Caldwell still on staff, preaching after guilty plea

The former senior pastor of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the denomination’s largest in membership, surrendered his clergy credentials weeks before pleading guilty March 11 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. 

As he awaits sentencing this summer in federal court, Kirbyjon Caldwell remains on staff at Windsor Village, and will take the pulpit there occasionally as a lay preacher.

Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones shared the developments in a recent press release which emphasized that Caldwell, who led Windsor Village for nearly four decades, is no longer one of the pastors at the church.

Jones has appointed the Rev. Suzette Caldwell as interim senior pastor at 18,000-member Windsor Village. She’s a longtime associate pastor at Windsor village and is married to Kirbyjon Caldwell.

“Of the clergy appointed to Windsor Village, she has the longest record of service,” Jones said in a phone interview. “She and the other clergy have been functioning very well together as a leadership team and, on an interim basis, she is the best person to be senior pastor.”

Kirbyjon Caldwell is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 22, and faces five to seven years in prison.

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Asked about Caldwell’s continuing role at Windsor Village after pleading guilty to a felony, Jones said: “The decision to continue employing him is made by Windsor Village. The Texas Conference is clear that his status has changed from being senior pastor to lay preacher.”

Jones also said Caldwell is the subject of a United Methodist disciplinary process, but not as a clergyman.

“A complaint against him as a lay person has been filed, alleging he’s guilty of a crime, which is covered in paragraph 2702.3 of the Book of Discipline (United Methodist Church law),” Jones said. “That’s the disciplinary process that’s underway. Charges against lay people are rare, but it was warranted in this case.”

Jones added: “The question of Kirbyjon Caldwell’s long-term future won’t be decided until the sentencing takes place.”

Caldwell voluntarily surrendered his clergy credentials on Jan.17, nearly two months before the guilty plea. Jones immediately  appointed Suzette Caldwell as interim pastor at Windsor Village.

But public release of the developments was delayed until recently because of ongoing consultations with the church’s staff parish relations committee, Jones said. 

Neither Kirbyon Caldwell nor the Rev. Suzette Caldwell could be reached for comment. 

In a recent video posted to the Windsor Village Facebook page, Floyd LeBlanc, chair of the church’s staff parish relations committee, addressed Kirbyjon Caldwell’s new role.

“Lay preacher Kirbyjon Caldwell will continue as a member of the staff,” LeBlanc said. “He’ll continue preaching, teaching, serving as visionary and doing the same sorts of things he’s done for the past 38 years.”

LeBlanc said in a phone interview that church leaders face restrictions by Kirbyjon Caldwell’s attorneys in what they can say about all that’s happened, given that sentencing is to come. 

“We believe ultimately God has the final word in this,” LeBlanc said.  “We need to let the court case run its course. Once we get through all of that, we’ll see where we go from there.”

LeBlanc did echo Jones’ support for the Rev. Suzette Caldwell.

“She’s the leader of a team of leaders, and we’re very confident in her ability to lead during this time,” he said, adding that she’s currently leading a national nightly prayer call about the coronavirus. 

Kirbyjon Caldwell began at Windsor Village in 1982 and over the years led it to remarkable growth. Along with its status as largest in membership, it’s one of the denomination’s largest in attendance. It’s easily the largest predominantly African American United  Methodist church.

Under Caldwell, the church and affiliate nonprofits also have been a force in housing, education and economic development in Houston. Caldwell has served on corporate boards and been a friend to U.S. presidents. He officiated at the wedding of Jenna Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush.

But in 2018, federal authorities charged Caldwell and a Shreveport, Louisiana, investment advisor, Gregory A. Smith, with a multimillion-dollar investment scheme. They were accused of selling historical Chinese bonds to people who believed false promises of huge returns on investment.

Caldwell insisted he was innocent and the bond sales were legitimate. But Smith pleaded guilty last summer, and Caldwell’s plea followed last month.

The plea statement Caldwell signed says he did not realize at the outset that the bond transactions were illegitimate. But it also says he repeatedly ignored information to the contrary and eventually used $900,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay off personal loans and mortgages and to maintain his lifestyle.

Caldwell has paid back some of his victims in full and others partly, the plea statement says. 

Asked if Caldwell deserves leniency, Jones said: “Kirbyjon Caldwell has an impressive and fruitful record as pastor, teacher and community leader for Houston. Balancing that lifetime of service against participation in criminal fraud is part of what the judge will be considering whenever the sentencing hearing is held.”

Windsor Village explored leaving The United Methodist Church in summer 2018, after Caldwell’s indictment. 

“We continue to pray about the issue, and we’re following God’s direction,” LeBlanc said. “There has not for a long time been any active discussion about that.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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