Son of church founder looks to Jericho’s future

(Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST) - The Rev. Joel R. Peebles, assistant pastor at Jericho City of Praise, delivers a sermon in July.

The Rev. Joel R. Peebles grew up within the walls of Jericho.

He was born in 1969, about the time a small congregation was marching into Jericho Baptist Church on Douglass Street in Northeast Washington. As a youngster, he played while his father, the Rev. James Peebles Sr., founder of the ministry that grew into the massive Jericho City of Praise in Landover, prepared his sermons in a tiny boiler room that doubled as the pastor’s study. The younger Peebles met his wife, Ylawnda, at Jericho, and their four children were baptized there. And he was consoled by church members as his father, two brothers — and then, last October, his mother, Betty Peebles — were memorialized in funeral services at Jericho.

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A judge’s ruling Monday, placing the church’s management in the hands of a board of trustees chosen by Betty Peebles — and without her youngest son and assistant pastor — means that Jericho’s governance has fallen out of family hands for the first time since the church’s founding in 1962.

News of the decision spread through the 19,000-member congregation faster than the 10 plagues through Egypt. Publicly, it was business as usual for Peebles, who posted a message to members over the church’s Web site that was removed a few hours later. Privately, he was making plans to challenge Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Dwight Jackson’s order.

“There will be an appeal,” said his special assistant, Deana Bass, adding that Peebles was continuing the work he has always done.

Meanwhile, the board of trustees moved forward with business that had stalled during the months-long legal battle, said Isaac H. Marks, the trustees’ attorney. Sources familiar with the imbroglio said that Peebles and the trustees huddled Wednesday to try to secure a $29 million bank loan. Church officials have been concerned that the controversy would affect the church’s ability to borrow if lenders think that Jericho’s leadership is fractured.

Marks said that board members hope Peebles will continue to serve as assistant pastor. “We fully expect that he will work in conjunction with the board,” he said.

In an interview in July, Peebles, who did not respond to interview requests this week, talked about the importance of his family’s role in the megachurch. Jericho, which started as a gathering of men and women in the basement of a public housing complex in Northeast Washington, now claims as assets a 10,000-seat sanctuary, a senior citizens complex, a business park, a college, a school and a lucrative deal to provide parking during Washington Redskins games. Peebles said his mother, who died of cancer a year ago at age 76, trained him to eventually take over the church’s management.

“My family started this church,” he said. “I came up in this church. It is my responsibility to oversee this church, and that is what my mother wanted.”

Some members wondered privately whether Peebles will remain at Jericho or leave to found another church. Supporters criticized the board’s move to strip Peebles, 42, of what they see as his birthright. Detractors said that Betty Peebles’ not naming her son as the church leader when she knew she was gravely ill indicated that she did not want him to head the church.

“The people on this board do not dislike or lack faith in Joey,” one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They believe that one day, he’d make a fine church manager, as well as a pastor. They just think he’s not ready now.”

The controversy has some members heading for the exits, officials acknowledge “The numbers over the course of this have been affected,” Bass said.

With Betty Peebles’s death, Jericho joined several other family-run megachurches facing upheaval over succession issues. Others include Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., where founder Robert H. Schuller, 84, was recently kicked off the board of directors, according to news accounts. The church has filed for bankruptcy. At Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, the family of the late Rev. James Kennedy lost a bid to maintain control when the church board brought in a young pastor.

“When someone like Betty Peebles or James Kennedy dies, or Robert Schuller retires, there is a significant leadership void to fill,” said Scott Thumma, a researcher and sociology of religion professor who has studied megachurches for two decades.

Several church members on both sides of the divide declined to speak publicly about the court decision, saying they wished the whole issue would go away. Bass said Peebles hopes to be a calming influence as the church moves forward.

“He will continue to do the work that he has done in the church,” she said. “He has not missed a beat in that regard.”

In an e-mail, trustee Denise Killen cited three Bible verses to explain that both parties are looking ahead, including Habakkuk 2:2-3 from the Old Testament:

“And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.”

“We are focused as a unified body. The vision has been written,” Killen wrote. “We as a unified body are running with it.”

Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

 
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