The Rev. Henry Lyons forced out as pastor of Tampa church amid accusations of theft, misconduct

The Rev. Henry Lyons poses for a photo in his study in his Tampa on Friday. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]
The Rev. Henry Lyons poses for a photo in his study in his Tampa on Friday. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]
Published Apr. 2, 2018

TAMPA — The second coming of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons was not as celebrated or lucrative as his previous life.

The one-time leader of the largest black Baptist organization in America — toppled by infidelities and imprisoned on fraud charges — has kept a relatively low profile while running a century-old church in Hillsborough County the last dozen years.

Lyons no longer has the ear of the President of the United States, and his empire does not include the same luxuries as during his heyday in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.

Yet the final, uncomfortable hours of Lyons' reign at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church have a disturbingly, familiar echo.

Church leaders have accused the 75-year-old Lyons of misappropriating funds for his personal benefit, and voted Thursday evening to remove him as pastor, ending what had once looked like a story of personal redemption.

THE PROFILE: The making of Henry Lyons

HENRY LYONS: How the downfall began.

THE TRIAL OF HENRY LYONS: Long saga leads to prison.

"Call us ignorant, I guess,'' said Ray Melendez, the chairman of New Salem's board of trustees. "If anything, we were flattered that he said the Lord told him to come to New Salem. That he wanted to be the shepherd of our flock. We forgave him because he served his time. We thought he had went through his rehab, but apparently he was just the same old Dr. Henry J. Lyons.''

So, to be clear, the church is accusing Lyons of theft?

"Yes sir,'' Melendez said.

FOLLOW-UP: FBI to meet with church leaders about allegations against Henry Lyons

Sitting with his wife Willie in the formal living room of his New Tampa home on Friday, Lyons dismissed the charges as coming from a disgruntled faction of church members.

He said most of the allegations appear to be directed at New Salem Ministries' day care center, which is operated independently from the church by his wife.

Willie and Henry Lyons said they have not had time to research the list of allegations handed to them at the Thursday meeting, but said most of them appear to involve grant money from five to seven years ago.

They suggested any apparent improprieties were either easily explainable or inadvertent mistakes.

They have not yet contacted an attorney, but Lyons said he was inclined to dispute his termination.

"I really would rather fight, to be honest with you,'' Lyons said. "I've had a great tenure at this church. It's just been overwhelmingly good with blessings, and things going well and looking well. I'd like to go maybe another year, a year and a half, or two at the most. Because it's really time for me to retire.

"So I'm facing that. I've already faced that.''

Lyons said the church put aside a $25,000 retirement package for him last year, and owes him another $25,000 this year. Melendez said that was part of the church's agreement with the pastor, but officials decided Lyons no longer deserved the money.

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"We put a stop to that,'' Melendez said. "Based on the evidence we found, we felt he's been paid in full. I don't think he deserves any more money from us.''

Included in dossiers passed out at Thursday's meeting were copies of handwritten notes asking questions such as "Why did Dr. Lyons get salary of $1,700 from New Salem Ministries?'' on a page that included copies of cancelled checks.

Another handout detailed the number of non-profit corporations that use New Salem's address, 8525 N 78th St., as the principle place of business, and yet operated outside of the church's authority.

For example:

In 2007, Lyons tried to regain his old job as president of the Florida General Baptist Convention. After losing the election, Lyons created the General Baptist Convention of Florida.

The new convention includes about 20 churches around the state and is run by Lyons out of New Salem. He also heads a national convention with dozens of other churches around the country.

Several notes in the packets handed out at the church seemed to question the mingling of money between the church and some of the non-profits, such as Lyons' conventions. The termination letter alluded to the possibility that wire or mail fraud had been committed.

"I don't think I'm doing mail fraud. I'm only mailing to the people in the organization. And my organization is growing every year, praise God for that,'' Lyons said. "I stood up the other night at a meeting and said, "Look, y'all need to tell me what in the world is mail fraud.' I don't really understand the monster but y'all keep on saying, "Pastor, you're doing mail fraud.' Tell me what it is.''

Church deacons and officials have been trying to get a handle on New Salem's finances for several months, hiring a management firm out of Atlanta to begin monitoring the books.

The relationship with Lyons began to turn ugly, church officials say, when he and his wife refused to let the Atlanta firm examine the finances for the day care.

Lyons said church officials asked him to resign twice in recent months and he refused. A third meeting, Lyons said, almost turned violent.

On Thursday night, church leaders presented Lyons with their financial investigation and then voted to fire him. The vote of trustees and deacons was 10-6 in favor of termination, with one member abstaining.

"The people haven't spoken, just this small group,'' Willie Lyons said. "What I'm learning is that they are scaring (church members). They're telling them the IRS is going to come in and take the church. Those are the things they're telling them, they're going to lose the church.''

Willie Lyons returned to the church Friday morning to tend to the handful of children in day care but a pair of church members told her the business needed to be shut down immediately.

She was inside the church with two officials when a Tampa Bay Times photographer heard a woman shouting, "This is all lies, this is all lies. You all need to be saved.''

Willie Lyons later told the Times that she refused to leave, and church officials called the Temple Terrace Police Department to have her removed from the property.

"That's what's happened to us,'' Henry Lyons said. "So here we are. Everybody is on our trail.''

Lyons was once one of the nation's leading religious figures, rising to a position of prominence during a 25-year association with Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.

A Gainesville native, Lyons became president of the Florida General Baptist Convention in 1982 and, a decade later, was elected to a five-year term as president of the National Baptist Convention.

His influence over millions of devoted Baptists made Lyons one of the most sought-after ministers in the country. Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson visited Bethel Metropolitan in St. Pete. Corporate leaders sought his counsel, and paid dearly for his stamp of approval.

Lyons flew first class, hired a personal chef, and bought multiple homes. He showered female friends with gifts and drove luxury cars.

And it all came crashing down because of a domestic dispute.

His third wife Deborah discovered Lyons had purchased a house with another woman, and she attempted to burn down the $700,000 home in Tierra Verde.

Deborah's arrest led to closer examination of Lyons' lifestyle and business dealings and he was soon convicted in state court of grand theft and racketeering charges. He later reached a plea agreement in federal court on tax evasion and bank fraud charges.

In all, Lyons spent nearly five years in prison and had to forfeit much of his wealth to pay restitution to corporations he defrauded, as well as back taxes.

Within months of leaving prison in 2004, Lyons was offered a position at New Salem. The church initially saw an increase in membership with the charismatic Lyons in the pulpit, but later fell on hard times. The church in downtown Tampa was on the verge of foreclosure when a fire destroyed it.

Using the insurance money from the fire, the church relocated to a facility in Temple Terrace two years ago. Membership has continued to decline, and the church is once again facing financial troubles. The church has been forced to dip into savings, and one official said funds were quickly running out.

Melendez said the church has retained an attorney, but has not yet decided whether to pursue criminal charges or try to recoup any money it believes Lyons misappropriated.

Church members will likely be split on whether the trustees and deacons erred in removing Lyons without putting it to a vote of the entire church, Melendez said. Officials there, however, felt they could wait no longer.

"It broke my heart,'' Melendez said. "I really didn't think he would do that to us. And yet here we are. It still hurts me.''

Times senior news researcher John Martin and photographer Octavio Jones and contributed to this report.