Mammon AND God: What the Detroit News missed in a church's bitter succession battle

I've been in plenty of church services where the message, or a personal testimony, or a worship music presentation, has arrested my attention.

So far, I've not been present when an actual arrest was made during the worship hour.

Parishioners at the Detroit World Outreach congregation, in the suburb of Redford Township, were treated to the latter a few months back, part of a succession battle after the sudden passing of its senior pastor. The Detroit News picks up the story:

Local religious leaders are warring with a bishop’s widow over a $3 million mansion and control of the soul and mega bank accounts of one of Metro Detroit’s megachurches.
The war is 4 months old, triggered by the death of Bishop Benjamin Gibert, the charismatic, leather-clad leader of Detroit World Outreach in Redford Township, a megachurch whose leaders believe wealth is God’s reward.
Within days of the bishop’s death, church leaders fired his widow, Charisse Gibert, from her church post and announced plans to sell her home, an 11,000-square-foot parsonage in Northville Township that was controversially removed from the tax rolls 10 years ago.
Church leaders also are trying to block Charisse Gibert from collecting on her late husband’s $2 million life-insurance policy.

Well, now! A megachurch, a mega-mansion, a mega death benefit and a "mega bank account." If ever a story screamed for newspaper attention, this might be it. Add in the widow's arrest (see video above) and it's practically a journalistic Sutter's Mill.

This is an interesting story, worth the read, but I noticed more than a few "holes" in the piece. Some may be errors of omission, others may be due to space limitations. But there's more than a couple of missing "links" in the chain of events.

From what I could find on the Detroit World Outreach website, the church is an independent congregation with what might be called a Pentecostal emphasis: all members "should seek after The Gift of the Holy Ghost with the manifestation of speaking in other tongues."

I wish the paper had given a little bit more background on the church, especially since it was apparently neither the late Bishop Gibert nor his widow -- of whom more in a moment -- started the enterprise:

[Marvin] Wilder, the church vice president and treasurer, laments the ongoing disputes and effects on the congregation of a church that is 82 years old. ... 
“[Bishop Gilbert] made significant contributions -- I don’t want to belittle them -- but they pale in comparison to 82 years,” Wilder said.

If the church is 82 years old, then surely there must be a history, even if the details are absent from the church website. Someone must know something or be able to find details about how this congregation began and grew. History and context are important here.

You could argue that history is crucial, given that there are monumental stakes here., including lots and lots of money.

There's that parsonage. There's half of a $1.9 million life insurance policy payable to the bishop's widow. There's control of the church and its bank accounts, And there's "more than $15 million worth of assets, including its main campus in Redford Township, the parsonage, additional real estate and a 'sizable discretionary fund' for the senior pastor, according to court records."

Doesn't every pastor have a "sizable discretionary fund"?

Sorry for the snark, but when you look at the money involved, a little more reporting might be in order. How "sizable" is the fund? For what was it used? Were there specific guidelines? Who approved expenditures? How was the congregation governed?

Part of this, if I may add some, yep, context is that in the case of many denominational churches -- and many that might be more loosely affiliated, such as the Calvary Church network -- there are regulations and practices that establish how successions are handled. In the realm of independent congregations, which DWO very much appears to have been, all bets could be off.

There have been stories similar to the Detroit World Outreach situation worth mentioning, I believe. In the Washington, D.C., area, an independent church called Jericho City of Praise had a difficult time when its co-founders James and Betty Peebles passed away. Betty Peebles' will stated control would pass to a board of elders, which immediately fired the couple's son, Joel R. Peebles, in 2012. It took the younger Peebles three years, but he won the right to regain control of the church, where he remains in charge.

Let's credit the Detroit News for tapping the redoubtable Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary, a church growth scholar, to offer his perspective:

“Megachurches that are built around the personalities of their leaders most of the time do suffer when there is an unexpected death or loss of that pastor, as do smaller churches,” said Scott Thumma of the Connecticut-based Hartford Seminary, who studies megachurches.
It is somewhat rare for a clergy’s spouse to become the new leader of a church, but that typically happens when the spouse is viewed as an equal, Thumma said.

Thumma also suggested Charisse Gibert might not have been viewed as a co-pastor.

There's something else here that's only hinted at in the article. Detroit World Outreach seems to have been in a tough spot even before Bishop Gibert's demise:

The church had 4,000 members a decade ago. In January, there were half as many members, which Wilder attributes to changing church demographics and a natural decline as members move from church to church.
The Sunday after Gibert died, the church lost 900 members, Wilder said. ...
The church spends $380,000 a year on mortgage and maintenance costs. Detroit World Outreach can no longer afford the expense because church revenue has fallen by approximately $2 million since 2010 “and our weekly attendance has dropped significantly,” Wilder wrote in a court filing.
“Selling the property would cut the debt of the church by close to 50 percent,” Wilder wrote.

Again, this reporting begs the question of how such a pileup of debt was allowed to happen. What kind of governance was in place, who was allowed to contract such monumental debts, and if the financial decline has taken place over the past seven years, why on earth didn't Detroit World Outreach sell some assets earlier? Yes, there was a real-estate crash in 2008, but still, it might have been possible to recover some money.

As the story progresses, some of the details may emerge. In the meanwhile, readers are left wondering how this church got into this mess, and why its leadership wasn't better prepared for a sudden leadership transition.

Those would be great questions for a reporter to ask, wouldn't you agree? Why leave key facts about the church out of this story?

Initial image of the late Bishop Benjamin Gibert was captured from a DWO YouTube video.

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