A circuit judge in Michigan has refused to make a decision in the ongoing dispute between the board of elders of the Detroit World Outreach church in Redford Charter Township, Michigan, and Charisse Gibert, widow of the megachurch's late pastor, Benjamin Gibert, over who should be the church's rightful leader.
In a recent ruling reported by The Detroit News, Wayne County Circuit Judge Annette Berry said the court could not get involved in a decision about who should lead the controversial megachurch which has been making headlines since its senior pastor suffered a fatal heart attack on Feb. 28.
"The question of who should perform as a pastor is an ecclesiastical question, which the court is not authorized to decide," Berry ruled.
The dispute made national headlines in April after the one-time first lady was arrested and escorted from the church building in handcuffs in the middle of a Sunday morning worship service. Dramatic video of the arrest was shared online.
Judge Berry has ordered both parties to participate in mediation and a special conference is now set for June 29.
The Christian Post reached out to Gibert's lawyer, Khalilah Vonn Spencer, for comment Tuesday morning but she was unavailable. Henri Oliver Harmon, DWO's lawyer, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beyond the leadership of the church, Charisse Gibert and DWO officials are also fighting over a $3 million 11,000-square-foot mansion in which she currently resides with her children in Northville Township and the church's bank accounts. The megachurch's leaders also want to block their late pastor's widow from collecting proceeds from a $2 million life-insurance policy.
DWO Vice President and Treasurer Marvin Wilder explained in the court filing that while Gibert wants to hang on to a life of luxury in the mansion, it had become a strain on the church's purse because of falling membership and $380,000 a year on mortgage and maintenance costs.
"Selling the property would cut the debt of the church by close to 50 percent," Wilder wrote, according to The Detroit News.
The fight between Gibert and the church which erupted almost as soon as her husband died in February, got even worse on June 6, however, when American General Life Insurance Co. sued both parties in federal court over the life insurance, according to the local publication.
The insurance company wants the court to decide who gets the money even though Benjamin Gibert set up the policy to be split between the church and his wife.
Contrary to her husband's wishes, Charisse Gibert tried collecting her $950,000 portion of the insurance payout in March and demanded that no money be paid to the church in light of the lawsuit.
"I am quite concerned about possible fraud and mismanagement of church properties and funds," Charisse Gibert wrote in a letter to American General, the local publication reported.
About two months after Charisse Gibert made her demand, however, the church officials on May 25 told the insurance company not to pay any benefits to Charisse Gibert. American General now wants to deposit the $1.9 million insurance proceeds in an interest-bearing account until a federal judge makes a decision on who should get the money.
"The dispute is about control and the future of the church, though money and power is always in the background," Wilder said.
Church officials have contested claims by Charisse Gibert that she is the rightful heir to the leadership of the church.
"It's documented and Bishop Ben made it very clear in writing that Dr. Charisse was not the assistant pastor. Her role was defined as assistant TO the pastor, directed by him alone. He explained that she was not bishop when Bishop Ben was away. This is in a written document from him," DWO elder Pastor Gael Wallace said in a recorded statement.
The elders who said they were forced to handle the dispute publicly due to the behavior of their late pastor's widow, further explained why he did not want his wife to succeed him as leader of the church.
"These instructions came from our bishop after the board of elders had received complaints from members about Dr. Charisse. The investigation concluded that she had breached confidential matters discussed with a member for the purpose of godly counsel and biblical guidance. She also failed to handle objectively an offense meeting concerning a racial discrimination complaint involving a family member," elder Marvin Wilder said.
"She retaliated against a member for expressing a decision to leave the church and she publicly provided defamatory, negative or improper shortcomings of staff or other volunteers in public and private meetings, among other things," he added.
The elders explained that they agreed unanimously that Charisse Gibert was not fit to lead.