Nigerian Churches: Rich Pastors, Poor Members

By Nkem Jacobs, Chioma Onuegbu, Peter Duru, Juliet Ebirim, Emmanuel Edukugho and Onochie Anibeze 

In the early days of Christianity in Nigeria the church was at the forefront of society’s development building schools, hospitals, vocational skills acquisition centres, farms and cottage industries, among others.

They offered scholarships, gave free books and teaching aids, and gave food, clothing and shelter to those deprived of these necessities. Notwithstanding that the central theme of sermons was on preparing for the life after death, the church tried as much as possible to ensure that members and those who dared to come into God’s house had a good life before death.

The satisfaction of the church was the welfare of members and the success of the church was seen in the number of lives touched and it therefore offered safe haven to people in various distress situations such as those needing food, clothing, accommodation, financial relief, treatment of debilitating illnesses such as leprosy and mental disorders and several others.

As the church ministered to the needs of members and their lives got better they brought the proceeds of the works of their hands in form of tithes and offerings to God at Sunday services, thanksgiving and harvest ceremonies. With these, more cathedrals, mission schools, orphanages, maternity homes and farms were built…

Also more scholarships to even higher levels of education were awarded as the house of God indeed became the house of plenty. Pastors saved money for social development projects by living modest lives usually behind the church, riding bicycles and working their own farms in a clear example of storing up treasures in heaven as the Bible recommends.

Fast track to 2014, members minister to the needs of the church paying through the nose to fund broadcasts on television and chain of businesses including universities, publishing houses, nursery, primary/ post primary schools, as well as buy flashy cars and private jets. They are reminded daily that givers never lack.

In a bid to please “God” and achieve the elusive breakthrough parishioners squeeze themselves dry to contribute to various projects in the house of God. But surprisingly their situation never changes. The more they give the poorer they become and the richer the church.

Today’s church is an epitome of modernity operating from state–of-the–art, imposing edifices fully air-conditioned and complete with evolutionary camera, klieg light and other stage facilities for live broadcast from the pulpit. Yet poverty ravages the same establishment. Due to this religious paradox discerning Nigerians have begun to ask a pertinent question – has the modern church abandoned social service that the old church used so effectively to warm itself into the hearts of many?

Take this: July 6, 2014 in a church in Amuwo Odofin area of Lagos, a priest held the congregation spell-bound with his homily. His delivery was superb. Emphasis was to shift to appreciating what God has done for all by been generous in the Harvest contributions.

He started by calling on those who wanted to appreciate God with N200,000 to come forward for special blessing. From N200,000 it fell to N150,000, N100,000 and to N50,000 to N5,000 and below. Although nobody came out for a supposed N200,000 blessing, the priest at the end of the day asked the entire church to stand for general blessing.

To the conservative Catholics it was taking revenue drive too far. The scene at the Amuwo Odofin church is common in Catholic churches in the country now. Before now, the pentecostal churches appeared to enjoy the exclusivity of megabucks from members. Some church leaders even flaunt their wealth. Even in their jerry-curl hair style they defend their affluence on the grounds that “my God is not a poor God.”

The message is apparently for members to strive to be like them as they claim to enjoy the benevolence of God. And so the craze for miracles that could create rags to riches phenomenon is unabated in our churches. Although the pentecostal churches are in the lead for revenue drive that see churches embark on big projects only a few of them have programmes to help the poor. And it is in this area that the Catholic Church stands out.

The programmes of their Saint Vincent De Paul Society are geared towards alleviating problems of the poor in their various parishes. They visit, hospitals, prisons, charity homes to donate items to them. They identify with the poor in their parishes and lend a helping hand. The Church is known for their contributions in education and health care that is affordable by the poor. But unlike before, the Catholic church in Nigeria appears to have joined the race to grab and grab from church members or parishoners.

The harvest period in some churches last up to six months. The mass is usually longer for speeches and announcements that plead to members to appreciate God. Although members, in many cases, attest to what the church does with the money, the pressure on members to offer resources during harvest is unChatholic to many.

Mr. Gabriel Bolade, an accountant in a commercial bank who attends Baptist Church, Yaba believes the church has abandoned its members. He lamented that the church of today has abandoned the noble role of taking care of the weak and vulnerable in the society. His concern arose from the clear unwillingness to help enhance education in the country.

“Most of the private universities are owned by well established churches who charge fees far beyond the means of ordinary members who contributed to the establishment of these higher institutions. Fees in the region of N1.5 million to N3 million per session are charged which can only be afforded by the wealthy.

The ordinary members who helped in donating materials, cash, labour and even by praying and fasting for the universities cannot afford such fees for their children and wards.”

But exorbitant fee is not the exclusive preserve of Pentecostal churches. Mission schools handed back by government to the churches that established them some years back as part of strategies to improve education in the country have now been caught in the web. The schools owned by Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, CMS and other churches that were reputed social service providers have now been hijacked by greedy capitalists. Their fees are no longer affordable, just like private universities.

Mr. Emmanuel Onyeji, past chairman of the Laity Council at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, Okokomaiko, Lagos put the problem at the door step of “churches that are mainly interested in making money” and not in the welfare of their members.

“Pastors of churches often preach about the primacy of giving at least 10 per cent of their income as tithe and more as offering to the church. Their focus is on prosperity mainly”.

But Pentecostal churches have faulted this claim about church members contributing towards the establishment of educational institutions. In fact, Pastor David Oyedepo of Living Faith Mission (Winners Chapel) who is Founder and Chancellor of Covenant University was quoted as saying that he did not build the university with tithes and offerings of members. But he is yet to reveal the sources of funding. His denial, however, does not explain why majority of Winners Chapel members cannot afford the fees charged by a University owned by their church or senior pastor; yet he owns private jets – Gulfstream G550, Gulfstream G450, Gulfstream V and LearJet with combined valued of $98.3million (N15.9billion).

The situation is not different at the Redeemers University (RUN), owned by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). While fees are also as high as that of Covenant University, RUN claims to have established a scholarship scheme for indigent students. The scheme involves school fees discounts of between 10 % and 80% for children and wards of the university’s staff, children of pastors and some indigent members of the church. Like Winner’s Chapel Senior Pastor, the General Overseer of RCCG Pastor E.A. Adeboye owns a private jet – a Gulfstream V.

That owned by the President of Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Ayo Oritsejafor has just been involved in a scandal in South Africa. It flew $9.3m cash into South Africa where the money has been seized by the home country although the man has explained that he leased the aircraft to another company and that he knew nothing about the transaction. . Nigeria’s government claimed responsibility, saying that the money was meant for the purchase of arms to fight terror and that cash payments are sometimes effected in such deals.

Ayo Oritsejiafor has admitted owning the aircraft and also admitted leasing it out to a company he has substantial interest. Nigerians want to know how this has this helped evangelism? Critics will be quick to answer that materialism is better for it than evangelism.

Mr. Daniel Ede, a banker who worships with the Anglican Church expressed worry that the present day church has deviated from the practice of the early church in terms of assisting those in need and he recommends immediate change.

“The early church in Acts of the Apostles sold their belongings and gave to the needy. Some of the wealth being made by our churches should be used for the sick, poor widows, prisoners, etc. Churches ought to create more welfare programmes for the indigent and needy in their midst. They should have schools and hospitals that the poor can afford”.

A worker in a Pentecostal church in Lagos, who spoke to Saturday Vanguard on condition of anonymity said churches in Nigeria are not doing enough to help the poor and indigent and asked for remedial action. “The Nigerian churches are not doing enough. The church can begin a revolution of wealth creation and the development of education. We need to give in such a way that those given will not need alms again. Education funds should be created for those who are eligible to attend university, but are indigent. If churches build schools, they should dedicate a certain admission percentage slot for indigent church members. Of what essence is a church that doesn’t give back?”

He added that “churches should help fund businesses for church members and may also establish food banks, where indigent members of the church can access food in times of food shortage. They can also generate funds for small businesses to grow, as well as train the owners of such businesses”.

Speaking to Saturday Vanguard, the Benue State chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Arch Bishop Yiman Orkwar sees nothing wrong in churches establishing schools and running them in a professional manner, without sentiments. While he is not against churches granting scholarships to children of the poor, he insists that there is no way all members of the church could be exempted from paying fees as a matter of policy as this could harm the institution’s ability to run the institutions properly and meet the demands of staff.

Sociologist Dr. John Akposibruke disagrees with those suggesting that the church has abandoned its social service role to humanity like poverty alleviation.

“Some of the Pentecostal churches being accused of collecting tithes and offerings without giving back to the needy members have commendable welfare/poverty alleviation schemes.

“I know of a church that pays rent, school fees, medical bills and even wedding costs of its indigent members, but how many people can they do this for with their limited resources?”

He explained that their efforts are not being felt because the magnitude of poverty and deprivation in the country is so high that what is done pales into insignificance.

“In some churches those who need help are up to 60% of members and with the worsening level of unemployment the rate is growing; how do you attend to everybody?”

He points out that some members have developed unrealistic expectations from their churches one of which is that their children should attend a church-owned university free of charge simply because they gave tithes and offerings when the universities were being built without asking themselves the percentage of these contributions to the cost of setting up and running such schools.

“Tithes and offerings are gifts to God and the church, and like every gift they are not returnable either in form they were given, or by extending discounts and privileges.

“Since tithes and offerings are pooled together to carry out various projects in the house of God it is difficult to determine who gave what and on that basis extend any privilege; how can you be sure that your own portion of the contributions was not the part used to decorate the church or buy musical equipment and not used to build a school?”

Investigation by Saturday Vanguard revealed that some churches are indeed engaged in one form of welfare/empowerment scheme or the other. Daystar Christian Centre runs a leadership, entrepreneurship and skill development training for members to empower them. While the leadership programme is meant to impart leadership skills, the entrepreneurship class is a case-study based executive business education that takes potential entrepreneurs from idea to business plan, start up and fund sourcing.

The vocational skills development teaches members various skills such as maintenance of generators, photography, cake and confectionery making, bead making and video production among others. The church also runs a benevolence scheme under which foods, clothes and shoes are distributed to the needy whether they are members of the church or not. The Senior Pastor’s wife has also established a Real Woman Foundation to care for the female folk.

The foundation operates an orphanage and a street women rehabilitation centre which imparts vocational skills and education to any level. Inmates of these centres are given the kind of care and support that should have been provided by their families.

Saturday Vanguard also found out that The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) has established a number of schemes to help members beat poverty. Among these are “Career Academy” – an after school touch up for graduates to help them secure employment and “We Care” under which the church pays rent, medical bills, and gives foods and clothes to indigent members. It is also involved in rehabilitation of street girls through its “Rehobot Homes” programme.

The church also offers scholarships to intelligent but indigent members of the church under the Bishop Mike Okonkwo Scholarship scheme which runs from secondary to university.

Further investigations also revealed that several other churches run one form of poverty eradication scheme or the other to empower members but the impact of such schemes has remained minimal.

However, Dr. Joseph Antyo of the University of Mkar, a private university in Benue State owned by the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) believes that poverty issues in Nigeria cannot be effectively addressed at different levels (family, community, state and nation) in isolation from the churches.

He recommends that “churches should see poverty eradication as a part of their mission of evangelisation, since not only spiritual but also material salvation is needed to truly free someone. Some of the money that some churches have should be made available to their members in form of loans and other poverty alleviation measures, and the churches should be able to build on their greatest strengths which are trust and commitment rather than dependency.

Churches should also motivate their members to work or to help create employment, since the lack of it is probably the greatest bane of Africa today.”