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Church-pastor rift widens, worsens

The minister hired to replace the imprisoned Rev. Henry Lyons has challenged the church to buy out his contract.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Joaquin Marvin, hired to replace the Rev. Henry J. Lyons at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, is daring the prominent African-American congregation to send him packing.

"I came here to do a job for God and I expect them to honor that agreement," Marvin, 38, said during an interview at the St. Petersburg Times last week. "If you don't want it, buy it out and send me home," he said, referring to what appears to be a five-year contract with the church.

Marvin's challenge came shortly after church leaders prohibited him from preaching for four consecutive Sundays, saying that they were disciplining him for a hair-trigger temper and verbal abuse of church members.

The suspension, which was made official by certified mail last week, is supposed to be lifted on March 2.

Marvin, who said he is being docked $100 for each Sunday of the suspension, admits that he has had disputes with at least two members of the church -- including Deaconess Lynda Smith, wife of the chairman of the powerful deacon board, which has the authority to recommend his firing. Marvin said, though, that his problems began almost as soon as he arrived at the church two years ago.

"When I came into Bethel, I came into a mess," he said.

His hiring followed the ouster of Lyons, the church's longtime pastor, who had made national news for his financial and sexual misconduct during his tenure as president of the National Baptist Convention USA. Lyons, imprisoned for racketeering and grand theft, now is serving the final phase of his sentence as a maintenance worker at the Bartow Work Release Center. Corrections officials say he could be released as soon as Nov. 30.

Marvin said Lyons' departure created a struggle for power between church members who support the disgraced pastor and want him to return and those who do not. Marvin said his recent suspension is part of an effort by those who want to fire him and reinstate Lyons when he is released from prison.

Jerome Smith, chairman of the deacon board, denied that there is such a plan, but said that Marvin "is in breech of the agreement that we had, in regards to his conduct and job performance."

Marvin, on the other hand, accused church officials of failing to live up to the financial agreements in his contract, including not paying for his life and health insurance during the first year of his employment and not reimbursing him for two months of commuting expenses between his former home in Pensacola and St. Petersburg.

Smith, who has led the deacon board since January, disagrees.

"The church has not at any point reneged on any of its financial obligations to him," he said.

During last week's interview, Marvin gave Neighborhood Times a copy of what appeared to be a five-year contract signed by former deacon board chairman Robert Minton. It showed that Bethel Metropolitan had agreed to pay Marvin an annual salary of $40,000 and that the congregation also agreed to cover the health insurance payments for Marvin and his family, to purchase a $500,000 life insurance policy -- with the church listed as the beneficiary for half -- and to contribute to an IRA, up to the maximum allowed annually. Among other things, the contract also stated that Bethel Metropolitan would give Marvin $1,150 a month for housing during his first 18 months of employment and an additional $1,000 a month for utilities. The congregation also agreed to give its new pastor an anniversary gift of at least $10,000, "if the church is financially able to do so."

Before taking his job at Bethel Metropolitan, a church of about 300 active members, Marvin served as an associate minister at Greater Union Baptist Church in Pensacola. The Bethel Metropolitan congregation stood by Marvin when past legal problems became public soon after he took over the church at 3455 26th Ave. S.

Marvin, who had been sentenced to two years of community control in 1991 for forgery, was arrested in Escambia County shortly after he was hired by the St. Petersburg congregation for violating two outstanding warrants. State records indicate that he also had been arrested several times between 1986 and 1991 on charges that included shoplifting, assault and possession of crack and marijuana. He has since completed probation. Last week, Marvin said his criminal past is behind him.

Smith said that Marvin's recent problems, which first were addressed by the deacon board and then by the congregation, which voted to support the board's recommendation for suspension, arose from the pastor's aggressive behavior.

"The issue is some of his actions, the way he tried to implement things. It was either going to be his way or no way, which caused a lot of confrontation. He seemed to have his own agenda and over the past two years, we have tried to work with him. The main point has been his conduct and that's why the action has been taken," said Smith, owner of Smith Funeral Home at 1534 18th Ave. S.

"This out-of-control conduct has been displayed by him on a number of occasions. We levied that suspension in hope that it would actually somewhat help him and that he would grow. And we explained to him that there's an anger problem here and you need to take anger management and he even admitted that himself. He's in defiance of that now in trying to come up with other avenues. ... To take this action that he has taken right now, saying that we are trying to dismiss him and coming to the Times saying that the church has abused and misused him."

A committee is expected to complete an evaluation of Marvin's performance this week, Smith said. The deacon board then will make a recommendation to the congregation about the pastor's continued employment at the church, he said.

Marvin, a father of five and a grandfather as well, plans no immediate action.

"I'll wait on the Lord," he said.

"I'm not going to quit. They'll have to fire me."

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