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Outside group ordered to settle church dispute

After Pilgrim Baptist sides reject 11th-hour dialogue, judge acts

– The fight between Pastor Sam Shade and members of the congregation at Pilgrim Baptist Church became rather ugly over the past few years – members excommunicated, elections voided, lawsuits filed and locks changed.

Tuesday morning, Allen Superior Court Judge Craig Bobay brought both sides together in a small courtroom, giving them one last chance to resolve their differences without the assistance of a court order.

They refused to do so, and now three people from outside the congregation and appointed by the judge will help the church sort itself out.

On one side were a handful of church trustees, appointed by Shade, who got crosswise with the pastor when they denied his request for money to fix the roof of his home. Shade suspended them, and then they asked to examine the church’s bylaws and financial records, court records said.

Indiana law prohibits churches from suspending their leadership unless the action is spelled out in the bylaws of the congregation. State law also requires churches make official church records available for inspection by members.

That move by Shade prompted a lawsuit in early 2013. After Allen Circuit Court Judge Tom Felts ruled against Shade and the church, Shade excommunicated three of the appointed trustees – Rick Stevenson, Rodney Haywood and Percy Moore.

In July, the three men sued the church again, asking the court to appoint a receiver to manage the church, compel a church meeting, compel an election of a board of trustees and force the church to adopt bylaws, according to court documents.

Following that lawsuit, on Oct. 22, Shade excommunicated Harold Wims, according to court documents.

None of the excommunications were approved by the church, and the church’s lawyers acknowledged they were in violation of state law, according to court documents.

In early March, the congregation held an election, the first since 1983, picking Stevenson, Haywood, Moore, Wims and John Johnson as trustees.

Several other men, many of whom were deacons, ran for positions in the congregation, lost the elections and then joined in the lawsuit on the side of Shade, according to court documents.

But even though the new trustees were elected and adopted bylaws for the church, they failed to bring the matter before the church membership, according to court documents.

And in recent months, both sides took turns aggravating each other – trying to take control of financial accounts, removing each other from positions in the church, locking each other out of buildings and disrupting services. The newly elected trustees tried to remove Shade, who has been at the church in one capacity or another since 1947.

Shade was even prohibited from serving at a funeral for a deceased church member, in spite of the wishes of the family, according to court documents. While the U.S. Constitution prohibits the interference in the theology or “ecclesiastical issues” of a church, the courts can intervene in disputes over property, and Indiana law requires churches, as nonprofit entities, to have certain governing documents and practices in place.

“This dispute … has wreaked havoc on this congregation since at least November 2011, leaving its membership fractionalized and jeopardizing its operations as well as the very future of (the church), which is an important community asset,” Bobay wrote in his order.

Bobay recognized that the newly elected trustees do not have “clean hands” but said that their excommunication was an “unreasonable attempt to remove these individuals … merely for exercising” Constitutional rights.

He appointed Rev. Bill McGill, pastor at Imani Baptist Temple; Rev. Mike Nickleson, pastor at Mount Calvary Baptist Church; and Fort Wayne Police Chief Garry Hamilton as election commissioners for the church.

Under the direction of the three community leaders, the church must hold an election for five trustees, with everyone in the church permitted to vote and everyone eligible to seek the office of trustee, according to the order.

The election must take place before July 26, and within 60 days after the election, new bylaws must be in place, according to the order.

Associate Pastor Clarence Hicks will run the day-to-day operations of the church. Bobay set a status hearing for Oct. 20, when he will enter final judgment.

“The court has repeatedly pleaded (with the parties) to resolve this dispute in a private manner among themselves, as would be consistent with the teachings of their Lord, Jesus Christ,” Bobay wrote. “However, the court’s words have fallen on deaf ears.”