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Chinese church congregation at war, legal action launched over fate of millions in donations

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A building on Apollo Dr, Rosedale, purchased by the Bread of Life Christian Church with donations money from the congregation. Photo / Supplied

A fringe Auckland church congregation is at war, with court proceedings launched over the fate of millions of dollars in donations that a pastor allegedly claims “now belong to God”.

Registered charity The Bread Of Life Christian Church In Auckland is based on the North Shore and governed by a six-person board of trustees.

While its stated purpose is to advance Christianity and spread the gospel, the church has become riven by infighting, with claims of dysfunction and misuse of donations money sparking legal action in 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.

Worshippers gave generously towards the building project, allegedly donating at least $2 million for the express purpose of buying an appropriate site and converting it as a church, in addition to general donations and tithing.

Documents filed with the High Court show three of the current trustees allege pastor Xi Chen – whose daughter is Labour MP Naisi Chen – has assumed power in breach of church rules with the backing of the “mother church” in Taipei.

Labour Party MP Naisi Chen, whose father Xi Chen is pastor of the Bread of Life Christian Church In Auckland. Photo / Supplied
Labour Party MP Naisi Chen, whose father Xi Chen is pastor of the Bread of Life Christian Church In Auckland. Photo / Supplied

The documents allege Chen and the two other defendant trustees are in breach of their fiduciary duties under the Trusts and Charities Acts, and that donations money may have been misused against the congregation’s wishes.

The plaintiffs want a judge to remove the trio from the trust board due to their alleged conduct.

The trust board established the building project in about 2000, and began collecting donations from churchgoers which were specifically recorded for that purpose.

In 2017, the trust board purchased a commercial building in Apollo Dr, Rosedale, for $3.07m. Half of the purchase price was funded by donations, and the rest by a $1.5m mortgage.

The board later obtained resource consent to convert the building into a 300-seat church, and launched a “gold brick” fundraising scheme to garner further donations to fund the planned refurbishment, which is yet to occur.

The court documents say donations money has been used to pay down the mortgage, with just $322,000 owing by July this year.

However, it’s alleged that congregation numbers and donations have dwindled due to “great division” within the church.

Bread of Life Christian Church pastor Xi Chen allegedly told a church community their money now belonged "to God". Photo / Supplied
Bread of Life Christian Church pastor Xi Chen allegedly told a church community their money now belonged “to God”. Photo / Supplied

With worshippers still meeting in a rented Sunnynook building, the church decided last year to investigate converting half the Rosedale property to a smaller church and leasing out the remaining site.

But late last year, Chen allegedly said he wanted to sell the Rosedale property and purchase a new facility.

He also proposed the election of a board chairman, later saying to trustees via messaging app WeChat, “by not making [him] chairman we were ignoring the will of God and mocking the Holy Spirit”, an affidavit by plaintiff trustee Julia Buhagiar states.

He was eventually appointed chairman, allegedly following “guidance and instructions” from the mother church in Taipei.

The plaintiffs argue the appointment was in breach of the trust’s rules and therefore invalid.

In March this year, Chen announced the building project would no longer proceed at the Rosedale property, the court documents say.

He allegedly told worshippers, “Anyone who disagrees with [him] must leave the Church”, causing significant upset.

Then, in April, it’s alleged Chen announced donations earmarked for the building project would not be refunded.

“Mr Chen said that all the donations now belong to God and that the donors have no say over what the Church decides to do with the money they donate,” Buhagiar’s affidavit states.

She said this caused conflict, with some congregation members wanting their donations back if the money was not used to refurbish the church as promised.

The next month, Chen allegedly set up an alternative leadership structure “purporting to exercise the powers and duties” of the trust board, sidelining the three plaintiff trustees, who then filed proceedings.

Chen’s lawyer told the Herald he would not comment while the matter was before the court.

Meanwhile, a group of 21 elderly congregation members were so concerned at the fate of their donations money, they wrote to Age Concern in May this year.

A translated copy of the letter alleged the group had been “bullied and discriminated against” for months.

“As seniors committed to the church, we felt distressful, threatened and disturbed.”

The letter says the congregation made “great effort” to donate towards the building project, “however, now […] we are left with no trace of our donated money”.

“We are very depressed and sad, feeling ignored and left with grievances.”

The letter urged officials to investigate.

“Please ascertain that if a church is not built according to the plan, our donations towards this project over the years shall be refunded to us, plus due compensation for our mental and economic damages.”

After proceedings were filed in July, the High Court ordered a public notice be published “to ensure the interests of current and previous church members and donors are properly represented”.

According to the court documents, the trust board declined to renew Chen’s employment contract as pastor earlier this year.

However, an April 29 letter from the Taipei church instructed that Chen was to be appointed head pastor of the Auckland branch and board chairman.

The letter stated that “no-one is perfect”, and that Chen needed to be “softer and humble in his attitude and listen to more voices”.

The church had “gone through turmoil and storms” and needed consistent leadership.

“But this does not mean that Pastor CHEN Xi can abuse his power or act arbitrarily”.

The letter called for the Auckland church to “repent together before the Lord”, confess sins, find “reconciliation and oneness, and have the love and peace of the Lord among you”.

A divided church was “an opportunity for the devil to attack”.

Charities Services general manager Natasha Weight said the Department of Internal Affairs could “undertake appropriate inquiries” if a charity was not meeting its obligations or engaged in serious wrongdoing.

Charities Services was made aware of an internal dispute between the Bread of Life trustees in July, Weight said.

“As this matter is now before the High Court, Charities Services will await the outcome of those proceedings before determining if further action is warranted.”

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