Matney church ownership still contested
Members of the Matney Liberty Church in western Watauga County have resumed services inside the church, but the ownership of the building remains contested as a lawsuit seeks to bring finality to the matter.
The small congregation of the 121-year-old church on N.C. 194 in Matney announced in April that it had been barred from the building by the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Lory Beth Huffman, superintendent for the conference's Appalachian District, said then that the church had struggled to pay its bills as its average attendance fell to between four and six people for the past five years.
Huffman said the United Methodist Church held the property in trust on behalf of the denomination and that no decisions had been made on how the property would be used.
Church members gathered on the lawn for worship for several Sundays after the closure.
In April, substitute trustees elected by the church, formerly called Liberty United Methodist, conveyed the property to trustees of the new, nondenominational Matney Liberty Church in an effort to take control of the property, a complaint alleges.
"They did that without any knowledge by the conference," said Roy Michaux Jr., attorney for the United Methodist Church.
Michaux's complaint, filed May 28, states that the action was a violation of the original deed and the Book of Discipline for the United Methodist Church.
It asks that a judge set aside the new deeds and require the members to vacate the property and turn over the keys.
Michaux said Monday he hoped to find an amicable solution to the disagreement. He said the congregation appears to be keeping the building and grounds well-maintained.
"The place is in very nice condition," Michaux said. "They're taking care of it, but you know, it gets down to who actually owns the title to the property."
Frank "Ham" Wilson of Boone, who is representing the defendants, could not be reached by press time Tuesday. Grover Gore, a Banner Elk attorney assisting with the case, said the defendants and their representatives were in the process of compiling answers and counterclaims.
Gore said the congregation was worshipping at the church every Sunday and had grown to include about 20 people.
"That's home to them. That's home," Gore said. "They don't want to give that up."