The pastor of an Afro-Caribbean church will have to repay £200,000 after an investigation by the Charity Commission found “serious misconduct and mismanagement” within his church.
A £120,000 birthday party was among benefits received by Matthew Ashimolowo, the pastor of the Kingsway International Christian Centre. He was also able to use his church’s Visa card to buy a timeshare apartment in Florida.
The organisation, a registered charity, is the fastest growing church in Europe and a proponent of the “prosperity gospel”, which equates faith with material abundance.
The commission’s report, published yesterday, shows that some of the church’s trustees were being paid as employees of the charity. Mr Ashimolowo, 53, and his family were living rent-free in a house owned by the charity and the pastor also had an interest in a company operating from the premises in Hackney, East London. He had also been given an £80,000 car.
The commissioners said that charity trustees should always ensure that personal interests did not conflict with their duties as trustees and make sure that assets were used only to further stated purposes.
Further, the trustees had delegated almost all control of the charity to a pastoral board that included the pastor and his wife Yemesi and had the power to spend up to £1 million at a time. Over eight years, to 2002, Mr and Mrs Ashimolowo were paid £384,600.
They were also given £141,400 from weekly collections. Mr Ashimolowo also had several private companies selling his books, videos and tapes in Nigeria, advertising them free on the church’s website.
Kingsway was started 20 years ago with a congregation of 17. It now has 12,000 regular worshippers and is expected to reach its target of 25,000 members by 2010. In 2001 its income was £7.3 million.
Churches such as Kingsway promote wealth as a reward for hard work and living a godly life. They use the opening text of the third letter of John, in which the apostle prays for his friend’s prosperity and health, and other texts espousing the abundance of harvest reaped from the well-sown seed, to support this view.
A prosperous pastor is seen as proof that prosperity preaching—known to its detractors as the “blab-it-and-grab-it gospel”—works. Vast sums are generated by the congregations of these churches, where “tithing”, or donation of 10 per cent of net income, is common.
Kingsway was placed in the hands of receivers in 2002 after a routine visit by Charity Commission officials led to concerns about governance and the benefits granted to trustees.
The commission investigation found that hundreds of thousands of pounds had been transferred overseas with little documentation to explain how these payments furthered the objects of the charity. The report says that when investigators visited the church in September 2002, they “noted boxes containing finance papers being loaded into a car”. These turned out to be invoices, cheques and cash related to that financial year. The investigators concluded that this incident showed “at the very least a serious lack of control” by the trustees.
The commission claims in its report to have safeguarded nearly £20 million of charitable funds and the charity was allowed to regain control of the church in March, though restructured as a charitable company rather than a trust.
Kingsway said yesterday that the commission had made clear in March its satisfaction that the church had a new structure. It said: “Six months on, the church is moving forward and we remain committed to our vision for growth.”
The inquiry has not halted the ambitions of Mr Ashimolowo, a Nigerian-born convert from Islam, whose new contract of employment with the charity stipulates that he must repay £200,000.
He wants to build an arena for 10,000 people to house the church on the 9.5-acre site presently occupied by the church, which is at the heart of the land needed for the 2012 Olympics.