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Ex-pastor renounces presbytery amid probe

Ex-pastor renounces presbytery amid probe

By COLLINS CONNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


SPRING HILL -- Facing ecclesiastical charges of professional misconduct, former School Board member Paul Clemons, the founding pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church, has renounced his membership in the Presbytery of Tampa Bay.

Clemons' decision stopped the investigation into his conduct, but it also stripped him of his ministerial authority, church officials said.

"His ordination has been set aside. He is no longer entitled to the title of reverend," said the Rev. Larry L. Lewis, chairman of the investigative committee of the Tampa Bay Presbytery.

Clemons, who lives in Timber Pines, had no comment on the issue, his wife, Barbara, said.

Church officials said the problems with Clemons began almost immediately after his 1998 retirement from Grace Presbyterian at 8375 Spring Hill Drive.

Clemons, in violation of Presbytery rules, continued ministering in the community, church officials said. He visited parishioners in the hospital, served as fire department chaplain and started a Bible study group in Timber Pines.

His activities caused discord among the members of Grace Presbyterian, church elder Betty Davis said.

Presbytery officials said Clemons was asked to stop "involving himself in the life of Grace Presbyterian." Instead, some parishioners sided with Clemons and withdrew from the church.

Four members of Grace Presbyterian got hostile telephone calls from Clemons' loyalists, threatening them with arrest if they didn't stay away from Clemons, church members said. The threatened parishioners notified sheriff's deputies of the telephone calls.

"It brought a tremendous amount of turmoil to the church," Mrs. Davis said. "He had been our minister for a very long time. He was happy with us, and we were happy with him. We are all very surprised by this. None of us understands it."

According to Presbytery records, the five-member investigative committee reviewed a series of complaints, including:

Clemons' continued ministry, which is considered by the church to be an ethical violation;

His possession of a church carving, which had been removed and taken to him without approval from church leaders;

His questionable credentials, including a doctorate Clemons received from a storefront college that once listed "Dr. Phyllis Diller" as a member of its board of regents;

His involvement in some parishioners' finances, either by serving as administrator of their affairs or as personal representative of their estates.

Before Clemons could be brought to an ecclesiastical trial on the ethical violations, "he renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church," Lewis said.

"His choosing not to stand trial would not bode well for whether or not the charges had validity," Lewis said.

Clemons was questioned about "administering estates for members of his congregation, which is unethical at best," Lewis said. "When I was in training, we were taught that if you were named in an estate, you had two options: One was to take the money and resign your ordination and the second was to see that the money was directed to a charity that never touched our hands."

Lewis said the investigating committee chose not to refer that complaint or the complaint about Clemons' credentials to the Presbytery's judicial commission "because we felt the other charges to be far more serious."

Lewis said he and the committee members were puzzled by Clemons' behavior.

"I can't tell you what the inner workings of the man's mind was or why he did what he did," Lewis said. "It's too bad. This is a guy who for 30 years did a remarkably good job of ministering to the church."

Clemons served Grace Presbyterian for 30 years. When he retired in 1998, the church gave him a new Buick Park Avenue as a token of the membership's appreciation.

Clemons also served on the Hernando County School Board for more than 20 years.

In 1992, he and the other four board members were indicted by a Hernando grand jury for discussing school business in private, a violation of Florida law. He pleaded no contest to a non-criminal infraction; adjudication of guilt was withheld and Clemons was fined and ordered to study the Government in the Sunshine manual.

Four years earlier, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Clemons' credentials were suspect.

His alma mater closed after being sued by the Texas Attorney General's Office and by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. It was run out of Oklahoma for selling $1,300 degrees from an Oklahoma City motel.

Clemons received another advanced degree by speaking at a commencement ceremony.

Betty Davis, the Grace Presbyterian elder, said she is saddened by the recent events.

Several years ago, during a group trip to Alaska, Mrs. Davis said, Clemons told her his plans. "He said, "I'm going to go home, retire and write a book,' " she told the Times.

"I wish that's what he'd done."

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