For about two months in late 2009, Joel R. Peebles had no idea where his mother was. She didn’t answer when he called her cellphone or respond to knocks on the door of her home in the gated Woodmore community in Prince George’s County.
Unbeknownst to her son, Betty Peebles, the pastor who’d transformed Jericho City of Praise in Landover into a multimillion-dollar ministry conglomerate, had written a new will and quietly admitted herself into a Baltimore hospital for cancer treatment, acquaintances said.
A group of longtime Jericho members say that in March of the same year, she also signed papers naming them to a revised board of trustees with a mandate that they handle the business side of the ministry, an arrangement that would keep her son in place as the church’s spiritual leader, but bar him from controlling the money.
In a court battle that erupted days after Betty Peebles died of cancer in October, Joel Peebles, 42, disputed the claim, saying his mother left him in charge. Both sides entered court-ordered mediation Friday but did not reach a resolution. A hearing scheduled Tuesday for a judge to consider pending motions was postponed in lieu of the parties returning to mediation.
Longtime acquaintances of Betty Peebles, who also watched Joel Peebles grow up in the ministry and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the mother’s absence from her son from November 2009 through January 2010 — during which they missed the entire holiday season at a critical point in her illness — illustrates the tension that sometimes existed between the two.
Mother and son clearly loved each other, the acquaintances said, but she worried that her sole surviving son was not yet ready to handle the financial reins of the ministry she’d grown to include a 10,000-seat sanctuary, senior citizens complex, business park, college, school and a lucrative deal to provide parking during Washington Redskins games.
A letter that Betty Peebles sent to the staff of the ministry’s high school in May 2009 shows that she had reservations about the financial condition of the school, then headed by Joel Peebles. In the letter, she said the school would cost the church an unanticipated $1.2 million and that she would take over as headmaster.
In a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit that the alleged trustees filed against Joel Peebles, Gloria McClam-Magruder, a former headmaster of Jericho Christian Academy who says she is one of the trustees, testified that Betty Peebles was also worried that Joel Peebles had allowed the taxes to go delinquent on the family home in Southeast Washington. “She was very much concerned about that,” McClam-Magruder recalled in the deposition. “And she even said to me, ‘I wonder should I pay for it’ . . . because she wanted to keep that house in the family.”
Records from the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue show that tax liens were filed for the property but were later settled. Foreclosure complaints were also filed against Joel and Ylawnda Peebles for property in Lanham and Baltimore, records show. Timothy Maloney, an attorney for the couple, said they own several rental properties and have had difficulty at times with tenants failing to pay the rent.
Joel Peebles, who declined to comment on the specifics of the case, defended his role in the ministry. He says his mother named him to the church’s governing board in 1997, shortly after the deaths of his father and oldest brother, and that he remains its ranking member. He said she granted him her power of attorney in 2003, when she suffered her first bout with cancer, and tapped him to serve as school headmaster beginning in 1999, and vice president of a board that oversees the senior citizens complex.
He produced several tax and loan documents and a report the church files to D.C. government as a nonprofit operating in Maryland, showing that he signed as a trustee or director, usually directly under his mother, who headed the board until her death.
Despite the acrimony, both sides said they are optimistic that they can resolve the matter. “I absolutely love every last one of the folks involved in this situation,” Joel Peebles said. “This situation is coming to a close, and we will be extraordinarily happy to continue to work for the glory of God.”
Jericho, with about 19,000 members, is one of the region’s largest, most prosperous ministries. Betty Peebles’s husband, Bishop James Peebles Sr., founded the church in 1964, while she led the choirs. When Joey, the youngest of three boys, sang his first solo at age 7, his mother sat proudly behind the piano, accompanying him.
Betty Peebles later became a co-pastor, raising the ire of some who found it inappropriate for a woman to take a leading role in the pulpit, ultimately causing the couple to pull out of the Baptist denomination, acquaintances said.
She took over as pastor after her husband died of a heart attack at age 63 in September 1996. Four months later, her oldest son, James Jr., then 38, also suffered a fatal heart attack. Her second son, John, 44, died after a brief illness in 2004. Still, Betty Peebles carried on, becoming one of the first women to head a megachurch.
The ministry flourished — as did its political influence. When the church celebrated paying off a $36 million mortgage for its Landover location in just seven years, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) celebrated from a front pew with the members. But, like many first-generation megachurch pastors, Betty Peebles still ran her empire like a small house of worship, choosing ministry decision-makers who, regardless of qualifications, were loyal to her.
Administrators said in depositions that the church for many years had no official method to select a board of trustees, no set qualifications to serve, no annual business meetings and produced no annual report. They also testified about collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly tithes and offerings and operating with little outside oversight or communication to members about how their donations were being spent.
Dorothy Williams, the church’s chief financial officer and an alleged board member, testified that she graduated from high school at age 35 and has no college degree. She started working at Jericho 20 years ago as a volunteer, moved into organizing offering envelopes and counting money and later was named CFO.
Williams, who rents a basement room in the Upper Marlboro home of Betty Peebles’s daughter-in-law, said in the deposition that she didn’t know how she became a member of the church’s board when she was first appointed in 1997. “The apostle probably just put me there,” she said, after questioning from Maloney.
Supporters of Joel Peebles say the alleged board members’ actions against him are retaliation against his attempts to make the church’s finances more transparent with new practices, such as reporting on the church’s Web site how contributions are being used.
In his countersuit, Joel Peebles challenges the legality of the alleged board and criticizes salary increases he says that three of its members — who double as full-time employees of the church — either granted themselves or were given by Betty Peebles after she became ill.
According to their depositions, Denise Killen went from an assistant administrator making about $55,000 to an administrator drawing $70,000; Clarence Jackson, the facilities manager, went from $71,000 to $91,000; and Dorothy Williams, from $63,000 to $83,000. Cliff Boswell, who once did small tasks for Betty Peebles, continues to collect a $200 monthly stipend.
Joel Peebles also has challenged his mother’s personal will, which disperses $5,000, her interest in a property in North Carolina and other “tangible personal property” to Joel Peebles; a Mercedes-Benz sedan to Jackson, the facilities manager and alleged board member who was her driver and confidante; a Rolex watch to McClam-Magruder; and another Rolex to “my friend Asya Peebles.”
The will names Michael and Delores Freeman, friends who also are pastors of Spirit of Faith Ministries, another megachurch, as “personal representatives” of her estate.
After a disagreement erupted between Joel Peebles and the opposing side over the offering collection July 3, the alleged board sought a temporary restraining order to block Peebles from handling the money. A judge granted the request, ordered the group to hand over financial records that Joel Peebles had sought, and appointed a mediator.
Scott Thumma, a professor and researcher who has studied megachurches for more than 20 years, said the Jericho upheaval is not unusual when a church loses a high-profile leader. “Too often, tension and conflict fill the void in the struggle for control of resources, leadership and a new vision. Without prior planning, such transition times can easily result in the demise of the organization the various parties are fighting to control.”
News researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.