The Church and Leadership in Liberia

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Reverend Dr. Samuel Reeves, Pastor of Providence Baptist, Liberia’s oldest church, has said failure of leadership in Liberian churches has led to failure in national leadership.

In an interview with the Daily Observer following his recent selection by the Empowerment Temple of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church as “Best Church Administrator of the Year,” Rev. Reeves said many pastors and other church leaders do not see themselves as leaders, nor do they know how to lead by example.

Because of this failure, the church has not in recent times shown the nation how to lead the Liberian people.

We find Rev. Reeves quite perceptive in his analysis. For indeed, many pastors and bishops in Liberia have either failed to heal the divisions they met, or those they created in their churches.

Take the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention itself. Several years ago there emerged an open rift within the convention following the election of a new convention president, Rev. Dr. Olu Menjay, who succeeded Dr. Walter Richards. Dr. Richards’ own administration was plagued with division following the well-publicized dispute between his leadership and Rev. Dr. Lincoln Brownell, President of the Baptist Theological Seminary. That rift is still being played out openly in court today.

At the Convention in Nimba where Rev. Menjay was elected, several challenged the election because they said he was not old enough for the position. But Rev. Menjay, who is also Principal of the church’s premier academic institution, Ricks Institute in Virginia, seems to have risen above the rift by what seems to be his enlightened leadership.

Because of the Convention’s rift with Dr. Brownell, the Seminary lost the administration of its prime property in Congo Town across from Charles Taylor’s house. That was seen by many as a monumental step backward.

The United Methodist Church, too, has in recent years been plagued with conflicts, beginning with Bishop Arthur Kula, who insisted on being reelected, which some key members felt was in violation of the church’s constitution. There then emerged the Concerned Methodists, who felt marginalized by Kula’s successor, Rt. Rev. John Innis, who many felt favored the ethnic Bassa group over many others, who were predominantly Kpelle.

In the Episcopal Diocese, one of its most prominent churches, St. Stephen, called by many the “mini cathedral,” suffered an open split three years ago when some choir members came into conflict with the Rector, Fr. A. Too Williams. This led to the creation of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Liberia, which is affiliated with a Nigerian Anglican church. This rift has yet to be healed. But being Christians, many St. Stephen members believe that there is still room for reconciliation. But who will take that initiative?

The last Diocesan Convention adopted a resolution mandating the Episcopal Diocesan bishop, Most Rev. Jonathan B.B. Hart, to resolve the matter. The bishop has a pool of talent from St. Stephen to draw upon for starts. One is Dr. Amos Sawyer, Governance Commission Chairman, who has considerable experience in conflict resolution.

The church in Liberia has perennially been plagued with division and disagreements, owing primarily to the rise, in the 1960s, of the Evangelicals or the charismatic movement. That has given rise to widespread proselytizing, with new churches raiding other churches for membership. The Bethel Cathedral is a typical example; so is Philadelphia Church. Yet another is the Winner’s Chapel. These charismatic churches can hardly boast of converting the heathens – unconverted people who do not recognize the God of the Bible. Such people in Liberia and other parts of Africa and the world are steeped in traditional societies that dominate the national landscape. Its adherents practice witchcraft.

The question here is, when will Liberian churches engage these people—the people who really need to be evangelized? Most of these new churches, the Jehovah Witnesses included, go about on foot proselytizing, which means, attracting souls that are already Christians. Yet the masses, especially in the interior, remain largely untouched. That is why there is so much ritualistic killing in Liberia, especially as the election season approaches. The witchdoctors convince politicians that human sacrifice can get them elected, or even make them rich.

Most of the politicians who are so far running for president of Liberia are professed Christians, from a myriad of denominations.

We believe that one of the most serious impediments to effective church leadership in Liberia is the absence of the prophetic ministry. Too many churches are more eager to please the powers that be, so that evangelists, pastors and even bishops ignore the widespread corruption, mismanagement and wickedness that pervade the landscape. Yet they frequently preach from texts of the church’s great prophets, including Isaiah and Jeremiah, who took great risks to proclaim “Thus says the Lord.” They spoke and wrote fearlessly against the transgressions of Israel’s leaders. Jesus, too, spoke fiercely against the powerful Scribes and Pharisees, calling them “hypocrites.”

Indeed, it was the failure of the church’s prophetic ministry that partly led to the 1980 coup d’etat. There had been, since the beginning of the republic, a perennial alliance between the political establishment, the church and the Masonic Craft. The church ignored the glaring division in the Liberian society—most especially between the indigenous majority, who were denied the vote and other constitutional rights, and the settler establishment, in whose hands power and wealth were concentrated. It was an oligarchy—government by the few.

Today, Liberians are crying for the prophetic ministry—evangelists, pastors, bishops, who will speak out against the glaring evils that pervade the land and bring to book the leaders that seem to be getting away with nonchalant impunity.

When churches start speaking out in defense of the poor and oppressed and the blatant injustices perpetrated by government, people will sense effective and forthright leadership and become more appreciative of the church’s role in society.

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