Reports reaching the news desk of the In Profile Daily say confusion is brewing ahead of this year’s Lutheran Church of Liberia (LCL) biannual convention. The situation is referred to as ‘chakla’ in a common Liberian parlance. The Convention is expected to take place from 24-29 April, 2012, in Totota, Bong County, where a new bishop will be elected for that Christian denomination.

Aggrieved members of the Church have warned that the Convention is poised or it will run into serious confusion and may end up in court unless the “independence” of the Bishopic Election Committee (EC) is restored, and qualms raised are addressed. Scores of aggrieved LCL members including lay men, pastors and deacons are claiming that the EC headed by Mrs. Sarah Taylor has “lost its independence” to the incumbent Bishop, Sumoward E. Harris, and the Executive Council of the Church.

“The Sarah Taylor-led Election Commission has totally lost its independence and neutrality, and we cannot allow this situation to remain while we go for the Convention next week,” fumed Mr. Moses Roberts, a prominent member of the LCL.  

Bishop Harris, who has served two terms, is stepping down after the Convention. However, he is alleged to be supporting a particular candidate, whom the aggrieved members declared “unqualified”. Reports also indicated that Bishop Harris and supporters are dishing out cash to buy voters and to also sweep legitimate claims under the carpet.

The Problem-According to Mr. Roberts, when the EC published its elections guidelines early this year, four senior pastors of the LCL applied. They included: Rev. Peter D. Kpakela (Special Assistant to Bishop Harris), Rev. Victor Padmore, Rev Eric Allison and Rev. Dr. Senyenkolu, a US-based pastor.

After the EC scrutinized the applicants, three were qualified, with the Bishop’s Special Assistant disqualified on account of Article 6, Section 8 (e) of the LCL Revised Constitution. This section requires that a would-be bishop candidate holds a Master’s Degree in Christian Theology which Rev. Peter D. Kpakela, the disqualified, does not hold.

As a result of this disqualification of Rev. Kpakela, two ordained Deacons of the LCL in persons of Johnny Sirleaf and Robert Bowah also contested the qualification of one of the three qualified candidates-Rev. Dr. D.  Jensen Senyenkulo. This paper has obtained a copy of the formal complaint filed with the electoral committee by the two deacons.

The protesting deacons based their arguments on Article 6, Section 8(f); Article 8, Section 5; and Article, 15 Section 4 of the LCL Revised By-Laws and Constitution (2011).

Article 6, Section 8 (f) of the LCL constitution states that: “A Pastor wanting to become a Bishop must have served the LCL for no less than 10 years in areas of increasing responsibility.” The protesters said Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo has not met said requirement and should not be qualified for the race.

Article 5 (a) of the bylaws and constitution also notes that: “Retirement of all employees of the LCL shall be mandatory at the age of 65 or after 25 years of active service,” while Article 15, Section 4 sets the retirement of LCL employees at 65 years and 25 years of service, depending on which comes first.

According to the protest letter filed by the Deacons, Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo should be disqualified because he has passed the 25 years service period to 29 years in active service.

They argued that the candidate in question, who has spent bulk of his life and ministries in the US, has not served as pastor of the LCL for 10 years in increasing responsibility and his tenure as pastor (in the US) is 29 years.

Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo began serving as pastor in the Lutheran Church in 1983, when he was ordained-which marked the beginning of his employment in the Lutheran Church, though not in Liberia, they contended.

According to investigation, the EC looked into the complaint and clarified the issue relating to the 10-year tenure as pastor “in areas of increasing responsibility” but failed to address the portion of the protest that dwells on the 29 years service (retirement).

A letter written by the EC to the protesting deacons referred them to the Bishop (Harris) and the LCL Executive Council to address the other qualm. The aggrieved Deacons said they wrote the Bishop on the issue but he has seemingly swept their concern under the carpet by refusing to respond in a timely fashion as the date for the Convention dresses close.

The aggrieved members said they cannot understand why the EC would refer them to Bishop Harris, who they claim is supporting a candidate, and the Executive Council to make decision when the Committee itself has the authority and knows the constitution.

“This latest action on the part of the Committee has created dark clouds over its independence and the entire Bishopric election,” stated one member, adding, “We have learnt that the Bishop is supporting Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo.”

A credible source from the Bishop’s office, preferring anonymity, confirmed that Bishop Harris has not responded to the communication and will not do so until the Convention opens on April 25 in Totota.

The source alleged that the Bishop will stage-manage the issue on the floor, and being the Presiding Officer at the Convention, will only recognize people who will  call for the setting aside of the 2011 Revised Constitution (adopted at the St. Matthew Parish in April 2011) in favor of Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo.

“If this happens,” warns Mr. Roberts, “it will mean that the Bishop is setting the stage for chaos on our church,” and wondered: “Why didn’t the Election Committee refer the issue of Rev. Peter D. Kpakela to the Bishop and/or the Executive Committee? Why is the Bishop ignoring the constitution?”

Historical highlights of the LCL written by Bishop Harris in souvenirs of the 2008 and 2011 biannual and special conventions respectively state that Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo is not in the service of the LCL.

However, a source in the office of the Bishop has intimated that the Bishop says his statements then were “mistake”.

Threat of Lawsuit-As the pregnant chaos waits to hatch, Mr. Roberts has told this paper that he is currently soliciting the support of other prominent Lutherans including lawyers to take the matter to court should the Bishop continue to ignore the constitution in favor of a particular candidate.

“If we do not hear from the Bishop or that Rev. Dr. Senyenkulo is disqualified by the 23rd of April 2012, we will seek legal redress on April 25th, the opening date of the Convention,” he vowed.

Mr. Roberts, a member of the Bardnersville Lutheran Church, said he and other prominent members of the LCL do not want to see their Constitution compromised and butchered, and their church divided like some mainland churches in the country.

He also cautioned Bishop Harris who had led the Church for 17 years to follow the excellent leadership style of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by upholding the tenet of good governance-one of which he said is respect for the rule of law.

Mr. Roberts and his likes, several of them wanting to remain anonymous, said if justice, good leadership examples and sincerity must thrive in any society, it has to start from the Church.

The EC’s side-Contacted to speak on the matter Tuesday, the LEC Convention EC Chair, Rev Sarah Taylor, noted that she has no comment, but later admitted to the complaint from the aggrieved deacons.

“We have replied them; we have responded to the issue and it is now in the hands of the Executive Council of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, the highest body,” she said on the phone.

Rev. Taylor said the EC had no more roles to play in the complaint until the Executive Council decides. “We have already forwarded it to the Council…” she stated as the communication broke. The phone was reportedly off after several calls later.

Bishop Harris: It’s Unfortunate-Several earlier attempts during the week to contact Bishop Harris failed, but he finally commented on the issue Wednesday, expressing disappointment in the actions of the protesters and aggrieved members for taking the matter to the press.

Expressing confident that the matter would be resolved before the convention, Bishop Harris said it was unfortunate that the complainants could not wait for him to conclude the burial of his late wife. He had this to say: “How could they expect me to abandon the burial of my wife, someone I have been with for several years to respond to complaint?”

Bishop Harris said there are steps and processes involved in seeking such redress, and it is now before the Executive Council of the LCL which is looking into it. “I am now back at the office…I will deal with it appropriately….The Executive Council, the highest decision making body, will address it. The Constitution says what the Executive Council should do and it will be done.”

Bishop Harris could not confirm nor deny his support for any candidate in the LCL  Bishopric race when quizzed on the issue, but sounded angrier, saying, “That’s what I hate; that what I don’t like,” four times, and called our reporter for additional information.  

The Bishop, through his Secretary Marialine Kula, presented a two-page document with page numbers 8 and 9 (the first page highlighted in green) in which he claimed that gossipers were tarnishing his reputation.

The document indicated gossips and rumor mongers have used their energies in bringing him down and that he as Bishop does not own a vehicle since 2011, despite the decision by the Executive Council to have him one.

“There is still gossip on Bishop Harris. The gossips tried to prevent the Special LCL Convention in April 2010 on the ground that it was a staged managed event by Bishop Harris to change the LCL Constitution in order to remain in office for life,” the document noted.

Bishop Harris said he steps down at the end of the biannual convention this year and called on the gossips to stop gossiping about him, adding, “Only pastors with Master’s Degrees can become Bishop of LCL through open, free, fair and transparent election by certified delegates at LCL biannual convention.”

He asserted that “Only pastors of LCL know each other well and the one who can become bishop of LEC….Bishop Harris will not tell you to choose Pastor A or Pastor B. He will cast one vote. The rule is one delegate one vote.”

Confident Contender-Also speaking to this paper via phone, Rev. Dr. Senyenkolu, the man at the center of the controversy, said he was qualified and confident for the race. “Yes, I am qualified; the Election Commission has qualified me and I am prepared for the race.”

He said he is confident he will be elected, saying “I am very confident because if I am not confident I will be defeating myself.”