A former member of Eagle’s Nest Christian Fellowship filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the church and its pastor, Rick Godwin, claiming he was defamed in front of the congregation when he tried to expose how Godwin was spending church money.
Larry Nail, a businessman from Boerne who belonged to the church for 11 years, says Godwin wrongly accused him of bribery in a speech responding to San Antonio Express-News articles that, based on church documents, raised questions about Godwin’s use of church funds for expensive chartered planes and lodging, luxury gifts and personal items.
In the suit, filed in Bexar County District Court, Nail wants his donations to the church returned, plus legal costs and damages.
The suit didn’t specify an amount.
Nail is among dozens of church members who’ve left the independent congregation since the fall, dissatisfied with Godwin’s spending and what they consider the church’s inadequate accountability. Godwin and other church leaders believe the issue has been addressed.
The suit comes three days before the church will conduct a “dry run” dedication of its new North Side building on Marshall Road near U.S. 281. The official dedication is set for the weekend of May 31.
Complicating matters for the church has been a stream of complaints by homeowners bordering the new property who claim the church hasn’t responded to their concerns about lighting, noise and other matters.
At issue in Nail’s lawsuit is a statement by Godwin during a Nov. 24 service. Nail says Godwin claimed he offered bribes to three staff members to discuss the pastor’s spending publicly with the newspaper, which Nail denies.
Nail declined to comment Wednesday. The suit claims Godwin used “a classic bully pulpit” to accuse Nail of the crime of bribery and other wrongdoing as a means of shifting the attention away from the spending questions Godwin was facing.
“This psychological and spiritual abuse by Godwin toward Nail demonstrated the depths to which Godwin would sink to deflect attention from his extreme misuse of his position and of the trust placed in him by Nail and others,” the suit said.
Contacted about the suit Wednesday, the church’s attorney, J.D. Pauerstein, declined to comment until he could discuss the matter with church leaders. A message left with a church official wasn’t returned.
The spending Nail refers to in the suit involved a fund set aside for outreach and missions. After the newspaper reports, Godwin told the congregation he paid back all personal expenses and launched a new tax compliance audit, among other corrective measures. He hasn’t made public when or which reimbursements were made.
Nail founded a mentoring ministry for boys with absent fathers called Brave Heart at the church and was a friend of Godwin and his wife, Cindy, the church’s co-pastor.
Nail said in the suit that church staffers were afraid of losing their jobs if they confronted church leaders about Godwin’s questionable expenses. He said he offered to help them financially if they were fired and followed biblical instruction by taking the spending concerns to Godwin first and then to two elders, who were unwilling to confront Godwin.
According to the lawsuit, Nail said Godwin told him: “I’m not going to let someone eating a bologna sandwich (referring to church staff and lower-level employees) tell me how to spend money around here.”
Godwin also asserted that, as the chief executive of the church, he deserved perks, Nail says in the suit.
After the falling-out between Nail and Godwin, the pastor told the congregation in November:
“These are despicable acts of behavior by desperate people who will go to any measure including slander, intimidation and, if you can believe it, bribery. Our staff was insulted and outraged by Larry’s behavior. It goes beyond Christian comprehension.”
Nail’s attorney is Gary L. Richardson of Tulsa, Okla., who also represents two former Oral Roberts University professors whose lawsuit against the private Christian school has drawn national attention for its claim of financial and spiritual abuse by the school’s leaders.
“The conduct we believe will show that there was some wrongdoing by the pastor,” Richardson said by phone. “There were things said about Larry publicly that we believe the evidence would show are not true.”
Asked whether the court has jurisdiction in such a church dispute, he said the case “has nothing to do with freedom of religion.”
David Anderson, a University of Texas School of Law professor specializing in defamation cases, said that sometimes, church leaders claim their statements and actions are protected by constitutional guarantees of religious freedom when the matter is clearly theological in nature.
“If the resolution of the lawsuit requires the resolution of some theological question, only then is there any problem of the courts taking jurisdiction in the matter,” he said.
However, Anderson said, noting he has not read Nail’s lawsuit, the use of the term “bribery” is entirely secular and could result in the suit being litigated.
Anderson added that churches could also argue “group privilege” as a defense, meaning that the pastor’s statement — despite its potential to defame — was made in good faith and as part of internal issues the church needed to discuss for its benefit.
Saturday, the 24-year-old church will hold its first services in the new building — 172,000 square feet of space on 68 acres of land and estimated to cost $36 million. Its official dedication the next weekend will mark its name change to Summit Christian Center. On June 7, Cornerstone Church pastor John Hagee is scheduled to speak.
The church’s existing buildings on nearly 9 acres at Bitters Road and U.S. 281 are under contract and were listed for $4.5 million, according to the Realtor’s Web site.
The new building has concert lighting and sound, a food court, and an 1,800-light Venetian-style carousel from the former Central Park Mall.
Godwin and his wife have executive offices on one wing with a private elevator and garage.
The building will seat 2,500 people initially with the capacity to double later, making it equal to the largest sanctuaries in the city, including Hagee’s church. Godwin has said he plans to rent the facility for concerts and other community events to produce a new revenue source for the church.
It is situated in a rapidly growing area of high-priced homes, retail development and a new high school named for Lady Bird Johnson.
Construction began in October 2006 and so did complaints from neighboring homeowners in Sendero Ranch, which borders the church property to the north.
The outdoor lighting and noise from the large air conditioners have been the subject of several meetings and correspondence between homeowners and church leaders. The homeowners say they’re frustrated that Godwin has not responded directly and sent representatives instead.
“I would have thought that a benevolent establishment such as a church would work with homeowners,” said Gina Weikel, whose backyard borders the property. “I would have thought that they would like to provide a harmonious relationship and garner new members to the congregation. My beliefs were wrong.”
In a letter to the homeowners, the church said it is committed to being good neighbors but that it satisfied all legal requirements in constructing the church. The land, zoned commercially, lies just outside the city limit, where there are fewer development rules.