The longtime pastor of The United Methodist Church’s largest congregation has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in what federal authorities called a multimillion-dollar investment scheme.
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of the 18,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, entered his plea during a March 11 hearing in U.S. District Court in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Caldwell, 66, was indicted almost two years ago with Shreveport investment advisor Gregory Alan Smith. Smith pleaded guilty last July.
Federal authorities accused them of selling $3.5 million in worthless antique Chinese bonds, promising exponential returns to unwitting investors in the Shreveport area.
“These defendants used their positions as religious leaders and investment advisors to defraud Louisiana residents – many of whom are elderly and retired,” said U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph of the Western District of Louisiana in a press release.
Caldwell, under the terms of his plea agreement, faces between five and seven years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release. The press release said Caldwell has made partial restitution and agreed to pay the remaining $1.9 million balance before sentencing.
His sentencing hearing is set for July 22.
Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones noted that Caldwell had continued to serve Windsor Village while under indictment, with the conference treating him as innocent until proven guilty.
“I am deeply saddened by this admission of guilt,” Jones said in a statement. “This now triggers a disciplinary process. We do not tolerate crimes being committed by our clergy and it is now clear that Kirbyjon Caldwell has violated our standards of conduct. The United Methodist Church’s disciplinary process aims at a just resolution of the complaints against him and will begin immediately.”
Commission of a crime is a chargeable offense under ¶2702.1 of the Book of Discipline.
Jones emphasized the church’s compassion for the victims and “lament for the damage done by (Caldwell’s) behavior.”
Along with having the largest membership, according to 2018 statistics from the General Council on Finance and Administration, Windsor Village ranks among the highest United Methodist churches in average weekly attendance, at nearly 4,000. It is the largest African American congregation in the denomination.
Caldwell came to the church in 1982, when it was small, and over the decades led it to become not only a megachurch but also a major force in the Houston community, working in housing, education, job training and more.
The affiliated Kingdom Builders Center of Houston nonprofit had more than $31 million in assets, according to a federal 990 form filed in 2017.
Caldwell has led that organization and served on a range of corporate and nonprofit boards, including that of Southern Methodist University.
He has been a friend of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and officiated at the wedding of Bush’s daughter, Jenna.
Caldwell is a graduate of Carleton College, SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
Federal prosecutors said Smith began in 2013 to approach clients and acquaintances about an investment opportunity in historic Chinese bonds. Smith would tell investors Caldwell was putting the bond deal together, but funds were divided among Caldwell, Smith and others, prosecutors said.
“The victims were encouraged to cash out any other investments they might have if they could not otherwise afford to participate,” the U.S. attorney’s press release said.
Caldwell and Smith “offered excuses” and defended the legitimacy of their deals when questioned by investors, the release added.
Caldwell used approximately $900,000 he received to pay off loans, debts and to maintain his lifestyle, according to the release.
The pastor maintained his innocence when his indictment became public in late March 2018.
“As we move forward, the truth will prevail,” he said.
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Heather Hahn contributed. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.