Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Singapore’s City Harvest Church, a few spiritual and material lessons

I am not surprised that the City Harvest Church (CHC) saga is back in the news. Modern religious leaders who combine worldly enterprises with spiritual undertakings always raise my suspicions.  

Singaporeans should be glad that the authorities are investigating possible misuse of funds by the church and some of its leaders. If CHC has nothing to hide then the investigation becomes a routine affair. On the other hand, if wrong doing is uncovered then the government must send a clear signal to all charities that the exploitation of public trust is a serious offense.
No doubt, all religious undertakings must have worldly trappings to survive: places of worship, salaries for staff and so on. But it is hard for me to believe that a church which commits SGD 2.9 million towards charitable work on donations of SGD 86 million is fully committed to its community roots. CHC spent more on 'Christian Television Broadcast and Mass Media, Church Television Ministry and Internet Broadcasting' in 2008 - 2009.
There are two issues that demand further analysis: the scope of allowable relationships between non-profit entities and allied profit making entities, and the moral problem regarding the involvement of a 'spiritual' leader in business enterprises.
The CHC is involved in several business transactions, including the purchase of Suntec City. The Suntec transaction brings up many questions.
  1. Is the purchase of commercially oriented convention centres in line with CHC's approved purposes?
  2. Are there independent checks to ensure that public donations are not channelled to finance commercial ventures, whether indirectly through special purpose vehicles or directly through CHC?
  3. How are profits distributed to stakeholders, i.e. will Reverend Kong Hee and his close associates receive an unreasonably large amount of the profits?
  4. What percentage of the revenue will accrue to CHC and for what activities will the money be used, e.g. to purchase more churches and establish television channels?
Clearly, many questions about CHC's activities remain unanswered. Only a thorough investigation will satisfy a public legitimately hungry for answers.
I hope the Singapore authorities will not only be transparent with their findings but also act on them. If changes to regulations governing religiously inspired organizations are necessary, they must be made urgently.
The moral issues raised by the CHC episode are more personal in nature.
I do not believe that a man of religion should be so blatantly involved in commercial enterprises. Yes, devoting one's life to religion does not automatically mean leading a monk's life but accumulating (and not spending) excessive wealth also raises serious questions about the person's commitment to social welfare.
Does seeking out profits for commercial purposes – managing television stations or buying convention centres – falls in the realm of legitimate CHC activity? Now, if the CHC were managing shelters for the homeless or providing social welfare services then few will question the legitimacy of the CHC.

As things stand, there are hardly any positive signs of CHC activities visible to the ordinary Singaporean. People are right to be sceptical.
The issues are complex and require an independent and empowered commission to make recommendations for strengthening legislation surrounding non-profit entities. If harsh measures, including the forfeiture of illegally obtained assets, are implemented few will be sympathetic towards lawbreakers.
A review of the rules is no longer optional, it is a requirement.
If I were a contributing member of the CHC, I would certainly want to know whether my money is used to fund the Reverend's lifestyle or the CHC's legitimate activities.

__________________


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

30 comments:

  1. CHC is a church and not a charity organization where funds are collected for charity purposes instead of the running of a church. Their charity is to take care of the 33,000 under them.

    CHC is not obligated to give to external charities unless of course they use this as an excuse for public sympathy saying that they have done lots of charity works when they did not financially wise.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Gentle Lamb,

    Thank you for the correction. I should have been more careful and used 'non-profit' or 'not for profit' (whichever CHC falls under) society in my post.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

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  3. George says:
    Christ threw out the peddlers and merchants from the temple. He said to those who would follow him to leave aside their material riches as a condition. He preach that Christians should "be in the world, but not of the world" Fast forward to modern Singapore, we have a pastor of a big church who calls himself a businessman with his fingers in many pies. And he has many followers who don't see anything wrong with this. He has either gone astray and has led his congregation astray or he has been led astray by members of his congregation.
    Has the teaching of the Bible been turned on its head by this group?

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  4. The poor, old and handicapped are welcomed in most churches. It has been alleged that some churches don't welcome them at all. You figure why is this so ?

    If the staff of CHC can be paid an average $60,000 in annual salaries, a lot of people must be scheming to be part of this whole network, whether to get more contracts or contacts.

    To some, God has simply become the spiritual means to gain more material riches.

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  5. The question is, would believers give if there are no threat of God's wrath or promises of God's blessings? If people give and throng these churches in great numbers purely because of love for God and not under psychological pressures and cultic influences, why don't we see traditonal churches overflowing or expanding furiously in numbers and wealth?

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  6. Hi, I would like the reference to where thse figures are obtained - i.e. CHC commits SGD 2.9 million towards charitable work on donations of SGD 86 million. I believe you have obtained it from the books published by the church itself but I was unable to find the direct link to it. Thank you.

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  7. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    I could not agree with you more that an individual who devotes his / her life to religion should not be excessively involved in accumulating personal wealth. It always surprises me how people continue to contribute (large sums of) money to individuals who are not overtly involved in recycling the cash in the community.

    Perhaps the current controversy will open some eyes and also send the right message to other community leaders and opinion formers.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

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  8. Hi Alan,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Yes, in some sense, it certainly seems as if the CHC has many characteristics associated with a networking operation. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing for a religious community but it all depends on the motives of the individuals involved - whether the intent is selfish or not.

    I must admit that I am not familiar enough with the 33,000 strong CHC community to make a judgement.

    I hope you will continue to visit my blog and look forward to hearing from you again.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    You pose an important question to which I make only one comment - the charisma of a religious leader is important in influencing people to join (and contribute to) religious movements. In an earlier blog post, I have commented on some 'gaps' which I saw in the Catholic Church's efforts to mobilize and galvanize its flock during its Christmas Mass. (I had the privilege of witnessing the mass as an observer.)

    CHC seems to have learnt from some evangelical churches in the US, many of which are money printing vehicles for their leaders.

    I look forward to hearing from you again in the future.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Xizor,

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    I obtained the information while researching my earlier post, 'Singapore's latest landmark, Suntec Cathedral' (http://imranwrites.blogspot.com/2010/04/singapores-latest-landmark-suntec.html)

    Yes, the figures are from the CHC website. If I remember correctly there is a link which allows the download of its annual financial statements. If you search the CHC website I am sure you will find the numbers - they were not hidden.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for your warm and refreshing welcome. High EQ like yours in bloggersphere is uncommon. Hope the Aussies don't venture into cyberspace and critique our manners here too.

    Your comment:

    You pose an important question to which I make only one comment - the charisma of a religious leader is important in influencing people to join (and contribute to) religious movements.

    My Reply:

    Not only is it important, it is an absolute requirement for a specialty faith to be sustainable. Remove his authoritative presence, God's love alone will not be able to hold them in one place.

    He in fact becomes the central character of religion equivalent to God or should be, a pseudo god.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your return visit, comment and kind words!

    I hope to hear from you more often in the future. Enjoy your weekend.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Imran,

    i feel that by saying this, "CHC seems to have learnt from some evangelical churches in the US, many of which are money printing vehicles for their leaders." you are accusing CHC and also the other churches in US, that the leaders are enriching themselves from their churches. i feel we got to view this whole situation in a neutral perspective rather than to put the man of God on trials when nothing is yet confirmed.

    Seriously, whether something is discovered or not, we have no rights to judge the intense of a person's heart and motive other than God Himself who sees it all.

    If you feel that religious leaders are put through these because they are, like you said "Modern 'cult-like' religious leaders" then there won't be anymore cults around. I believe that there are some good spiritual leaders that are being pulled down not because of any wrong doings, but due to all the criticism they are being put through; the words of the media that destroys their life; people that do not know what is happening at all but yet pin point at the things he did or fail to do (gossipers) and because they are pulled down, these people did not stop making life miserable for them with their words and comments, but all i can say is, only God can search the intense and motivate of a human heart.

    Who doesn't make mistakes? Let him cast the first stone.

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  14. Imran... talk is cheap... if you can achieve half of the honorable things the man in question did... then your word is worth its weight. If not, it will just be another chatter of a judge wannabe sitting on a couch behind a computer screen.

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  15. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and posting a comment.

    I have not made any judgements about legal wrongdoing. The law will take its own course and the authorities can reach their own verdict about whether any regulations were violated by CHC.

    Yes, we are all humans and no one is perfect. However, I do believe that religious leaders should be judged to a higher ethical standard than ordinary mortals. The notion that a religious group is heavily engaged in commercial activities seemingly designed to maximize profits is difficult for me to accept.

    I certainly cannot disagree with you that religion is a personal matter and the motivation of individuals cannot be easily gauged. Nevertheless, society has to draw a line somewhere in order to maintain order and the 'common space.'

    Religious groups are not corporations. CHC, like other religious groups, has an agenda to promote its own value structure and religious beliefs. If religious entities are allowed to engage in profit making activities unregulated, then their ability to influence (possibly subvert) the sociopolitical system increases dramatically. Such influence will only occur at the expense of other belief structures prevalent in society.

    It is a situation which most Singaporeans will prefer to avoid.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    I prefer not to personalize the CHC matter. My objective is to engender constructive debate about the implications of the CHC controversy - whatever the outcome of the investigation by the Commissioner of Charities.

    For Singapore society, the issues at stake are larger than just the reputation of CHC and its leadership.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  17. "If I were a contributing member of the CHC, I would certainly want to know whether my money is used to fund the Reverend's lifestyle or the CHC's legitimate activities."
    In reality, the money is used to fund the reverend's lifestyle AND CHC's legitimate activities as well. It is an issue of balance. With the lack of guidelines, such problems will continue for a long, long time. Let me illustrate, if the church raised 100m S$ in one year, 15m S$ goes to the paster's pocket (through reimbursed ferrari, housing expenses, first class tickets etc), 1m goes to charity, and 84m S$ goes into building a new church, no crime has been committed as long as the church members are silly enough to support him. Only when the funds are mis-used will there be a problem. Provided he is being caught. You cannot say this religious leaders don't do any good. In reality, they are do support various charity acts, but are handsomely rewarded at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    Yes, you are right there is a need to tighten up regulations on organizations such as CHC. Your example highlights the issue very clearly.

    My views on religious leaders is that their moral standards should be far higher than the minimum required to stay within the law. Their behaviour must demonstrate 'best practices' to serve as an example for the wider community and their 'flock.'

    I look forward to hearing from you again.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hi, Imran
    Interesting topic for discussion. It is always a tough one to deal with. When one is poor..there is not much one can do..in any situation..church life or secular life. However, should one is given an opportunity to advance himself/herself/itself, I am sure most would make a poor situation and try to make good out of it. In CHCS case, it started from humble begining and had found a sucessful formula up to this point. suddenly, with all the sucesses, mis-management speculations are raised. Let the authority carry out their duties and wait for their finding. Meanwhile, leave CHCS and its members to continue to do what they love doing, worship their GOD. Afterall, they are utimately answerable to thier GOD on judgment day..so they believe.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hi,

    Thank you for your visit and taking the time to post a comment.

    Yes, it is important not to presume legal guilt even if one disagrees with CHC behaviour.

    However, I must add that reading in the Straits Times over the weekend about the case of plagiarism by Kong Hee further tarnishes the image of both CHC and the pastor.

    I hope you will contine to visit my blog and look forward to hearing from you again.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hmm.. looks like there are some misunderstandings here... LOLsssssssssssssss... To give offerings to God is out of willingness from the givers... To use the offerings collected wisely is the responsibility of church authority. So, there are two deals here, one between God and givers and one between God and church authority. Those who are in power are selected by God... So, I won't judge them but they have to be responsible to God for those money.... Another one, people not thronging to traditional churches because they get bored with the 'style' of their meeting... CHC is engaging culture and making gospel relevant to people, instead of 'forced-acceptable' to people.. Praise God!! LOLsssssssssssssssssssssssss

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hi,

    Thank you for visiting and taking the time to post a comment.

    Your points regarding the two contracts - between God and givers and between God and church leaders are well taken.

    However, I am not certain that one may brush off accountability by merely suggesting that 'those who are in powere are selected by God.' Surely, we all have some form of accountability in this world and that is what morality and ethics try and codify via laws and social norms.

    Whether there was any violation of existing laws by CHC leaders is still not clear, we shall have to wait and see.

    Nevertheless, the Straits Times reports of plagiarism by CHC leaders (of works by US Christian authors) does raise questions about the values and judgement of CHC leaders.

    I hope you will return to my blog from time to time and look forward to hearing from you again.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  23. Arsenal:

    I certainly agree with the above statement of accountability... after all if the statement ' those in power are selected by God' holds true, i believe God too selected people in the law enforcement to ensure everyone abides by the 'rules'... investigations like this are in fact necessary for all organizations (religious or not)... the recent cases of the monk and catholic priest makes it blatantly clear that no one is free from temptation and thus wrong doing... I feel there is a need to reduce the amount of quotation of bible phrases to seemingly 'justify actions'. We need raw data to back our claims... no one should be guilty until proven so...

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  24. Hi,

    Thanks for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    Yes, it is a necessity that all individuals are held accountable for their actions under fair and transparent laws. Additionally, the 'court of public opinion' makes its own judgements and alters it behaviour based on information flow. I suspect the CHC controversy has made many people revisit their views on donations to religious organizations - no raw data available to back up the claim.

    I hope you will continue to visit my blog from time to time and look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  25. Christians, especially City Harvest Church Christians, ought to labor and linger on the right controversies.

    Christians are to explain and contend for the truths of the good news that God had become One of us except that He was without sin. He was put to death because He claimed to be God. Christian witnesses claim He rose from the dead.

    So controversies should be on whether this is true, acceptable or not. A church should be caught up in explaining the good news, not explain why it opens companies to make more money. Spending so much of time, energy etc to defend the pastor's wife's sexy dances and songs as well as defend Pastor Kong Hee's business involvements are a very big side track.

    Pastor Kong Hee and his wife, even if found innocent, have sidetracked his church to focus on this worldly life and not on the great gospel controversy.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hi,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    Few will disagree with your comments that a religious organization's time and energies are better spent focusing on spiritual matters - not worldly matters such as accumulating wealth. However, I will suggest that unhindered preaching of a religious message, any religion, to win converts is not necessarily the way in which to maintain a balanced and harmonious society.

    Leading by example is the preferable way for organized religion to win converts, not through active preaching among the general population.

    I hope you will continue to visit my blog.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi Mr Imran Ahmed,

    I just came across your blog and I read that you posted this sentence that says: "I am not surprised that the City Harvest Church (CHC) saga is back in the news. Modern 'cult-like' religious leaders who combine worldly enterprises with spiritual undertakings always raise my suspicions."

    Since My God is merciful, I should urge you to take this sentence off your blog because it is unfair for you to call other's religion as "Mordern 'Cult-like' Religious leader".

    How do you feel if I were to say about your religious leader as "Mordern 'cult-like' Religious leader"?

    I don't wish you to be sued, so I hope you can take my advice. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Hello,

    Thank you for your visit and taking the time to post an anonymous comment.

    Following your statements, I have examined the definition of cult. The Merriam Websters online dictionary (among other definitions) defines a cult as follows:

    1 : formal religious veneration : worship
    2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents

    Based on the above definitions, I believe that you have misread my earlier statement.

    However, as you seem to infer negativity from my comment, through this reply I formally state that my comment now read 'new religious movement' in lieu of 'cult-like.' New religious movement is the phrase more frequently used by academics.

    As for comments about my religion / Prophet, please note that the internet is full of all sorts of derogatory comments about Islam and the Prophet. You may visit many chatrooms or discussions on Islam, or the cartoon's depicting the Prophet if you wish to experience for yourself.

    If you wish to email me directly to discuss my post in more detail, I will be happy to receive your email. My email address is available on the blog.

    I do hope that you will continue to visit my blog and leave comments in the future.

    Kind regards,

    Imran

    ReplyDelete


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