By KAREN VELIE
A group of parishioners fighting to retain control of Bethel Baptist Church in Grover Beach has accused a former pastor of misappropriating church money. They say that Ronald Kennedy used church money to pay off personal credit card debt and gave more than $20,000 to a defunct nonprofit corporation while saying that the church needed to be dissolved because it was in financial trouble.
Kennedy, who did not respond to questions from Cal Coast Times, was pastor when the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) claimed ownership of the 57-year-old church, valued at between $2.4 and $2.9 million.
The parishioners and neighbors of the church, led by interim pastor John Fleming, reviewed financial records left in the church when it was padlocked by the C&MA on May 5. The records show, the group says, that church money was used to pay Kennedy’s personal credit cards, the credit card debt of the person who handled the church accounting and more than $20,000 to a nonprofit that the state of California suspended in 2007.
Card charges included payments to Amazon Marketplace, a clothing store, restaurants, auto repair shops and regular charges to a liquor store, according to the credit card bills. In six years, De Mille and Wilson wrote $67,597 in payments to pay Kennedy’s monthly credit card bills.
In 2018, church funds were also used to pay $2,303.67 to a Loft credit card belonging to church financial officer Valerie Wilson, according to bank records and credit card bills.
About 10 years ago, Kennedy, a long-time C&MA employee, applied for a pastor position at the Bethel Baptist Church even though he is of a different denomination. In 2011, Kennedy asked the board to consider changing their alliance from a Baptist to a C&MA church, according to board meeting minutes. Board members, however, were opposed to changing affiliations at that time.
Kennedy brought Valerie Wilson and her husband Ryan Wilson into the parish and began paying them for worship. The church also began paying Shani De Mille for benevolence even though she did not become a member of the church until mid-2012. Kennedy then assigned Valerie Wilson to handle the very limited accounting required at the small congregation, Fleming said.
During this time, with De Mille and Valerie Wilson as signers on the bank account, church funds were used to pay some of Kennedy’s personal bills including monthly credit card payments, according to bank records.
In 2015, Wilson agreed to pay assistant pastor William Heck $200 a month, according to church records, In addition, in 2017 and 2018, De Mille and Valerie Wilson wrote $23,350 in checks to Golgatha Missions, a non-profit corporation started by Heck in 2005, and suspended by the state in 2007.
While it is illegal for a suspended corporation to do business, the tax-identification number Golgotha Missions reported belonged to another nonprofit, Avila Beach Lighthouse Ministries. Avila Beach Lighthouse Ministries was founded by Heck and lists a home owned by Kennedy as the corporation’s principal office, according to a March, 22 state filing.
Church financial records showed that Bethel Baptist was operating from between $23,000 to $33,000 in the black in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, increased costs primarily related to personal credit cards payments and checks written to De Mille and Wilson resulted in the church running $27,589 in the red. The building and property were owned free and clear, parishioners said.
Two groups are fighting over ownership of the 67-year-old church and 3.1-acre lot. On one side are a group of neighbors and parishioners led by Fleming, who want the property to continue as a Baptist church.
Kennedy and a team of supporters affiliated with the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), a group known for closing churches and selling off the assets, argue the church was legally transferred to the C&MA in 2014.
On March, 22, 2016, Kennedy changed the name of the church to the Hillside Church of Grover Beach of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, according to a state filing signed by Kennedy and De Mille. In the filing, Kennedy reports that the Bethel Baptist Church board of directors and the members approved the transfer, a statement Fleming and his supporters said is inaccurate.
In a July, 10, 2018, state filing, Kennedy lists himself as chief executive officer, De Mille as secretary, and Wilson as chief financial officer.
On May 5, representatives of the C&MA asked parishioners to attend a meeting where they explained that the parish and all its assets now belonged to them. C&MA District Representative Ray Van Gilst and Wilson, said they were shutting down the church because parish membership and finances had fallen. They then changed the locks and told the parishioners they were not permitted on the property.
On May 6, Fleming filed a grant deed on the church property listing him as the president of the Baptist Bethel Church board. Flemming then changed the locks and began holding services at the church.
On May 17, Michael Pick, an attorney for the C&MA, filed a lawsuit against Fleming and the Bethel Baptist Church congregation for quiet title. The suit also alleged wrongful possession of property, trespass and intentional interference with contact.
In his lawsuit, Pick says that between 2012 and 2014 membership and finances declined, and the church legally came under the governance and ownership of CMA.
San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett is scheduled in August to hear arguments over who is the legal owner of the property, C&MA or the parishioners of Bethel Baptist Church.
Bethel Baptist Church supporters have turned to GoFundMe to raise money for the ongoing legal battle “and to replace bibles and supplies that were raided from the church.”