The Fourth Estate examined the alleged failure of Lighthouse Chapel International (United Denominations Originating from the Lighthouse Group of Churches (UD-OLGC) in the payment of SSNIT for six of its pastors who have resigned and are now in court.
In Part 2 of the series, the pastors speak of exploitation by the church, which started in the form of a policy; undue pressure to raise funds, which turned them into beggars; and psychological effects of their ordeals, which drove one of them to attempt suicide three times and also cut his scrotum.
“Become Who You Can Become!”
In June 2008, the Presiding Bishop of the Light House Chapel International (LCI), Dag Heward-Mills, in a rare gesture, wrote personal letters to his pastors and missionaries serving the church at home and abroad. In that letter, which was sent via email, the founder and head of the church said the LCI was resource-constrained. He had, therefore, come up with a new policy to address this “great need.” He called this new policy, “Become Who You Can Become” (BWYCB).
“In the light of this, the best way forward for all of us is for all missionaries who have been at post, for at least two years, to be absolutely non-dependent,” a copy of the letter addressed to Bishop. Larry Odonkor, a former pastor of the church, reads in part.
A copy of the same letter, which was addressed to Rev. Edward Laryea and sighted by The Fourth Estate, summarised the church’s new policy in a seven-point numbered list. The letter said the new policy “means that from now when a mission has existed for two years, we will no longer continue to support it. This means that:
- No money will be sent to rent a house for the missionary.
- No money will be sent to pay the salary of the missionary.
- No money will be sent to rent church premises.
- No money will be sent to buy equipment for the church.
- No car will be bought and imported to your country or mission headquarters.
- No mission house will be bought.
- Tickets will not be bought for you to fly around.”
Bishop Dag Heward-Mills explained in the letter that the new policy would help the missionaries “mature just as I was forced to mature when I began the ministry.”
The first implication of the new policy, stated by Dag Heward-Mills in the letter, was that if a missionary was “not able to generate enough support, it means that he is, at this stage of his life, incapable of missionary work at that level and he will have to become a lay pastor and the mission would be turned into a lay mission. He will therefore have to find a job, do some business; or generate any other means of support—of course not borrowing from church members.”
The letter explained that there were 45 young graduates of Anagkazo Bible and Ministry Training Centre, the church’s theological school; and another 45 graduates from the university, who were ready for posting to any part of the world. Those on the field, therefore, needed to up their game or risk being replaced.
Six of the pastors, including two bishops, who have resigned from Lighthouse and sued the church, have told The Fourth Estate that there was a carrot and a stick in the policy.
The stick was that if a missionary, after being downgraded for his or her inability to raise resources to operate, was still “unable to be a lay pastor of a lay mission, the whole mission will have to be closed down and you will return to base.” That was the second implication of the new policy as contained in Dag Heward-Mills’ letter.
But there was also a carrot, the former LCI pastors told The Fourth Estate. They said they were promised that, once they were able to build the church, they would be stationed there permanently.
“It means no more transfer,” Bishop Larry Odonkor explained. This part of the policy of “build and own” excited some of the missionaries.
It is a policy that is not new in church administration and governance in Ghana; neither is it peculiar to the Lighthouse Chapel International. The Fourth Estate understands that in denominations such as the Assemblies of God Church, pastors are allowed to build a church and stay there until they retire while keeping a relationship with the headquarters, which oversees their work.
In the Lighthouse Chapel International’s version of this policy, the part about ownership was not stated in the letter, the missionaries said.
They said communication of that part was verbal, which was not strange because most of the important decisions, including transfers and recruitments, were communicated to them verbally except in instances the church wanted them to append their signatures to commitments that bound them. According to them, some documents were given to them to read and sign but they were not given copies.
Bishop Larry Odonkor explained that because of the father-and-son relationship they had with Bishop Heward-Mills, they did not feel any need to have the policy to build the churches and stay there permanently written. “Begone unbelief!” they would have said at the time. But today they say, “Trust but verify.”
Rev. Edward Laryea, one of the six pastors who have resigned said, “When the ‘Become Who You Can Become’ [policy] came, we were very happy because it means no transfer.”
Beyond their spiritual duty to the church and humanity, the pastors said they psyched themselves up, planned and built their lives and those of their families around the idea that they were going to live in the places they were serving for a long time. They, therefore, invested everything they had, including support from their spouses, families and friends, in building churches and their private investments in those localities.
Considering the fact that these areas they were sent as missionaries were new to them and, sometimes rural without wealthy donors, they had to depend on their families and friends to raise money to build and/or run the churches.
To appreciate the issue of pastors welfare and church administration, The Fourth Estate spoke to the immediate past chairman of The Church of Pentecost who now lectures at the Pentecost University, Apostle Professor Kwadwo Nimfour Opoku Onyinah. He was asked (generally and not specific to LCI) about whose responsibility it is to take care of pastors, the mother church or the mission field?
Apostle Prof. Opoku Onyinah said “once you have an institution, it should have a system in place that should be able to take care of the pastors,” he told The Fourth Estate.
While refraining to cast church governance issues in stone, he pointed out that members were free to meet the needs of their pastors out of love, “but it is the responsibility of the mother institution to take care of its members.”
He said once a church sent a missionary out, it should be prepared to help the missionary stabilise and so the sending agency should be able to support the missionary to establish the church.
Prof. Opoku Onyinah said if a church realised that it did not have enough resources to take care of its pastors, there was no wrong in communicating this to the pastors and asking them that “it will be your responsibility to take care of yourself. It all depends on the church’s policy.”
How “Build and Own” turned into “Build and Leave!”
Bishop Larry Odonkor, a husband and a father, was a pastor in Wa at the time the BWYCB policy kicked in. Wives were encouraged to join their husbands in full-time ministry, so his wife had joined him on the mission field. But they were now to depend on one source of income — monies they generated on the mission field.
Apart from the church, Bishop Odonkor had not worked anywhere after he graduated with a BSc. Biological Science degree from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in 2001, seven years before the policy to “become who he could become” took effect.
To earn extra income to support the family and also help fund church construction in Wa, his wife started a school and also ventured into the hospitality industry.
“On my wife’s side, I got a family friend to come and invest,” Bishop Odonkor said. “[They] bought land to build a hotel for my wife for us to be able to survive because no money was coming from anywhere.”
“All [my] children were home-schooled in Wa,” he said, adding that he could not afford to take his children through formal school at the time. His children started in the school his wife built, and other children joined later.
After the church project began to do well, Larry Odonkor said he was transferred to South Africa two years later. He said they lost all their investment in the school and the hotel business. “We handed over [the school] under duress to the next missionary.”
Larry Odonkor told The Fourth Estate that despite the broken promise not to transfer the missionaries who built churches, he still believed that the presiding bishop would make good his promise next time. So, once again, and despite no support from Accra, he gave his all to the next church in South Africa.
“I went to KwaZulu-Natal, the only province in South Africa where we didn’t have a church as of 2010. I walked into that place alone, did evangelism in the streets, knowing nobody and built a church two years into the mission.”
“It takes grace. It takes anointing. We paid a high price,” he said.
His wife started a school in South Africa, too.
“My wife’s father sent her money, [and] we put it in the school because the man gave us the impression that oh, what you are building [is yours]. No more transfers.”
He said his church in South Africa was designated Permanent Mission Church (PMC) to mean the missionary there was permanently in charge. But the Wa experience was repeated in KwaZulu-Natal.
He was transferred after seven years to Madagascar. And his wife lost her investment in setting up a school. His fears of exploitation in the name of the church were now confirmed, he said.
He lamented that pastors were often left alone to build churches without the support from the headquarters of the church. “When it works, to cripple you and to make you permanently dependent” they were transferred and had to start all over again.
Adjusting to life in Madagascar was a struggle, but as he and his wife began to adjust and settle down, a call came from Accra.
“He moved us to Akim Oda [in Ghana].”
To go to his new station in Akim Oda, Bishop Odonkor said he had to beg friends to help him transport his things to the place because the church said it did not have any money to transport him to his new station.
Akim Oda was where he finally decided to part ways with the church.
In 2008, Rev. Edward Laryea was in Kade, a farming community in the peri-urban side of the Kwaebibirem municipality of the Eastern Region, when the “Become Who You Can Become” policy started.
“We built the church from zero,” he said. “…We tiled the church by the grace of God. My wife used her salary to buy the tiles from Kantamanto…. We had to generate our [own] money [to build the church]. I worked as a laborer because I couldn’t hire labourers.
“The church grew, and we had about eight branches. We had branches like Adonkrono, Akim Kusi, Nkwantanam, Abodom…”
Rev. Edward Laryea said when the toil was over and the church was built, he was asked to move from Kade.
He was transferred to Takoradi in the Western Region in 2014. He said it was a strategy to weaken and keep the pastors subservient to the dictates of the mother church.
The ministers of the gospel who resigned from LCI said while they laboured on the field to build churches without support from the mother church, the headquarters still asked them to send a portion of their offerings to the head office in Accra.
Rev. Edward Laryea, who was on a GHS60 salary, explained, “Bishop Dag Heward Mills told us to send him 20% of the [church’s] income, 10% for Healing Jesus l[crusade] and 10%, he calls it Family Contribution.
“So, while I couldn’t pay myself…I had to pay him his own…He knew that I was in a village but he didn’t care,” he recalled.
Bishop Larry Odonkor corroborated this claim of having to give to the mother church which gave nothing to the branch. “…When money starts coming in, then you start receiving instructions: ‘Send money here. Continuing World Missions, send 12.5%. Do this, do that.”
Speaking generally on exploitation in churches, Apostle. Prof. Opoku Onyinah said pastors who feel exploited should feel free to leave the church. “If you are unfairly treated and you think you cannot cater for yourself, then you have to resign the ministry and go back to any profession that you have.”
Prof. Opoku Onyinah said that is why it is recommended that people should do secular jobs and professions before entering into full-time ministry.
He said some people had taken the ministry to mean a “cheaper way of working”, adding that God also called people who were seriously working. He mentioned examples in the Bible such as Elisha and Peter. “God still wants people to work,” he said.
“This is to discourage some young people who step into ministry too quickly. No. You would have to continue to work as a man, as an individual until you are fully convinced that the Lord has called you to full-time ministry. Once God calls you, he will supply all your needs. Not wants but needs.”
But for most of these pastors who were student leaders in the campus wing of the church, were sent straight into full-time ministry after graduating.
“I attempted suicide thrice and cut my scrotum.”
Another former LCI minister, Rev. Seth Duncan, saidthe BWYCB policy was a motivation that spurred him to put all his eggs in the proverbial one basket. Like Larry Odonkor’s wife, he also started a school. When the school started to operate, he used part of the proceeds from the school to put up a church building.
“That was what I did because I was told that it was a permanent mission, and I should become who I could become. I programmed my mind that this is mine; that when I build it, I will have it,” he recounted his motivation for putting all his resources and those from friends and family into buildings on the mission field.
“So even when [my] siblings outside and others sent me money, the next thing that I thought of was the church.”
His wife, however, faulted the frenzied approach to church financing to the detriment of the family’s needs, and this contributed to a sustained strain in the marriage.
“She said, ‘when you get money, everything is about church, church, church and you just leave the home empty.’ And I said, ‘Oh let’s finish building the church.’ She was not happy about it,” Seth Duncan told The Fourth Estate.
The hardship and misunderstanding were breaking his home. His marriage was being ruined, but he was too focused on building the church to know that the home also needed building, that pushing all of the family’s resources into the church caused hardship that was becoming unbearable.
“I built three churches out of this,” he recounted his fleeting moment of triumph and accomplishment. “For the main church [in Paga], I had to go to a riverside 12km from Paga to mine stones to come and do marbles on the church building.”
He also boasted about the record of laying the foundation for six church buildings in six months and completing the construction of three in just one year.
“I added my two plots of land, [which] I bought [close to the church]. I added it to the church’s land.”
Rev. Seth Duncan said his efforts to build these churches came with great sacrifice and nearly cost his life. One night, while returning on his motorbike from a mission field where he had gone to start a new branch, he nearly drowned in a river.
The former seaman said but for the grace of God and his swimming skills, he would certainly have died.
After all his toils in putting up churches in the Upper East Region, Seth Duncan said he was not allowed to manage any of the three churches he had built. He was transferred.
To make matters worse, Rev. Duncan said he was met with hostile responses anytime he tried to express his grievances to the management of the church.
After nearly a decade in the ministry, Seth Duncan said his marriage broke down, and he and his wife had to go their separate ways.
He said he became depressed and grew suicidal.
He had given up a career as a soldier in the Ghana Navy and enlisted as a soldier of the cross in the Lighthouse church. But he was losing both the battle and the war. He was losing anything that mattered to him.
He lost his marriage. He lost his investment in churches and the school he had built. For these reasons and the attendant depression that set in, Seth Duncan said he felt losing his life could not be any worse.
“I attempted suicide three times. [In] my home at Paga, I hang myself on the ceiling fan and the fan dropped on me. Then I decided to leave Paga because I didn’t want to die in the presence of my family,” he recalled his first attempt in his interview with The Fourth Estate in February this year.
“So, I came to Accra, went to Kokrobite beach,” he continued. “Frankly speaking, between God and man, I drunk a bottle of alcohol, dived into the sea, hoping that the sea would take me away and everything would be over.”
It was in 2004, during the church’s homecoming convention that Seth Duncan said he had decided to end his service with the Ghana Navy and go into full-time service of God. At the convention, Dag Heward-Mills had called on those who felt inspired to go into full-time ministry to step forward. According to Rev. Duncan, a pastor at that event told him that “this is the best profession” and that “I should choose God or chance.”
But about 10 years later, the man who was asked to choose God over chance was about to give death a chance. This time, he thought drinking alcohol heavily and jumping into the sea was the best way to save him from life, a life that appeared more painful than death.
“The following morning, I found myself at the shore.” His second suicide attempt failed, but he would try again.
“Then I came to Kaneshie overhead [in Accra], trying to jump over so that at least a car could just smash me off. It didn’t work out.” He said he went to Kaneshie mainly to end his life. But, somehow, he found himself in a Kaneshie-Madina-bound commuter vehicle.
Rev. Duncan experienced nightmares and grew restless. He said he needed medications to be able to sleep at night. After death rejected him twice in Accra, he went back to Paga.
“I ended up trying to castrate myself by cutting my scrotum and I found myself bleeding. Then I realised that it is not easy to die.” He said he was treated at the Bolgatanga Regional Hospital after that “accident”, after which he decided to quit the church and gather the pieces left of his life together.
His attempt to reboot his life by going to law school, after resigning from Lighthouse, failed because he struggled to concentrate.
Seth Duncan, since leaving Lighthouse and without any meaningful employment, has been struggling to put his life back together. Unlike some of his colleagues who have found themselves back into the ministry in different churches or started their own churches, he does not think he is in the right frame of mind to continue in the ministry.
“Missionaries of Lighthouse are beggars”
Apart from the “Become Who You Can Become” policy which failed and shattered some dreams and lives, the former pastors of Lighthouse revealed certain church practices exposed them to abuse and exploitation. They said, to meet the numerous demands on them, they were often begging and almost harassing church members to give money.
Bishop Emmanuel Oko Mensah, who became a bishop in 2017, said his birthday became a headache because it came with a debt. On any of the over 100 bishops’ birthdays, they were asked to give $1,000, Bishop Oko Mensah said.
Bishop Larry Odonkor confirmed that on his own birthday he also gave $1,000 to the founder. They said they were told this money was to support Healing Jesus TV, a channel run by the Presiding Bishop, Dag Heward-Mills’ Healing Jesus Crusade.
He further revealed that apart from paying monies on their own birthdays, they also had to donate monies on the founder’s birthday.
He revealed that lay ministers paid GHc1,000 or the equivalent of this if they were outside Ghana. According to Larry Odonkor, the church ran what was called “honour the prophet” campaign to mobilise members to give an offering to the Presiding Bishop, Dag Heward-Mills, on his birthday.
The Presiding Bishop’s next birthday is 17 days away—May 14.
In most churches in Ghana, honouring church leaders is a norm and considered scriptural. But Bishop Oko Mensah said in Lighthouse, failure to honour the bishop [Dag Heward-Mills] was tantamount to disloyalty.
He said “you would be called Absalom”, the son of David in the Bible who rebelled against his father and suffered an ignominious death.
Another practice they felt was exploitative was how the church organised “Appreciation Day” for the clergy.
In many Ghanaian churches, some form of appreciation is given to pastors, elders, shepherds, or lay ministers for their sacrifices. On the culture of appreciation for pastors, the theologian, Apostle. Prof. Opoku Onyinah said the most important thing is that everything must be done willingly. “If it is something that is being imposed and people are doing it unwilling then it becomes evil,” the theology professor said.
In Lighthouse Chapel International, “Appreciation Day” is called Galatians 6:6, a verse in the Bible in which church patriarch Apostle Paul says, “Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word must share in all good things with his instructor.”
Bishop Oko Mensah explained that in the Lighthouse Chapel International, Galatians 6:6 was held every first Sunday of October. The local churches would raise an offering and give it to their pastor. But four years ago, this offering was canceled. Or rather, it was revised.
The offering was to continue, but it was now to go to the Presiding Bishop and founder of the church, Dag Heward-Mills.
“Bishop Dag Heward-Mills came and announced that he is the actual teacher of the whole church. ‘I am the one teaching the whole church…whatever you are preaching, whatever you are teaching is from me,’” Oko Mensah recounted the justification in the changes that were made to the appreciation day.
Oko Mensah said Dag Heward-Mills, in a sense, was right to say he was the actual teacher of the entire church.
“One thing with Lighthouse is that you have to teach whatever he has written, whatever he has preached. The messages are checked,” he said.
“Every pastor has to preach from a book or a message and all these things are vetted and checked. You can get into trouble preaching something that cannot be found in [his] book. When you are preaching you should hold the book and photographs should be taken,” he explained.
Bishop Oko Mensah said the presiding bishop further directed that, because he was the pastors’ pastor and the teachers’ teacher, “Galatians 6:6 offering should be directed to him from the whole world… It comes to him.”
Lighthouse Chapel International operates over 6,070 churches in at least 92 countries. The church employs over 2,300 pastors and 111 bishops.
Bishop Oko Mensah said ahead of the Galatians 6:6 appreciation offering, the pastors are instructed to “get your rich businessmen, rich people, people gainfully employed with the UN, doctors, to give like GHc3,000, GHc5,000, $2,000.”
All the monies, Oko Mensah said, went to Dag Heward Mills. He said due to the neglect of pastors in the name of “Become Who You Can Become” and the undue pressure on them to raise money, many missionaries of Lighthouse were literally beggars.
“Missionaries of Lighthouse are some of the worst la la sula la [beggars] on the planet,” he said. “They [missionaries] communicate a lot with people and beg them…and this is a very rich organization.”
Another former bishop, Larry Odonkor, corroborated this claim. “I am sad to tell you that, throughout my stay in this organisation, I always had to solicit help from others.”
They were to find a way to raise the flag of Christ, a bundle of cash and so everyone around them – family and friends became a cashcow.
Rev. Seth Duncan said his highest salary after 10 years in the ministry was GHc450. Bishop Larry Odonkor who was in South Africa was paid $1,000 after more than 15 years in ministry.
Rev. Edward Laryea’s salary after 12 years in the mission field was GHS 800, as of 2014. He lamented the hardship he had to put his family through in the course of the ministry.
There was a psychological strain to comply with what he saw as undue pressure on him. There were consequences for refusing to abide by instructions from one’s superiors in the ministry, Edward Laryea said.
“If I refused it, it means I am disloyal, I am a devil, and I am a Lucifer. I am Ahithophel. I am Orangutan.”
Asked if he was just calling himself those names, Rev Edward Laryea shot back, “That is what Lighthouse Chapel International would call me… You will be branded.
“Look, what you don’t know is that if you are in that system, you will do everything to avoid being branded like that because it comes with consequences. All your friends will separate themselves from you.”
There are several sermons preached by Dag Heward-Mills that emphasise loyalty. The subject of loyalty is the staple that binds his sermons. It is vigorously taught to his students in Anagkazo, and church members are painstakingly taught to imbibe this doctrine of loyalty. The former pastors of the church say this loyalty is sought for leadership of the church and not towards God.
The Fourth Estate brought these allegations to the attention of the church and requested a response. That request letter was dated March 17, 2021, and submitted to the church on that same date. The church has not responded, but our sources close to the management of the church said a reply to the request was unlikely.
The Fourth Estatehas, however, seen a missionary consent form that pastors sign when they are called into full-time ministry in the Lighthouse. The consent form says a missionary pledges to live “a life of poverty.”
Apostle Opoku Onyinah was asked if pastoral ministry means a life of poverty. The former chairman of The Church of Pentecost said ‘No. You should live a life of contentment. You should be able to accept whatever God gives you.
“Paul said that I have learnt to be content in whatever situation I am in. That is the minister. You should not glamour for things. You should not grab things. You should know that God orders your steps.”
Bishop Larry Odonkor said he signed this form when he was to go to South Africa. And he acknowledged that pastoral ministry can be a path of lack and hardship.
But he insisted, “I didn’t sign a form to be cheated.”