations were an objective measure that the court could support. Judge Marchant also noted that the church documents do not spell out a minimum amount that must be contributed for a congregant to be considered an active member, and, thus, found that Mr. Ebel had set a reasonable standard for deciding the issue.

The judge has played a major role in the affairs of Fourth Baptist ever since this conflict resulted in a rush to the courthouse.

In 2021, Judge Marchant reinstated the ousted trustees and the finance committee after finding that Dr. Jackson had not properly scheduled or conducted two congregational meetings in which the congregation voted to remove them.

Last fall, Judge Marchant ordered a special commissioner to conduct any future meetings at which such a significant change in church leadership was to be voted on.

Mr. Ebel began work in February. While he said some agreements were reached, the issue of which congregants should be considered active members with voting rights had kept a meeting from previously being held.