“Lighthouse pastors were not employees” – SSNIT rules
Rev. Seth Duncan resigned his job as a seaman with Ghana’s navy in 2005, trained as a pastor at Anagkazo Bible College, which is owned by his church, Lighthouse Chapel International.
After three years of training, the church sent him into full-time ministry in 2008. He was first posted to Paga in the Upper East Region and later to Tamale and Kasoa in the Northern and Central regions respectively. But he resigned after planting and administering churches for 10 years.
Within the period, the church did not pay his pension contribution for the 120 months of work. When he petitioned Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) to seek redress, SSNIT said in a letter dated August 20, 2021, that LCI had done no wrong in not paying his social security contributions.
“According to the records currently available to us, we could not establish an employer/employee relationship between LCI Ghana and your good self for the period December 2008 and October 2018 as claimed in your petition,” SSNIT’s Compliance Manager, Felix Cudjoe Ahiable, stated in the letter.
Rev. Duncan, who was ordained by Lighthouse Chapel as a “reverend minister” after working for some time said he wonders what he was doing because his service as a pastor cannot be denied because he was not offered an employment letter.
Ordination certificate confirming the employer/employee relationship the church had with Rev. Seth Duncan
This conclusion is similar to those of five other former LCI ministers which SSNIT has reached after more than six months of “independent investigations” into their claims. They are Bishop Larry Odonkor, Bishop Emmanuel Oko Mensah, Rev. Edward Laryea, Rev. Edem Amankwa, and Pastor Faith Makafui Fiakojo.
A summary of the working life of six former employees of LCI who have since sued the church
But the pastors say they provided enough evidence to SSNIT to prove there were employer/employee relationships between them and the church for the periods stated.
They had petitioned SSNIT in February 2021, to compel the church to comply with “basic labour laws.” After a cumulative 70years of work in the church, LCI had not paid their social security contributions for a total of 42 years and five months.
SSNIT said it had met representatives of the church who explained to them the church’s administrative structures and HR policies regarding “appointments, trainings, career progression, transfers, dismissals, payment of salaries and other emoluments of staff.”
The state’s pension-collecting company said it had found out that there is no evidence that the six former bishops and pastors were employees of the church at the times when they claimed the church had defaulted in the mandatory payment towards their retirement.
SSNIT maintained that because of this, it cannot compel Lighthouse Chapel International to pay its outstanding pension contribution.
SSNIT had, in the course of the investigation, asked the pastors to provide documents such as employment letters, pay slips, bank statements showing money the pastors transferred from their branches to the headquarters of Lighthouse Church International, or evidence of money transferred to the pastors from the headquarters.
The pastors had earlier told The Fourth Estate that their engagement with the church was on the basis of trust. Some of them started following the founder, Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, from their university campuses and considered him as a father.
When they were engaged, there were no employment contracts and some of the decisions concerning their employment were done through word of mouth. They also said there were instances they were made to sign documents but they were not given copies.
As to whether they worked in the church or not, according to the pastors are public records because they worked openly and opened branches for the church.
SSNIT also ruled that those who were employed by Lighthouse Chapel International and transferred to the church’s branches outside of Ghana were not entitled to paid SSNIT contribution by the headquarters of Lighthouse Church International.
The pastors say this was not an agreement that was communicated to them before they left Ghana. Besides, some of the churches they opened as missionaries and pastored outside were struggling and were not in the position to have shouldered these responsibilities.
Bishop Larry Odonkor worked for 19 years, according to the church’s own records. But it paid SSNIT for only five years from 2005 to 2010. Here is his employment history with Lighthouse Chapel International and its branches where he worked, according to the Lighthouse Church International’s own records in a letter the church wrote to Larry Odonkor when he first petitioned the church about his SSNIT payment:
December 2001 to July 2002: Ethiopia
September 2002 to November: Central Africa Republic.
January 2003 to January 2004: Suhum.
January to October 2004: South Africa.
January 2005 to June 2010: Ghana
June 2010 to May 2018: South Africa
June 2018 to January 2020: Madagascar
January 2020 to April 2020: Ghana.
But in response to his petition, SSNIT affirmed the church’s position that Larry Odonkor was not an employee of LCI Ghana for nearly 14 out of 19 years of service.
The tier-one-pension collector said, “According to the records currently available to us, it is important to state that LCI Ghana paid all social security contributions due you for the period June 2005 to June 2010, and January 2020 to April 2020 when you were in the employment of LCI Ghana.”
SSNIT continued, “From our independent investigations, we could not establish an employer/employee relationship between LCI Ghana and your good self for the periods November 2001 to May 2005 (in Ghana) and September 2010 to December 2019 (in South Africa and Madagascar).”
Larry Odonkor has stated that throughout his 19 years at the church, there was nothing like LCI Ghana. He said there was only one Lighthouse Church International, which had branches outside the country and headquartered in Ghana.
He said when he was being transferred to South Africa, it was treated as an “intra-company” transfer and the visa was applied for him by Lighthouse Church International to that effect.
A visa for Larry Odonkor indicating that LCI had transferred him to South Africa to work within the same organisation.
He said the name “LCI Ghana” only started coming up when they asked that their SSNIT contributions be paid.
Here are the rest of the pastors, their petitions, and the responses from SSNIT:
Bishop Emmanuel Oko Mensah: Lighthouse Chapel International paid his SSNIT contributions from August 2003 to November 2018, but the church did not pay from December 2018 to April 2019 – five months.
SSNIT’s response: “In our opinion, LCI Ghana is not liable for your social security contributions for the period December 2018 and April 2019 since you were in the employment of LCI Burkina Faso. We also do not have the powers to enforce compliance in a foreign jurisdiction like Burkina Faso…”
Rev. Edward Laryea: Worked from 2005 to March 2017. But his social security contributions were not paid between 2005 to 2008.
SSNIT’s response: “We could not establish an employer/employee relationship between LCI Ghana and your good self for the period July 2005 to July 2008 as you claimed in your petition.”
During this period, Rev. Edward Laryea was stationed at Kade in the Eastern region where, together with his wife, he planted churches in several communities.
A letter from LCI to Rev. Edward Laryea dated June 5, 2008, confirmed that the church knew it had employed Rev. Edward Laryea, who started the Kade Mission as far back as 2005.
Rev. Edward Laryea started the Kade Mission or branch of LCI from the scratch. In June 2008, this email from the LCI about the new policy confirmed how long the mission had existed there. SSNIT, however, says there was no employer/employee relationship between him and LCI from 2005 to July 2008 despite seeing this evidence. He said following this directive, his salary was paid at the Kade branch and that’s when he insisted that his SSNIT contribution be paid. His SSNIT payment took effect from August 2008.
According to the former minister, this letter was part of documents he supplied to SSNIT during the course of its investigations, and yet the pensions collecting organisation still reached a conclusion that Rev. Edward Laryea was not an employee of LCI within the period in which he claimed his social security contributions were not paid.
Rev. Edward Laryea welcoming Bishop Dag Heward Mills who had come for a Healing Jesus Crusade in April 2007 when Mr. Laryea was in charge of the Kade mission of the church
Pastor Faith Makafui Fiakojo Graduated from Anagkazo Bible College and was posted to Fumbisi in the Upper East Region, where he worked from November 2013 to December 2019. The church did not pay his SSNIT contribution at all.
SSNIT’s response: There’s no evidence that he was employed to do this work.
Edem Amankwah: Worked for 11 years, in Nigeria and toiled in Liberia during the Ebola crisis.
SSNIT’s response: Again, there is “no evidence” that he was employed for the entire period that he worked from November 2007 to November 2018.
In all six cases, SSNIT said the petitioners “could also not provide evidence of being in the employment of LCI Ghana for the period and by extension, any salaries earned on which social security contributions were paid.”
The Lighthouse Chapel International has said the ministers of the gospel were either volunteers (for the periods they worked in Ghana without their SSNIT being paid) or were working for a foreign branch of the church, which is “financially, governmentally, administratively” different from the mother church, LCI Ghana.
The six former pastors and bishops of the church, in summary, have explained that they do not have letters of employment because the basis for their recruitment was like a “father-son” relationship. They also explained that in the church, there were many times during which official correspondence to them was given to them to only read and sign, acknowledging that they had read it. But they are never given a copy of the letters that were addressed to them.
“My appointment letter was given to me, I signed it and they were taken away,” Oko Mensah gave an example of this ‘only see-and-sign’ tactics of the church.
We lost confidence in SSNIT along the way – Counsel for petitioners
L-R: Larry Odonkor, Emmanuel Oko Mensah, Edem Kofi Amankwa, Seth Sarpong Duncan, Edward Laryea, and Faith Fiakojo. They have resigned from Lighthouse and have sued the church for violating their rights
Kofi Bentil, who is the lawyer for the six former employees of the church, told The Fourth Estate that they had “lost confidence” in SSNIT after they noticed a change in its posturing towards his clients.
He explained that on June 2, 2021, SSNIT called for a meeting after receiving documents backing their petitions. The Head of Prosecution at SSNIT, Emmanuel Baidoo, was present.
During that meeting, the six former employees said they took SSNIT through their documents that prove they were employees and were therefore entitled to the payment of all outstanding pension contributions. But they also explained that they did not have some of the documents such as payslips.
“Nobody has payslips in Lighthouse,” Bishop Larry Odonkor explained. His compatriot Rev. Edward Laryea confirmed this.
He said SSNIT also told them that they had asked LCI for payslips but the church had responded that they don’t give payslips.
Rev. Edward Laryea, for example, had presented bank statements showing payment of his salaries as well as his letter of resignation in 2017. Bishop Larry Odonkor had presented emails from LCI headquarters in Ghana telling him what to do in South Africa and also scheduling his leave.
Bishop Larry Odonkor said the kind of questions SSNIT was asking during the meetings, “we realized that they were not doing something right. They were just going back and forth.”
He said his worry about the posture of SSNIT was confirmed when two days after this meeting, SSNIT wrote a letter dated June 4, 2021, asking for the following documents which they had already provided and documents that they had already explained they could not provide. SSNIT asked for:
Payslips/bank statements confirming salaries paid them by LCI
Evidence of transfer of funds from LCI to you for church activities and from you to LCI as proceeds from a branch of the church
Evidence of correspondence between LCI and you in respect of church activities
Appointment letter/letter of engagement as an employee of LCI and
Letter of disengagement if any
In the letter dated June 1, 2021 ( a date before their meeting with SSNIT to address the same issues) and sighted by The Fourth Estate, SSNIT left the former ministers with 24 hours to supply the information.
“We were taken aback,” Rev. Edward Laryea recalled his reaction after receiving the letter, “because we had served them with some of those documents already.”
“The others [documents] that they had not given to SSNIT, they had told them that Lighthouse has a culture of you sign the thing and then they take it back,” Kofi Bentil said.
Nonetheless, the petitioners presented some of these documents again.
Bishop Larry Odonkor said he gave SSNIT two out of the five documents requested, including some of the more than 120 emails of correspondence between him and the church from 2010 to 2020 while he was working in Madagascar and South Africa.
“How do I get a bank statement from South Africa?” he said, explaining he had closed his account after he left the country.
Rev. Edward Laryea said he gave three out of the five documents. He could not provide an appointment letter or payslips. But he provided an “overwhelming” number of emails from LCI directing them to come for full-timers camps when to go on leave among several others which he said established an employer/employee relationship.
“I even presented my resignation letter and the acceptance letter from the HR at that time, Bishop Sackey. They have all,” he said.
Rev. Edward Laryea said SSNIT nonetheless took a decision against their petition because “they just decided not to embarrass Lighthouse Chapel International.”
Edward Laryea said he is convinced that “SSNIT used what LCI is telling them and they are not using the laws of Ghana.”
“What is the law of Ghana saying?” he expressed disappointment.
Has SSNIT been inconsistent?
Mr. Emmanuel Baidoo is the head of prosecutions at SSNIT
When the former pastors petitioned SSNIT on February 1, 2021, SSNIT wrote in a letter addressed to Lighthouse Chapel International dated May 5, 2021, in which SSNIT laid down the law.
In a three-page letter, SSNIT said, “The LCI is an organization registered under Act 766 hence had a responsibility and obligation under the law to ensure that all workers were registered and contributions paid on their behalf at all times, whether they were in Ghana or outside the country.”
SSNIT, for the avoidance of doubt on whether the former pastors could be categorized as workers, quoted the law’s definition of a worker. SSNIT in that letter said,
“A ‘worker’ includes a person who is employed for salary in any kind of work, manual or otherwise, in or in connection with the work of an establishment, and who gets his salary, directly or indirectly from the employer, and any person employed ….. (ii) outside Ghana but employed by an employer in Ghana.”
SSNIT, in that letter which The Fourth Estate sighted, said it had done preliminary investigations and found that the petitioners were workers. SSNIT gave at least three reasons:
“The central church decided when and where a pastor should be moved at any point and took all decisions as an employer in the regulations of the activities of the pastors.”
“It was also the case that the affected pastors worked and reported at all material times to the headquarters of the church in Accra. The various branches of LCI were not independent of the mother church in Accra and that regular policy directives were issued to these pastors on the running of their branches”
“The leave days of the pastors were also scheduled by the Human Resource office of the LCI.”
SSNIT said that in the light of the above, “an employer and employee relationship had been established between the pastors and LCI, taking into consideration all the factors and circumstances relating to their engagement and the conduct of that relationship.”
In its final decision, however, the SSNIT concluded that it found no evidence of this relationship between LCI and the pastors during certain periods of their working lives, especially when they worked outside the church’s branches outside Ghana.
It concluded, for instance, that Larry Odonkor could not be paid his SSNIT because he was employed by the church in South Africa and not LCI Ghana. But Larry Odonkor said he never resigned from LCI in Ghana to go take up employment in LCI in South Africa or LCI on Madagascar nor did he resign from these foreign branches of the church to take up new employment with LCI in Ghana when he returned in 2018.
Kofi Bentil said he was not surprised by the decision of SSNIT because he had noticed some “strange” posture during the June 2 meeting with SSNIT.
He said all that SSNIT needed to confirm were two things. “That they were employees of Lighthouse Chapel International and that their SSNIT payments were not up to date.”
Bentil accused SSNIT of partiality and said he wrote to the pension body questioning the spirit of their request for more information when the pastors had already provided some and explained the non-availability of others.
In his last correspondence to SSNIT dated June 7, 2021, Kofi Bentil cautioned that SSNIT would be “watched carefully for the outcomes which clearly will be a precedent for others. We will all be carefully watched and our actions scrutinised both by the persons immediately concerned and the larger public as a whole.”