Congregation, Pastor Fight for Control of One of the Largest and Oldest Black Churches in Knoxville, TN

Rev. Dr. Valentino McNeal
Rev. Dr. Valentino McNeal

Several members of an East Knoxville church have voted to oust their pastor — but he won’t go.

In a 86-5 vote in May, members of Mount Olive Baptist Church decided they no longer wished to have the Rev. Valentino McNeal lead their congregation.

“In my mind, he is no longer the pastor and a number of members agree with that assessment,” said Theotis Robinson Jr., who has been a member at the East Knoxville church for 23 years and also writes a column for the News Sentinel.

“He claims he was not hired by the church and does not have a contract. He says God appointed him … we contend that he’s been sent a message from God in a 86-5 vote.”

When reached for comment on Wednesday, McNeal, who has been the church’s pastor since August 2011, said he was focusing on the season.

“Especially during this season of peace on earth and good will to all humankind, we are focusing on why Christ came to save our fallen humanity,” he said. “Therefore we respect the judicial system and the sovereignty of Christ’s church and we are going to allow both (to) do what they were created to do.”

‘Disturbing changes’

Mount Olive is one of the largest and oldest black churches in Knoxville. With roots stretching back to pre-Civil War slavery years, the church has a rich history in the community. In the 1960s, the church was the center for the civil-rights movement in Knoxville, hosting training sessions for demonstrations and sit-ins.

“It’s just been a center of our community,” Robinson said. “That’s all being taken down and destroyed.”

That’s a stark difference to July, when six of the church’s members, including Robinson, filed a petition in Knox County Chancery Court asking for the court’s help in removing McNeal as pastor.

The petition noted “disturbing changes” at the church after the members’ May vote, including the use of the building, the removal of several members from prominent positions in the church, how the church’s money was being spent and even a decision not to administer communion because McNeal and the chair of the deacon board decided that “the church was in too much turmoil and discord.”

On Dec. 16, Chancellor Michael Moyers ruled that the court does not have the ability to remove McNeal, but it can rule on control of church property.

Moyers advised the church members to amend their complaint to be more specific on issues around control of the church property. They are scheduled to return to court next month on those changes.

“I realize that — I may be dancing on the head of a pin, but I do believe that questions of who may occupy the office of the pastor physically gets down to a question of simple trespass, if it’s determined that he has no right to occupy that office,” Moyers said during a Nov. 3 hearing, according to court records.

“The church has the right to say who can be on its property and who is sent off. To the extent that he occupies the pulpit that is also a question. Who can occupy the physical space of the church? The question is the control of the moneys of the church, that’s control of the church property.”

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SOURCE: Lydia X. McCoy
Knoxville News Sentinel

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