Local religious leaders are warring with a bishop’s widow over a $3 million mansion and control of the soul and mega bank accounts of one of Metro Detroit’s megachurches.
The war is 4 months old, triggered by the death of Bishop Benjamin Gibert, the charismatic, leather-clad leader of Detroit World Outreach in Redford Township, a megachurch whose leaders believe wealth is God’s reward.
Within days of the bishop’s death, church leaders fired his widow, Charisse Gibert, from her church post and announced plans to sell her home, an 11,000-square-foot parsonage in Northville Township that was controversially removed from the tax rolls 10 years ago.
Church leaders also are trying to block Charisse Gibert from collecting on her late husband’s $2 million life-insurance policy.
State and federal court records and interviews chronicle a power struggle over who should succeed Benjamin Gibert, a legal battle filled with palace intrigue, police and claims that the church has financial problems, an ironic twist that could end up benefiting Wayne County taxpayers.
“The dispute is about control and the future of the church, though money and power is always in the background,” church vice president and treasurer Marvin Wilder said.
The power struggle is not unusual.
“Megachurches that are built around the personalities of their leaders most of the time do suffer when there is an unexpected death or loss of that pastor, as do smaller churches,” said Scott Thumma of the Connecticut-based Hartford Seminary, who studies megachurches.
It is somewhat rare for a clergy’s spouse to become the new leader of a church, but that typically happens when the spouse is viewed as an equal, Thumma said.
“This does not sound like it was the case at (Detroit World Outreach),” Thumma said.
Charisse Gibert’s lawyer did not respond to a message seeking comment.
After Benjamin Gibert, 54, died of a heart attack Feb. 28, his widow tried to take control of the church from Detroit World Outreach’s board of elders, leaders allege.
Charisse Gibert tried firing church elders and stocking the board with family and friends, church lawyer Henri Harmon wrote in a Wayne County Circuit Court filing.
Gibert’s handpicked board includes her 23-year-old daughter and a brother-in-law.
Gibert claimed her late husband, before he died, named her first vice president. The move was an attempt to leapfrog her past Wilder and put her first in line to become the church’s new senior pastor, the lawyer alleges.
“The ‘first vice president’ position does not exist, and never existed,” Harmon wrote in the court filing.
The move was designed to grab control of church finances and assets, including the $3 million mansion in Northville Township, the lawyer alleges.
The church has more than $15 million worth of assets, including its main campus in Redford Township, the parsonage, additional real estate and a “sizable discretionary fund” for the senior pastor, according to Harmon.
The dispute turned ugly at the church’s main campus March 19, according to court records.
Charisse Gibert and others arrived at the facility and seized control of the church’s live web feed, according to Harmon.
A week later, during Sunday services, Gibert returned and insisted she be allowed to speak to parishioners.
Someone called law enforcement and Gibert agreed not to take the pulpit, according to Harmon.
“Gibert did not keep her word,” the lawyer alleged.
The church says Gibert twice interrupted Sunday services before law enforcement intervened, handcuffed her and led her off the stage.
Video of the incident was posted on YouTube.
On March 21, Charisse Gibert unsuccessfully tried to have the church bank accounts put in her name, according to a court filing.
The next day, the church sued her in Wayne County Circuit Court.
The church wanted an order declaring Charisse Gibert is not senior pastor and has no right to control the church’s assets. The church also wanted an order preventing her from entering the church and kicking her out of the mansion.
Charisse Gibert countersued, arguing she and her late husband were both senior pastors.
Gibert asked the Wayne County judge to declare her senior pastor, temporarily block Wilder and others from interrupting church finances and remove him from bank and credit card accounts.
Wayne County Circuit Judge Annette Berry refused to decide who is the church’s rightful leader.
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SOURCE: The Detroit News – Robert Snell