Chinese church congregation at war, lawsuit launched over fate of millions of donations
Bread of Life Christian Church pastor Xi Chen reportedly told a church community that their money now belonged “to God”. Photo / Provided
A fringe Auckland congregation is at war, with legal action launched over the fate of millions of dollars in donations that a pastor claims ‘now belongs to God’.
Registered charity The Bread Of Life Christian Church In Auckland is based on the North Coast and governed by a six-person board.
While its stated aim is to advance Christianity and spread the gospel, the church has become torn apart by infighting, with allegations of dysfunction and misuse of donation money sparking legal action. before the High Court.
The Chinese congregation has been raising funds for more than 20 years for a new church building in which to hold services and prayer meetings.
Congregants contributed generously to the building project, allegedly donating at least $2 million for the express purpose of purchasing a suitable site and converting it into a church, in addition to general donations and tithing.
Documents filed with the High Court show that three of the current trustees allege Pastor Xi Chen – whose daughter is Labor MP Naisi Chen – took power in violation of church rules with the backing of “the “mother church” of Taipei.
The documents allege that Chen and the other two defendant trustees breached their fiduciary duties under trust and charity laws, and that donation money may have been misused against the wishes of the congregation.
The plaintiffs want a judge to remove the trio from the trust board because of their alleged conduct.
The trust board established the building project around 2000 and began collecting donations from worshipers who were specifically registered for this purpose.
In 2017, the Board of Trustees purchased a commercial property at Apollo Dr, Rosedale, for $3.07 million. Half of the purchase price was funded by donations and the remainder by a $1.5 million mortgage.
The council then secured resource consent to convert the building into a 300-seat church and launched a “gold brick” fundraising program to raise further donations to fund the planned renovation, which did not yet took place.
Court documents say the donation money was used to pay off the mortgage, with just $322,000 owed as of July this year.
However, it is alleged that the number of congregations and donations have declined due to the “great division” within the church.
While worshipers still met in a rented building in Sunnynook, the church decided last year to investigate converting half of the Rosedale property to a smaller church and renting out the remaining site.
But late last year, Chen reportedly said he wanted to sell the Rosedale property and buy a new facility.
He also proposed the election of a chairman of the board, later telling the directors via the WeChat messaging app, “by not doing [him] President, we were ignoring the will of God and mocking the Holy Spirit,” states a sworn statement by Claimant Administrator Julia Buhagiar.
He was eventually named president, allegedly following “advice and instructions” from the mother church in Taipei.
The plaintiffs argue that the appointment was contrary to the rules of the trust and therefore invalid.
In March this year, Chen announced that the construction project would no longer proceed on the Rosedale property, according to court documents.
He is said to have told congregants, “Anyone who disagrees with [him] must leave the Church”, causing a major upheaval.
Then, in April, it is alleged that Chen announced that donations for the construction project would not be returned.
“Mr. Chen said that all donations now belong to God and donors have no say in what the Church decides to do with the money they donate,” the affidavit states. Buhagiar.
She said it had caused conflict, with some members of the congregation wanting their donations back if the money was not used to renovate the church as promised.
The following month, Chen reportedly set up an alternative leadership structure “purporting to exercise the powers and duties” of the trust board, dismissing the three complaining trustees, who then sued.
Chen’s attorney told the Herald he would not comment while the case was in court.
Meanwhile, a group of 21 elderly members of the congregation were so concerned about the fate of their donation money that they wrote to Age Concern in May this year.
A translated copy of the letter alleged that the group had been “bullied and discriminated against” for months.
“As committed elders in the church, we felt distressed, threatened and disturbed.”
The letter says the congregation has made “great efforts” to donate to the building project, “however, now […] we have no trace left of the money we gave”.
“We are very depressed and sad, we feel ignored and left with grievances.”
The letter urged officials to investigate.
“Please ensure that if a church is not built according to plan, our donations to this project over the years will be returned to us, plus compensation due for our mental and economic damages.”
After proceedings were filed in July, the High Court ordered a public notice “to ensure that the interests of current and former church members and donors are properly represented”.
According to court documents, the board refused to renew Chen’s employment contract as pastor earlier this year.
However, an April 29 letter from the Taipei church said Chen was to be named chief pastor of the Auckland branch and chairman of the board.
The letter stated that “no one is perfect” and that Chen should be “more gentle and humble in attitude and listen to more voices”.
The church had “been through troubles and storms” and needed consistent leadership.
“But that doesn’t mean Pastor CHEN Xi can abuse his power or act arbitrarily.”
The letter called on the church in Auckland to “repent together before the Lord”, confess sins, find “reconciliation and unity, and have the Lord’s love and peace among you”.
A divided church was “opportunity for the devil to attack”.
Charities Services chief executive Natasha Weight said the Home Affairs Department could ‘undertake appropriate enquiries’ if a charity fails to meet its obligations or engages in serious wrongdoing.
Charities Services became aware of an internal dispute between Bread of Life directors in July, Weight said.
“As this case is now before the High Court, Charities Services will await the outcome of these proceedings before determining whether further action is warranted.”