Former trustee Barry Canady and congregation member Glenda Ranson stand on the steps of the New Central Baptist Church on Lombard Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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A bitter, long-running legal battle between the pastor of a Philadelphia church and a group of parishioners has brought the century-old congregation near collapse, and endangered the historic church’s survival.

Pastor Bernard Reaves locked members out of New Central Baptist Church on Lombard near 22nd Street five years ago, they say, and allowed the handsome stone and brick building to fall into disrepair. 

“The ceiling and some of the walls have already collapsed,” Barry Canady, a former church trustee, told Billy Penn. “Once we get back in there, there’s major work for us to do.”

A group of members allege a litany of misdeeds by Reaves that in 2018 led them to vote to fire him. But he refused to leave — so they took him to court.

The lawsuit alleges that instead of following longstanding bylaws, Reaves unilaterally appointed deacons and a trustee, spent church funds without authorization, and tried to block a trustee election. When a member survey came back with criticisms of the pastor, he dismissed it, per the suit, describing the findings as “out of line with the word of God.”

In the initial case, a judge ruled against the church members. They appealed to Pa. Superior Court, where the case is pending.

Reaves occasionally posts selfie videos of himself on Facebook, preaching inside the church, alone. They garner a few hearts and likes. Otherwise, the building appears to remain empty and neglected.

The dispute is playing out against a backdrop of other major challenges to the 118-year-old institution.

A generation ago, New Central Baptist had hundreds of members, but the pandemic and the dissonance accelerated a long decline. The congregation now numbers no more than a few dozen. 

Meanwhile the surrounding neighborhood, a few blocks from Fitler Square and Schuylkill River Park, has been described as the most gentrified in the city, with home prices that quadrupled between 2000 and 2016. 

Nearby blocks are filled with well-kept rowhomes and pricey new developments. The nearby intersection of 23rd and South streets has become a popular gathering spot with outdoor seating, and restaurants and shops nearby. Lombard Street itself provides quick access to University City and I-76 and is busy with traffic for much of the day.

The neighborhood’s popularity has stoked concerns that the extended legal standoff could spell the end of the congregation.

“There are three $2 million condominiums adjacent to the church,” one member said during court testimony. “I fear that if the current situation is not resolved, that the church will at some point be forced to be sold and a developer will probably purchase the church and turn it into condominiums.”

Some of Reaves’ alleged actions were troubling but not illegal, like replacing the head of the culinary ministry with a relative, and making changes to a summer youth program that led to its dissolution, members said. 

Others were more serious. Members recalled Reaves speaking from the pulpit and saying he’d visited the homes of members who were sick or shut-ins — a basic pastoral duty — when in some cases it turned out he had never made the visit. 

An echo of old struggles

Generational change and declining participation can contribute to instability and conflict within churches, but actual civil lawsuits between a church and its pastor are “extremely rare,” according to Matthew Manion, faculty director of the Center for Church Management in the Villanova School of Business.

Yet the dispute is not the first time in New Central Baptist’s long history that its pastor has faced claims of misconduct.

Founded in 1905 by Reverend Charles Blackwell, by 1919 the church was housed in a “beautiful edifice” at 23rd and Lombard and had 3,000 members, according to the Philadelphia Tribune. Despite that success, some congregants had complaints: they and another pastor alleged Blackwell was “conducting the church’s affairs in his own interests,” The Inquirer reported at the time. They asked a court to prohibit him from “excluding” them from the church and to supervise an election of church officers.

The other pastor later accused Blackwell of fathering three illegitimate children with a female church member. The allegations proved false, but that pastor won a hefty $1,040 judgment against Blackwell for “false arrest” and another $500 judgment for slander.

The church nonetheless continued to flourish. It moved to its current location in 1922, and in 1935 launched a widely popular radio ministry. It was one of the few Black churches in Philadelphia to broadcast sermons and choral performances, way before the pandemic made the practice popular.

Former trustee Barry Canady and congregation member Glenda Ranson stand on the steps of the New Central Baptist Church at 2139 Lombard St. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The congregation has shrunk since then, as it has at many churches. New Central Baptist had more than 400 people in the 1980s, according to one member, but by the early 2000s that figure had fallen by half. When the pandemic hit there were at most 100 members, Canady estimated. 

Nationally, 76% of Americans were church members at the end of World War II, but the number began a rapid decline around 2000 and was down to 47% in 2020, according to Gallup surveys. Since the late 1990s church membership in the eastern U.S. has plummeted by 25% and membership among Black adults has fallen 19%.

In the last couple years, as New Central Baptist members passed away or stopped attending, their numbers sank to perhaps 35.

“One by one, members started to see [Reaves’] true colors and they stopped coming to church,” Canady said. “It wasn’t a mass exodus thing. It was just, after a while you go to church and you notice, oh, so-and-so don’t come to church no more.”

‘Pastors don’t get involved in another pastor’s dispute’

Complaints about dictatorial clergy are not uncommon, with experts variously advising that congregants should ask their pastor to seek repentance, or else prepare for a tough fight to remove a church leader whose character will never change. 

Pastors’ uniquely broad leadership roles make it particularly important for churches to establish very clear bylaws on how members exercise authority, said Manion, of Villanova.

For many ministers, “differentiating the spiritual responsibilities from all the other responsibilities, the financial responsibilities, the physical plant responsibilities, those kind of things — that can get muddy,” he said. 

“In most cases, though, where the call comes from the congregation, and they hire the pastor, that’s usually the safeguard: the ones who hire are also the ones who can remove somebody,” said Manion. “That’s the check and balance that’s usually in place between a community and their leader.”

In 2018, Rev. Reaves was installed as president of the Evening Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity. He’s shown here (center, silver jacket) with his cabinet at the organization. (Solomon Williams/Philadelphia Tribune)

In the Catholic church and some other denominations, there are hierarchies that can intervene to negotiate or impose a resolution to a conflict, Manion said. But independent Protestant congregations like New Central Baptist have no such organizational superstructure.

The Baptist church does have voluntary umbrella organizations such as the Tennessee-based National Baptist Convention, which one member said New Central was once part of. 

Rev. James Moore, a member of the National Baptist Convention’s executive committee and pastor at Second Mount Zion Baptist Church in Mantua, said affiliated organizations can help resolve an internal church dispute, but have no authority to intervene without being asked.

“Pastors don’t get involved in another pastor’s dispute with their congregation unless they are invited in,” he said. “Baptist churches have their own autonomy. We have congregational rule, and the majority rules.”

Moore knows Reaves and said he has spoken with him about the lawsuit. He declined to discuss the details of the dispute, but noted that a court had ruled in favor of Reaves and against the New Central Baptist members who sued.

“If he won, then there was something that they did wrong,” Moore said. “It may be wrong on both sides, but that’s going to be a situation that they’re going to have to settle between themselves unless they invite somebody else in.”

‘Smooth-running’ church breaks down

Reaves, who represented himself in court, said during a brief phone conversation in April that a lawyer had advised him not to discuss the lawsuit with the press. 

He agreed to meet at the church for an interview, but did not show up and did not respond to subsequent phone calls and messages.

Reaves came to New Central Baptist in 2010 after careers with the Air Force Reserves and the U.S. Post Office. Like many pastors, he did not have a divinity degree, but he also didn’t have much pastoral experience, members said.

“He just didn’t impress me as having a pastor’s heart,” member Glenda Ranson said. “It was just something about him.”

Rev. Bernard J. Reaves and his wife Marcella Reaves pose for a photo prior to the start of services to celebrate the 110th anniversary of New Central Baptist Church. (Robert Mendelsohn/Philadelphia Tribune)

Around 2015, after the congregation celebrated the 110th anniversary of the church’s founding, Reaves and his wife Marcella began taking control of church functions and policies that had always been overseen by the deacons and trustees, members said. The initial changes were relatively minor, but some people found them disturbing. 

For example, he broke up the culinary ministry — a group of women who prepared food for funeral services and special events — and put a relative in charge of those duties, per Ranson. 

He replaced Ranson as head of the summertime vacation Bible school for youth, but the new director didn’t last long and the school faded away, she said.

“When he came, we had a smooth-running church. He came, he wanted to change everything. It was because he didn’t start it, he didn’t select the people,” Ranson said.

After police were called during a dispute at a funeral, Reaves tried to limit funerals to one open-casket viewing at the start of the service and eliminate the second viewing at the end, former trustee Canady said. 

“You don’t have the authority by yourself to arbitrarily start changing things. These things are supposed to go to the official board, and then come to the church [for a vote],” he said. “One member started referring to him as a dictator.”

When a number of women asked for a new bathroom in the church, Reaves’ wife circumvented the trustees, Canady said, who are ostensibly in charge of the church facilities and finances, and hired a contractor herself.

$16,000 missing and a contested election

Reaves began unilaterally appointing church leaders, according to the trial testimony. The deacon board is supposed to select candidates, train them for a year, and put them before the membership for approval, but Reaves simply placed two new people on. 

Four of the five trustees quit “on account of their frustration with Reaves,” according to the members’ Superior Court appeal, and the pastor announced he had appointed a new trustee without a vote. The Trustee Board became “dysfunctional,” members testified.

In 2017, members learned that Reaves had closed out a certificate of deposit the church kept for emergency expenses, the lawsuit says. Canady said the CD, which was worth about $16,000, was cashed out by the pastor and his unelected trustee. To this day the members don’t know what happened to that money.

“That was the big mystery,” Canady said. “They didn’t pay bills with it, we know that. So what did you do with the money?”

When members requested an election to refill the trustee board, Reaves resisted and delayed. It was finally held in August 2018, with 26 members attending. Reaves spoke at length, criticizing the nominees and arguing they were disqualified because they’d previously resigned from the board, the lawsuit says. The members elected four trustees, but Reaves objected.

Barry Canady and Glenda Ranson try to open the door to the New Central Baptist Church on Lombard Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

He locked them out of the church and removed their access to the church’s bank accounts, the suit alleges.

The following February the Deacon Board authorized a meeting to decide the pastor’s fate. Reaves handed out a letter that read, in part, “This meeting is illegal and unauthorized by the pastor of this church… You have left me no other option but to seek legal counsel. I will see those responsible for this meeting in court,” according to the lawsuit.

Twenty-one members voted, with a majority favoring Reaves’ termination, the suit says. But the small group of remaining older congregants was unable or unwilling to make him leave, and he continued to act as pastor and preside over church services while receiving a salary, apparently out of funds contributed by members who remained his supporters.

A different church might have had “younger men to more or less escort him out,” Ranson said. “Their deacon board would have been stronger and they would have just booted him out. But we tried to do things decently and in order and went to court.”

A group of members and the Board of Trustees sued to remove Reaves in April 2019. 

After being switched to a different court and delayed by the pandemic, a two-day trial took place in December 2021. Judge George Overton ruled against the group, saying the trustee election and Reaves’ termination hadn’t followed church bylaws. He said there was no evidence that a majority of members present had voted for the trustees, and the church had not given Reaves adequate notice he was being terminated. 

The members asked Overton to reverse his decision, arguing he had misinterpreted the witness testimony and bylaws, but he refused. He also declined to act on their petition to order an annual trustee election, which by then was long overdue. The Superior Court accepted their appeal last October. 

As they wait for a new ruling, the members who oppose Reaves say they mostly stay away from the church, although they continue to pay for insurance on the building, which they say the pastor had let lapse. 

A small group meets via phone teleconference on Sundays to pray together. Ranson said she went to another Baptist church to attend Good Friday services, but she and Canaday both say they’re not interested in switching congregations.

“God didn’t put it on my heart and mind to go somewhere else,” Canady said. “I’m not going to do it. It’s New Central or nothing.”

The trustees had keys to the building, but Ranson said she tried the doors recently and found that the locks had been changed again.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...