The board of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, which boasts more than 4,000 members, has ousted Pastor GJ Barnes III, alleging he failed to submit financial documents required by the church’s mortgage lender.
An Empowerment spokesman said Barnes, who took the helm of the Northwest Baltimore megachurch in 2019, failed this year to complete an annual financial audit on time, an issue that could place Empowerment in danger of foreclosure. The audit was submitted late last year, as well, the spokesman said, leading to fines for the church.
This year’s audit has still not been completed, the spokesman added.
Barnes and his wife, Junetta, have faced personal financial difficulties in recent years, according to online state court records. The records show the federal government recorded a lien against the couple of more than $1 million in a 2017 case that is listed as closed. In 2020, the Maryland comptroller’s office filed a $273,000 lien against the couple in a case it also listed as closed.
Reached on Sunday by email, Barnes declined to comment for this article, and he did not respond Monday to further emails. However, he said on his Facebook page that he will host an in-person meeting Wednesday to answer questions. It’s scheduled for 7 p.m. at Next Act Cinema in Pikesville.
“This week has been a shocking week,” Barnes said, sitting beside his wife in a video on Facebook. “We just want to take an opportunity to come and share with you, first and foremost, our gratefulness for the countless calls and support that we’ve received.”
Junetta Barnes said in the video of the planned town hall-style meeting: “We would love to have you come out so that the truth is told.”
Empowerment Temple is part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A regional AME official approached Barnes after the problems came to light, suggested the pastor leave the parish and offered to place him at a different church, according to the Empowerment spokesman.
But Barnes refused, stating that he intended to start his own church, the spokesman said. Doing so without approval from AME leaders violates church doctrine, he added, leaving board members with little choice but to terminate Barnes.
As a result of the various issues, the majority of the board Wednesday voted to oust Barnes effective immediately, the spokesman said.
“Empowerment Temple solicits prayers during this time of transition,” a statement from Empowerment Temple leadership read. “The current and previous leadership have reached a fork in the road where it is best that we separate. We look forward to new leadership where we can continue to serve the community.”
Church officials said Barnes locked them out of Empowerment’s online donation platform, its social media pages, its website and other accounts. Barnes posted his own sermon Sunday on Empowerment’s website.
A video of the service that took place at the temple off Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore did not appear on that site.
Church officials created a new Empowerment Temple Facebook page Saturday, posting that their previous page, which had 40,000 followers, had been “compromised.” They’ve asked members to donate in person or via mail, rather than online, while they evaluate next steps.
A new Empowerment Temple website, ETame.net, has a message that reads: “Yes, we’ve been compromised, but we trust the Word of God that reassures us, ‘No weapon formed against me, you, us, or the AME CHURCH, shall prosper.’”
Barnes was a dynamic pastor who led the church through adjustments necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, streaming services from a boat, a hot-air balloon field, a cave and more. The church reopened in July after 16 months without in-person services.
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The church began in 2000 under the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a charismatic preacher who grew the congregation from dozens to thousands. In 2018, Bryant departed for an Atlanta-area church, opening the door for Barnes, previously a pastor at Elevation Chapel in Owings Mills.
On Empowerment’s website from the Barnes era, he was cast as an entrepreneur and the author of a book, “The Growth Principle: How Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Things.”
A 9:30 a.m. Sunday service proceeded as normal, led by Ann Lightner-Fuller, a retired pastor from Towson’s Mount Calvary AME Church who served at Empowerment Temple on an interim basis before Barnes was hired.
There was little talk of what precisely went wrong during Barnes’ tenure. Lightner-Fuller dubbed the church’s transition “a day of new beginnings.” AME Bishop James Levert Davis, who oversees the district that includes Baltimore, was also unspecific when he addressed the crowd.
“I want you to know that I believe there’s healing taking place in a place called Empowerment Church,” he said. “Be not discouraged. Be not dismayed.”
Empowerment Temple officials are still unsure who will preside over services in the future, the spokesman said, adding that the church and Levert Davis will release a more joint detailed statement on the situation by Tuesday.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.