Good Heavens: L.A.’s Oldest Black Church Sues Ousted Pastor

December 9, 2012  |  

Rev. John J. Hunter delivering a sermon at FAME after President Obama’s election in 2008. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

A battle over money and leaders in turmoil. We’re not talking about an episode of Scandal but the current state of affairs over at Los Angeles’ oldest, and one of its largest, black churches–First AME Church.

The church recently filed a lawsuit against its pastor, who is refusing to relinquish power over the institution and its bank accounts. First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) is suing the pastor and his wife for control of the church and its nonprofit corporations.

The suit accuses the Rev. John J. Hunter and his wife, Denise, as well as other leaders of “holding dictatorial control over [the church] … for their own personal gain — both financially and for self-aggrandizement,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

The plot is thick: According to the LA Times, last October Hunter was transferred to a San Francisco church by the head of AME churches in the western United States. But that church didn’t want any part of Hunter. The San Fran church literally blocked him from delivering a sermon. So back to LA went Hunter, just not as the official pastor. Thus began his fight to regain his position. And says the Times,  he still maintains residence in a $2-million home paid for by FAME and has possession of a Mercedes-Benz, also paid for by the church.  Meanwhile the church hired a new pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, who lives in a hotel and is not yet drawing a salary. Hunter received a $239,000-annual salary. His wife took home $147,000 a year for running the church’s nonprofit organizations.

Hunter’s wife, who appointed herself the organizations’ “agent for service” a day after her husband was ousted by the church, is refusing to give up control of the church’s nonprofits, reports the newspaper.  The nonprofits have assets worth several million dollars, according to tax documents.

Hunter became the pastor of FAME in 2004. Since then, he’s also involved in a sexual harassment civil claim that was settled for an undisclosed amount. And in 2008, an internal audit discovered Hunter had charged $122,000 in jewelry, family vacations and clothing to the church’s credit card. He agreed to a nine-year repayment plan for that, states the Times.

Now FAME, which has a congregation of 19,000 members, is in debt. “The church owes nearly $500,000 to creditors and some vendors say they have not been paid in more than a year…In addition to the church’s sizable debt, the lawsuit said recorded judgments against the church total an additional $200,000,” writes the Times.

While Hunter’s salary may be a shock to some — even to members of the congregation — most pastors of large churches receive hefty salaries. A study released by the Leadership Network found that “total cash compensation (including allowances for housing) for senior pastors ranged from $85,000 to more than $265,000, though the majority of the salaries cluster around the $100,000 to $140,000 range.”  This is for so-called mega churches, where attendance is 2,000 or higher each week.  And, says the study each congregation’s annual giving ranged from almost $2 million to more than $30 million, writes the Gospel Coalition Organization blog.

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