Widow, megachurch battle for control of mansion, millions

Robert Snell, The Detroit News

Redford Township — 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.

Ben Gilbert died in February, and the church he led is battling his widow, Charisse Gilbert. This 11,000-square-foot house where the Gilberts lives is at the center of the fight between Detroit World Outreach leaders and the wife.

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. Harmon declined an interview request to talk about the case.

Gibert’s handpicked board includes her 23-year-old daughter and a brother-in-law, court records indicate.

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 court records.

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, Harmon wrote in a court filing.

“Gibert did not keep her word,” the lawyer wrote.

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.

“The question of who should perform as a pastor is an ecclesiastical question, which the court is not authorized to decide,” Berry ruled.

Berry also refused Charisse Gibert’s request to have a representative attend church services to collect and count money given to the church.

The case is pending and the judge has ordered both sides to participate in mediation June 29.

Apostle Ellis Smith is handling senior pastor duties while a church search committee hunts for a new leader. Charisse Gibert, meanwhile, is holding her own church services at Metro Detroit hotels.

While the court case lingers, the church is struggling financially.

The church had 4,000 members a decade ago. In January, there were half as many members, which Wilder attributes to changing church demographics and a natural decline as members move from church to church.

The Sunday after Gibert died, the church lost 900 members, Wilder said.

“When a pastor dies, some people in a congregation don’t know how a church is going to go on, so they find a new spiritual home or go looking at other churches,” Wilder said.

The drop in membership has turned the mansion from a symbol of prosperity into a millstone.

The church spends $380,000 a year on mortgage and maintenance costs. Detroit World Outreach can no longer afford the expense because church revenue has fallen by approximately $2 million since 2010 “and our weekly attendance has dropped significantly,” Wilder wrote in a court filing.

“Selling the property would cut the debt of the church by close to 50 percent,” Wilder wrote.

Selling the property could benefit Wayne County and Northville Township by putting the home back on the tax rolls.

The county, township, schools and others would split more than $54,000 a year, township assessor Holly Cozza said.

For now, Charisse Gibert continues to live in the mansion, Wilder said.

“I suspect she will leave and we’ll be able to sell the property,” he said.

The fight between Gibert and the church intensified June 6.

That’s when American General Life Insurance Co. sued Charisse Gibert and the church in federal court in Detroit.

American General insured Benjamin Gibert’s life and wants a judge to decide who collects on the insurance policy.

Benjamin Gibert set up the policy so that the church and his wife would split the money.

On March 28, a month after her husband died, Charisse Gibert tried to collect her $950,000 share.

She also demanded that the insurance company pay no benefits to the church, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

“I am quite concerned about possible fraud and mismanagement of church properties and funds,” Charisse Gibert wrote in a letter to American General.

On May 25, the church told American General not to pay any benefits to Charisse Gibert, according to the federal court lawsuit.

American General wants to deposit the $1.9 million in an interest-bearing account until a federal judge can determine the proper beneficiary.

Wilder, the church vice president and treasurer, laments the ongoing disputes and effects on the congregation of a church that is 82 years old.

“It’s unfortunate that this has happened and that the congregation did not get to properly mourn Bishop Gibert,” he said. “It’s a shame that this has marred his legacy.

“He made significant contributions — I don’t want to belittle them — but they pale in comparison to 82 years,” Wilder said. “The church doesn’t belong to you.”