The doors have been locked and the sign has been taken down at Fellowship Baptist Church in Chickamauga. (Messenger photo/Josh O’Bryant)

Since its founding in 1942, Fellowship Baptist Church and its congregation was an active part of the Chickamauga community.

But that recently changed. The church's sign has been taken down and its doors locked, after 15 members were ousted after questioning financial decisions made by its former minister.

Troubles began in 2016 after a $42,000 bequest from the late Mary Dengler, a long-time member of Fellowship, was received.

According to the former members, prior to a May 10 business meeting -- at which they were voted out of the congregation-- preacher Tim Owens, of Journey On Ministries, told his flock that God had come to him in a "vision" on how he should spend  Dengler's money and that the "Lord was leading him" on how to handle it.

Owens had been minister for the three years.

Owens' announcement alarmed some of the congregation — many of whom had attended Fellowship since childhood — to question their minister's recent financial transactions.

Don't ask questions?

Fellowship Baptist had about 60 members when the recent ruckus began.

According to the (at that time) church financial director and former school teacher Leann Mize, Owens received a salary of about $3,000 per month, which included his family's housing.

The church had three separate bank accounts: a general account, a designated account and a reserve account. Dengler's money was placed in the reserve account.

The designated account was designed to pay for mission trips, Vacation Bible School and other church programs.

The reserve account was established to fund any unforeseen problems with church facilities such as wear-and-tear on the building, air-conditioning repairs and so on.

Mize said the church operated with a line-item budget that detailed how the money was spent. But, she said, Owens told her that the utilities did not need to be itemized any more and to just leave a total sum of the utility expenses.

On April 30, Owens turned in his resignation, effective May 14 (Mother's Day), and preached only once during May. He had a guest speaker for the next Wednesday service and canceled the Mother's Day service, instead advising the congregation to stay home with their mothers.

Owens' reasoning for resigning, according to those 15 dismissed members, was that he did not want to cause another church split, similar to what had occurred in the 1990s and, more recently, a few years ago as well. Instead, he said he was going back into his music ministry, Old Time Preachers Quartet.

Once questions arose regarding church finances, the majority of members voted to "de-church" about a dozen members on May 10, saying (in a petition) they were bringing an "unhealthy, divisive and destructive atmosphere" to the church. At the same time, they petitioned Owens to remain as pastor.

Those ousted say this was a way to keep Owens as minister. The reasoning and the list of names were presented during a church meeting.

The church did not have elders and deacons overseeing the minister and church.

Since that time, the remaining members of the church have changed the locks on the doors, taken down the sign, and closed services. Owens' supporters continue to meet in the church gymnasium.

"What have we done to deserve this?" Mize said.

Here comes the money

After the members were voted out, three checks made out to Owens were discovered, including a severance package, even though Owens resigned from the church.

On May 17, $2,000 was paid to Owens out of the reserve account and listed as "missions" for a trip Owens and his wife made to Israel in February. Owens posted pictures of the trip on the church's Facebook page

Mize said this was the second mission trip to Israel for Owens, noting that he did not conduct any mission work in Israel but went "sight seeing" with his wife and that this was not a mission trip.

The church's remaining members previously tried to pay Owens the $2,000 for the trip, but the ousted members did not feel he was owed the money, so he was not paid. But once they were kicked out, Fellowship's remaining members paid Owens the money.

On May 28, a severance package check for $11,280.99 was made to Owens — from the reserve account — and was marked for Owens' housing allowance. But, Mize said, Owens already received housing allowances in his monthly pay.

The church's minister job description and application dated Aug. 3, 2014 — when Owens was hired — reads, "If the senior pastor is dismissed, for any reason other than moral failure, the church agrees to pay three months severance."

Mize said that since the minister resigned and was not fired — based on his own application — he would not be entitled to this money.

A third check — once again out of the reserve account — for more housing allowances was issued June 4 in the amount of $1,526.21.

On June 30, the church wrote a check to the Journey On ministry for $20,094.33 from the missions account, which dropped the reserve balance to zero.

On that same day, the church wrote a $24,254.74 check to the' Journey On ministry from the general account, which depleted that account.

These checks, when totaled, show Owens was paid just under $60,000 from the church coffers in a matter of a few months, not including his monthly salary.

And these checks to Owens were earmarked for Journey On Ministries, meaning they were tax-exempt.

Dengler's will

Mary Dengler died before Owens became pastor at the church.

The ousted members feel this was not how Dengler would want her bequest treated and claim the remaining members are acting like a "cult" that has taken over the church and has blind allegiance to Owens.

The former members claim Owens did not like being questioned and they did not like the church being run by "one family."

Johanna Williams, who remained with the former Fellowship Baptist Church and who also works for the Northwest Georgia Baptist Association, was contacted but declined to comment. Williams was among those who signed off on the members being dismissed.

Eddy Rushing, director of missions for the Northwest Georgia Baptist Association, declined comment, but did confirm that Fellowship Baptist is no more and its remaining members will "re-start" a new church called Grace Baptist Church.

Mize and others said the remaining members will not return their calls.

"I've never been thrown out of my own kitchen, let alone a church," ousted member Eulene Matthews said.

The goal now for the ousted members is to find a new place of worship and — hopefully — stay together, Mize said.

Editor's note: For this article, church officials declined to comment. After contacting Johanna Williams, who declined to comment, Eddy Rushing contacted the Messenger on Owens' and Williams' behalf and said there would be no comment from either himself, Owens and Williams. However, on July 18, Johanna Williams commented in a Facebook post.

Josh O'Bryant is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He can be reached at the Walker County Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at jobryant@npco.com.