Pastor cites coverage of bankruptcy filing
By Preston Knight -- firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- The Rev. Jay Ahlemann has stepped down as pastor of the nondenominational Church of the Valley after his filing for bankruptcy became public.
The bankruptcy itself, though, is not why he has left the church he founded five years ago, he said Thursday. Instead, it was a newspaper account of it that sparked his departure.
Calling a story published in The Northern Virginia Daily on Nov. 6 "unjust," Ahlemann said it implied that the nearly $5 million he owes in debt was borrowed from people and spent on "all fun and games," when it was actually meant to save the AZTV Network of Christian television stations that he had purchased.
Most of the people owed were original shareholders of the network before he bought it, he said, but high interest rates forced him to continue to borrow money to serve the debt. With the downturn in the economy happening at the same time, Ahlemann was unable to turn the network around, and that prompted the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last month from him and his wife, Patricia, he said.
"We have nothing," Ahlemann said.
However, that alone did not remove him from the pulpit. It was the newspaper story, and the effect it had on him and Church of the Valley's congregation, that worsened the situation, he said.
"The average person would read it and wonder, 'Why in the world did he spend $4.7 million of these people's money?'" said Ahlemann, 65. "I just gave five of the most important years of my life [to the church]. To have it pretty much destroyed by a newspaper article is pretty painful. ... Most people are believing I took $4.7 million of other people's money and used it on whatever I wanted."
He said he did not want to put his congregation into a position of constantly having to answer questions from outsiders about its pastor. A week after the story ran, he said, he stepped down.
"I'm not willing to put my church through this," Ahlemann said. "It's better [for them] to say, 'Well, he's not there any longer.'"
He said associate pastor Chuck Jarrett is now leading the church, which is off of Va. 55 (John Marshall Highway) and perhaps best known for its tall, lit crosses visible to motorists on Interstate 81. Ahlemann said attendance recently has been around 500 worshippers, and that it nearly doubles on special Sundays such as Easter.
According to the bankruptcy filing, Ahlemann, whose JLA Media and Publications has been ordered to pay $360,000 plus unpaid back interest after defaulting on payments for WAZT-10 in Woodstock, has a large amount of credit card debt, including $12,711 owed to American Express, $10,977 to AT&T Universal and nearly $36,000 to Capital One. A number of people and couples are also owed millions of dollars.
John Bobby, 95, of Leesburg, is among the people who invested in the television network before the pastor's ownership. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he said he offered $50,000 "years ago." Court documents show Bobby is owed nearly $84,000.
"All I know is they owe me money and I'm never going to get it," he said.
Bobby does not seem too bothered about his investment, however.
"I feel sorry for [Ahlemann]," he said. "There's one consolation. There's nothing we can take with us when He calls us."
Alexandria resident Jackie McGinty, who is owed about $53,000, also sympathizes with Ahlemann.
"I think that he has tried and with this economy like it is, under the president we've got, things were just against him when he bought [the station]," McGinty said. "The money was contributed in furtherance of the kingdom of God. When I paid that money in, I didn't expect anything back. I gave that to help with the ministry. That's not worrying me."
If he had to do over, Ahlemann said he would not have paid so much -- $3.86 million -- for the television network, if he should have purchased it all.
"I, unfortunately, got into something I didn't really know about, and that was television," he said.
But Ahlemann also didn't expect to accrue so much debt, and when people in a down economy were left to choose to prioritize such things as paying for a pastor, a mortgage or a television network, the latter was the one that had to go, he said.
Ahlemann said his congregation expressed shock, sadness and dismay at his leaving, but he thinks his decision was in the best interest of the church.
"I'm the one that has to face this. Everywhere I go, the restaurants I eat at, people will say, 'There's the pastor that ripped off all those people,'" he said. "I pray God's blessings on the church and I pray that it does well."
Staff writer Sally Voth contributed to this story.