A pastor deposed as the leader of an influential Baltimore megachurch defended himself at a town hall meeting he organized, telling attendees that his dismissal from Empowerment Temple AME Church was the result of disagreements over the filing of documents, and was not due to any financial issues.
Rev. GJ Barnes II, who took over as senior pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in February 2019, said Wednesday night that the church’s leaders fired him a week ago because he was late filing 2020 and 2021 audit reports required by the church’s mortgage lender.
Though he acknowledged the lateness of the reports, Barnes said he chose not to meet the deadlines “out of my concern to be thorough and complete, not rushed.”
He said the church — which he said made its mortgage payment on time every month during his tenure for the first time in years ― is in better financial shape than when he arrived.
“People hear the word ‘audit,’ and they assume the problem has to do with financial problems,” he said. “This wasn’t. It’s unfortunate that this spectacle has become a distraction, that an internal church matter has become the focus,” not the work of the church at large.
In his address, Barnes posed a series of questions to himself, including, “Pastor, did you steal any money?”
He said he didn’t, hadn’t been accused of that, and never had the access to church funds that such an act would require.
Barnes also addressed Empowerment Temple’s report that he planned to start another church himself.
“I’ll continue to offer sermons every week,” on his personal website, he said. “We’ll continue to serve, and we’ll see what God wants us to do.”
Empowerment Temple and AME church officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Empowerment Temple says it has about 4,000 members. The church is in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore.
A spokesman for Empowerment Temple, who asked not to be identified because an official statement has not been released, said Sunday that Barnes was terminated as a result of financial problems at the church. The spokesman said the audit delays cost the church tens of thousands of dollars in fees and the 2021 audit wasn’t completed. The church’s lender, he added, informed Empowerment Temple in July that it could demand the entire loan be repaid at once or foreclose.
The spokesman said leaders of the AME denomination offered Barnes the chance to lead another church in the area, but Barnes declined, saying he would start his own congregation. Such a move would violate doctrine, the spokesman added, leaving Empowerment Temple little choice but to terminate Barnes.
A majority of the church’s board voted Aug. 4 to dismiss the pastor immediately.
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 tax lien against the couple for more than $1 million in a 2017 case that is listed as closed. In March 2020, the Maryland comptroller’s office filed a $273,000 tax lien against the couple in a case it also listed as closed.
The couple paid more than $1.6 million for a home in a gated community in Owings Mills in 2016, online state real estate records show. It sold for $975,000 in a foreclosure auction, according A.J. Billig & Co., the firm that handled the sale. The state records date the sale to December.
Barnes said he earned the money to purchase any property he owned during his years as a businessman, which he said made him a millionaire in his 20s.
Barnes gave essentially the same 90-minute talk twice Wednesday, each time in a stadium-style screening room at the Next Act Cinema in Pikesville. The crowds spilled into the aisles both times, overflowing each theater’s capacity of about 70.
He said AME and Empowerment Temple leaders gave him a choice between signing a letter of resignation and having the issues made public.
“Abandoning the church would not be responsible,” he said. “If you’re going to push me out, then you push me out.”
Barnes faced tough questions from some attendees and support from others. One woman who described herself as an Empowerment Temple member asked him if he personally received donations to the church through an online app. She declined to give her name to a reporter afterward.
“The CashApp has never connected to the pastor’s personal account. That has been a fact,” Barnes told her.
After the second talk, one supporter said he believed “the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” and another thanked him for his creativity as a leader.
As the crowd departed, Eric Brock and Gladys Burrell of Baltimore stopped to say they will be praying for Barnes, a man they’ve known since before his Empowerment Temple days. They described him as both godly in nature and too methodical and business-minded to have fumbled his church’s finances.
“I’ll follow him to the pearly gates,” Burrell said.