I wonder how many folks got rich off of these people.

Scandal rocks Jackson church

A Jackson megachurch that once had one of the city's largest African-American congregations is trying to shake off revelations of financial mismanagement and regain the trust of members.

But religion experts said Word of Faith Christian Center Church off Clinton Boulevard faces a multitude of challenges.

Church membership has plummeted from a few thousand to fewer than 1,500. The drop follows news the church is $431,000 in debt and that local leaders mishandled assets, causing - among other things - the church to shut down its popular multi-purpose athletic facility in northeast Jackson.

"Americans today shop for churches, and even religions, the way they shop at malls," said James Bowley, a religious studies professor at Millsaps College in Jackson. "If they don't like a place, they'll just drive down the street to another church."

Many members have left the nondenominational Word of Faith since learning of its unkempt financial condition.

In August, church officials abruptly closed the Mississippi Basketball and Athletics complex on Westbrook Road.

In February, they told members that senior Pastor Kevin Wright was on leave because of a "moral issue." They since have replaced him "due to his moral failure."

Word of Faith officials have not returned phone calls seeking comment about the disclosures - outlined in a Sept. 9 news release from Bishop Keith Butler, leader of the Jackson congregation's headquarters church, Word of Faith International Christian Center in Southfield, Mich.

In his statement, Butler said, "Clearly, business and financial operations of the ministry were extremely and poorly handled. ... The business manager for the ministry at that time failed to run an efficient and proper operation."

Jeffery Lewis is the church's former manager and was financial officer for the MBA facility.

Following Sunday worship service on Sept. 19, church officials announced to the congregation that the Wrights and Lewis had, at one time, formed the nonprofit Word of Faith Foundation.

The foundation owned and operated MBA, including its after-school program and other church programs.

After the church threatened litigation, the Wrights signed MBA over to the church, church members were told. But as of last Sunday, Lewis had not.

Kevin Wright and Lewis could not be reached for comment.

Such a breach of trust can affect not only a person's faith in the church but also his faith in God, said Scott Thumma, a researcher and author at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.

"When trust is broken, it takes a long time to repair it," he said. "One of the ways to repair it is to deal with it openly, not brush it under the table."

Church officials have not accused Wright or anyone else of theft, claiming instead that "ministry finances were in disarray."