Kong Hee and City Harvest Church: How a music 'ministry' led to a megachurch pastor's downfall

City Harvest Church pastor Kong Hee and his wife Sun Ho outside the court.Reuters

How are the mighty fallen!

We don't usually think of pastors as mighty, though we know they fall. But the height from which Kong Hee fell is very considerable, and his conviction with five other staff members of Singapore's City Harvest Church for embezzlement has stunned his 20,000-strong congregation.

The case follows the guilty verdict in the case of South Korean pastor David Yonggi Cho, founder of the world's largest church, who was found guilty of tax evasion and embezzlement last year and jailed. The Kong Hee case appears to epitomise most of what can go wrong with megachurch ministries.

Kong, his deputy pastor Tan Ye Peng, finance manager Sharon Tan and former finance manager Serina Wee, were accused with former board members John Lam and Chew Eng Han of misusing $17 million from the church's building fund to further the music career of Kong's wife Ho Yeow Sun, known as Sun Ho. A further $18.5 million was used to cover up the scheme through a complicated system of bond issues and 'round-tripping' transactions in which the church used its own money to pay debt owed to it.

Kong had steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout the trial, which lasted for 140 days and has been brewing since the six were indicted in 2012. He has won the support of many Christian leaders who believe that the case was founded on a misunderstanding. The funds were used to support Sun Ho's career through CHC's 'Crossover Project', aimed at promoting a Christian voice in the secular music industry – a mission tactic familiar in the West but far less so in the East.

However, the judge appears to have taken this into account and focused on the paper trail the defendants left behind them. Judge See said: "The weight of the evidence suggests they knew that they were acting dishonestly. They chose to participate in a conspiracy to misuse CHC funds."

He accepted that some of the accused were acting on the instructions of their spiritual leaders and intended no "permanent loss" to the church, but said that the "purity of their motives" did not exonerate them.

He referred to a "mindset of presumptuousness, demonstrating that the accused were overconfident that the funds could be replaced before suspicions were aroused". There was a "pervasive mindset of short term expediency" in their actions, even as they chose to "defraud auditors with falsified accounts".

The defendants may face up to 20 years in prison.

Sun Ho – recently ordained as a pastor and CHC's executive director – posted a statement saying: "This protracted season has been extremely difficult, not just for the six, but also for all their families and friends, as well as for our congregation." Aside from that, it urges loyalty to the church under its new management, saying: "Therefore, let's stay the course with CHC 2.0. God is making us stronger, purer and more mature as a congregation."

Reaction to the verdict and the statement has been mixed. One of Kong's supporters, Phil Pringle of the global C3 Church movement, said he was praying for "Kong, Sun and the team". He had earlier released a lengthier statement and a video describing Kong as "an honest, true and faithful minister of Christ" and "one of the most devoted, dedicated, rugged soldiers of Christ I know". He said that the case was an example of the devil attacking the Church and compared it to the crucifixion of Christ.

Many responses to Sun Ho's Facebook statement were favourable. Jeanette Chan comented: "Be strong.... we are praying for CHC ." Alona Rivera Anuran commented: "GOD BLESS YOU ALL... PASTOR Kong Hee and Sun, and all the leaders... be strong always... "

Others called for her and Kong to step down from their positions, expressing disillusionment with the behaviour of the accused. Jessie Padmanthan posted: "Sun Ho should not hv got the church involved for her music career. She should do it independently on her own resources. This is abuse of church money."

City Harvest Church itself expects to weather the storm, with many expressing loyalty to it in spite of the verdict. However, others expressed incredulity that could command a following.

The case has done serious damage not only to City Harvest Church but more widely to the image of the Protestant megachurches often held up as an example of gospel success. But the themes that emerge from it are not uncommon and have parallels in other ministry collapses. 

1. Arrogance: Kong Hee and his supporters believed that normal rules of financial rectitude did not apply to them. They have not profited from their schemes and do not appear to have intended to do so. However, they seem have thought that their behaviour was not wrong because it was for reasons they believed were right.

2. Denial: Their supporters continue to regard them as unjustly convicted, the victims of a Satanic system opposed to Christ and his Church. Personal magnetism and a record of evangelistic success carry a great deal of weight.

3. Institutional wagon-circling: The statement by Sun Ho (who was not charged) encourages CHC members to continue to support it and says that she and Kong are "humbled by the tremendous outpouring of love and support shown to us during this time". This use of spiritual language might be seen as a refusal to engage with the issue of guilt.

4. Power: CHC's auditorium services focus all the attention of thousands of people on one man. To avoid being corrupted by this adulation requires great reserves of spiritual maturity and humility. The death of Herod in Acts 12:23 is ascribed to his arrogance: "They shouted, 'This is the voice of a god, not of a man.' Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down."

5. Money: The sums involved in the case are vast, but they derive ultimately from the small donations of hundreds of thousands of supporters, many of whom have given sacrificially for the cause. The leaders of the City Harvest Church were able to move in a world that seems to have little connection with the lives of their followers, and this became normal to them.

6. Unaccountability: There was no one strong enough to tell them to stop.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.