Of False Prophets who Prosper

Interesting letter that appeared in Straits Times’ Forum section.

April 9, 2009

Business and religion: Where do you draw the line?

I READ with interest the recent spate of news with regard to calls for greater transparency in how charities are run, the raising of $19 million for a new complex by New Creation Church and the subsequent revelation that one of its staff was paid a $500,000 salary.

More should be done to look at how charities and religious organisations are run, together with ‘concessions’ given to them in terms of whether they are allowed to pursue commercial interests.

I cite New Creation Church in particular because I am a Christian and this was one church I attended at the encouragement of friends.

I am appalled by the amount of money paid to one staff member, presumably its senior pastor. While I can see the logic and rationale behind the need for larger premises for the growing congregation, I cannot rationalise why there is a need to go into a joint venture to build a commercial mall.

My interest in New Creation Church led me to find out more about it, and I must say some of things I came across on its website surprised me:

– The church has a ‘business arm’, Rock Productions, of which Senior Pastor Joseph Prince and senior leaders of the church are majority shareholders. A check with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority revealed more surprises, with Rock Productions stated to have $103 million in paid-up capital.

– Rock Productions also owns and manages Marine Cove. In addition, a childcare centre and a travel agency are registered under the ownership of Mr Prince and New Creation Church.

– The church has ‘membership cards’ that are given to donors according to the amount of money donated to the church. For instance, if you donate a certain amount in US dollars, you are given a ‘partner’ card that entitles you to a number of ‘benefits’, including DVDs of Mr Prince’s sermons.

As the recent revelation of the senior pastor’s salary has also become a matter of public interest, it would be helpful if the church could clarify the following:

– Detailed clarification on the stakes owned by Mr Prince and senior leaders of the church in Rock Productions and any other affiliated commercial entities, and where the money for the setting up of these commercial entities comes from?

– How are members of the remuneration council selected or elected, and what are the processes pertaining to the determination of Mr Prince’s salary, with those of senior management?

– How are profits made by Rock Productions and the other commercial entities of New Creation Church ploughed back into the church?

– Other than the external auditors appointed by the church, who else is on the audit committee of the church, and how many are independent non-members of the church?

– What are the legal concessions given by the Commissioner of Charities with regard to religious organisations and charities owning commercial entities, and what are the guidelines to ensure proper governance?

I have posed these questions to senior members of the church.

Among the responses by some church members is that such matters are the sole business of the church, and that so long as the members are willing to give, the public has no right to interfere in the affairs of the church.

I beg to differ because a church is a public space, if you are to believe in the Christian spirit of welcoming anyone who is interested. That said, there are non-members of New Creation Church like me who give donations to the church as offerings, and I am sure I am not the only one. Surely then, there is an interest to know where the donations actually go?

I have great respect for Mr Prince in terms of his preaching and what he has done for his congregation. However, I am seeking clarity in terms of accountability and governance with regard to money matters.

While I applaud the church for its innovation in raising funds and its efforts to be self-sustaining, I cannot help but wonder where one draws the line between commercial profit and the conventional definition of a non-profit organisation.

Bruce Chan