Methodist Church of Kenya: Inside the fight for Sh500bn congregation

Joseph Ntombura

Methodist Church in Kenya Presiding Bishop Joseph Ntombura on December 9, 2022.

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

For the last 10 years, the Methodist Church in Kenya has been an arena of intense power play, unending court battles and a game of wits.

Tellingly, disclosures by lawyers have it that the church owns properties valued over Sh500 billion across the country.

It all started with the controversial election of Reverend Joseph Ntombura as the presiding bishop in August 2012.

With backing from the then presiding bishop Rev Stephen Kanyaru, Ntombura trounced the only competitor Rev Isaya Deye who also served as the conference secretary. 

At the time, Rev Deye was seen as the most likely successor of Rev Kanyaru based on an unwritten rule that a conference secretary should rise to the church’s top post.

According to Rev Kanyaru, Ntombura had relocated to Kenya from the UK in 2009 and was appointed the Methodist Missions Coordinator in June 2010.

Barely two months into his new assignment, Rev Ntombura was elected Miathene Synod Bishop during the annual conference in August 2010. He took office in January 2011 as per the church procedure.

In August 2012 after serving as Synod Bishop for only one and half years, Rev Ntombura was elected the presiding bishop following intense lobbying and canvassing by Rev Kanyaru.

Mr Geoffrey Kinoti, a renowned Meru businessman who was excommunicated for fighting the church leadership, says Rev Ntombura received backing despite being a newcomer due to perceived rich networks from his long stay in the UK. 

“He received a lot of support because of his passion for mission work and the fact that he had lived in the UK. There was expectation that he would use his networks to take the church forward,” said Mr Kinoti.

The election of the presiding bishop is done by delegates from each synod and a presiding bishop is entitled to two terms of five years each.

According to church insiders, events that transpired in 2012 and 2013 immediately after Rev Ntombura took office set into motion what has snowballed into protracted battle for the soul of the church. 

Interviews with insiders including Bishop Ntombura point to a bitter fight that kicked off even before the induction ceremony in 2013.

Friends turned into foes leading to silent boardroom fights that have escalated into court battles, excommunication, defrocking and an attempted ouster of Ntombura in 2021. 

Seen as an outsider by the establishment since he had worked in the church for only two years, Rev Ntombura was expected to work closely with his predecessor Rev Stephen Kanyaru. After election, the presiding bishop designate is inducted first then installed four months later.

But Ntombura did not wait for this since Rev Kanyaru would accuse his successor of reversing decisions even before induction against church tradition.

“Rev Ntombura’s first assignment even before his induction was to cancel clergy stationing that I had effected as directed by the conference,” the former Methodist church head says.

In a 2018 interview with Meru FM, Bishop Kanyaru admitted that the regulations on election of a presiding bishop were ignored in 2013 when Bishop Ntombura took over.

“When we appointed Rev Ntombura as the mission coordinator, his file was empty. He said his academic certificates were on the way to Kenya from the UK,” Rev Kanyaru said.

“Despite the requirement that a Bishop should possess a master’s degree and a degree in Theology, he was elected a Synod bishop without these documents and he kept saying the certificates were yet to arrive. By the time I left in 2013, I had not seen his academic papers.” 

He added that Rev Ntombura removed him from the church standing committee and board of trustees against church regulations due to the fallout.

But Rev Ntombura has since dismissed the claims saying he is a holder of a master’s degree.

Records from the Kenya Methodist University indicate that Rev Ntombura holds degrees in Theology and Business Economics as well as a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge.

“When a group of former church leaders took me to court over the matter of my master’s degree, l deposited the certificate in court, and that is how they lost the case,” Rev Ntombura said earlier.

Later, Rev Ntombura, in an interview with the Nation, alleged that his predecessor in 2013 backed efforts to block his induction through a court suit, saying trouble started immediately when his predecessor realised he was not a “yes” man.

“Even on my ordination day, there was a lot of sabotage and my seat was missing at the venue. After my ordination, I faced a hostile reception by Bishop Kanyaru’s people,” Bishop Ntombura told Nation.

While the rival group accuses Rev Ntombura of going rogue, the presiding bishop maintains it is 'corruption fighting back'.

Rev Ntombura pointed to a church gripped by intense power play with those fired for various wrongs coming out guns blazing against him. 

“In the process of cleaning up Church affiliated institutions and restoring the dignity of the Church, I have encountered a battalion of enemies. Corruption is fighting back,” Bishop Ntombura said.

In the ensuing battle of wits, Rev Kanyaru, the immediate former presiding bishop has not only lost positions in the church but has been defrocked like other lower cadre clergy opposed to the church head.

A church insider who sought anonymity said that 'the point of departure between Rev Kanyaru and Rev Ntombura was the latter's failure to toe the line'.

According to a former Methodist clergy, among the causes of the Methodist church troubles are the 2013 election of the presiding bishop without proper scrutiny, amendment of standing orders, unprocedural defrocking of clergy, lack of accountability, stifling democracy and extension of the term of the current church head.

The rivals also cite running down of the church and its affiliates including Kenya Methodist University, Maua Methodist hospital, Marimanti Resource Centre, Methodist Guest House as well as missions in Congo, Uganda and South Sudan.

The presiding bishop serves as the Chancellor of the university and chairman of other affiliate institutions.

However, Rev Ntombura points to an attack from rogue clergy and congregation out to stop him from rescuing the church from collapse.

“When I came into office, I found a church that was relying on loans to run its offices. Statutory deductions were in arrears. The official residence of the presiding bishop had no furniture. There was no money left for mission work,” he claimed.

But Rev Kanyaru counters that he left a stable church with thriving mission work in East and Central Africa as well as rental income running into more than Sh10 million per month.

He says the church had overpaid taxes by Sh20 million and a loan of Sh200 million was being serviced while Sh58 million had been set aside for a hotel project.

By 2015, with the differences irreconcilable, battle lines and daggers were drawn with the boardroom fights spilling into the courts.

Church members including Godfrey Simiyu, Matthew Kabiru, Kobia Michubu and Charles Kinoti moved to court seeking to have Rev Ntombura barred from holding office.

They said the election of Rev Ntombura in 2013 did not adhere to Methodist Church standing order number 53 of 2011.

They also argued that the presiding bishop had “brought infighting, ran the church with impunity, mismanaged church institutions and failed to disclose his academic qualifications” among other allegations.

Rev Ntombura termed the allegations spurious, fictitious and misleading adding that the four had no authority to institute the suit.

In 2016, Rev Ntombura was barred from holding office but the decision was later reversed by the court after he was re-elected for a second term in 2017.

However, Ntombura’s re-election did not take place without a fight as three church members –  Baabu Mukindia, Mungathia M’Arianga and Johnson Chokera – moved to court seeking to block the 2017 annual conference.

They argued that Rev Ntombura had been barred from holding office in 2016 and therefore could not convene an annual delegates conference. They lost the suit.

As the court battles intensified, the Methodist Church standing orders which is the church constitution, was amended to among others promote internal dispute resolution mechanisms.

But several clergy and congregation opposed the amendments saying they are meant to stifle democracy and were against the church tradition.

As a result, another group of church members moved to court to challenge the amendment to Standing orders of 2011.

The petition by Mugambi Bakari, Hellen Kamenchu and Timothy Kinyua against the Standing Orders of 2015 is yet to be determined.

“The amendment of the standing orders in 2015 did not follow the due process. Any change in the constitution of the church must be endorsed by a majority of the members. This was not done,” Rev Kanyaru explained.

Bishop Ntombura said the amendments were meant to spur the growth of the church.

But even as the power struggle raged in the church, trouble was brewing at the Kenya Methodist University (KeMU), an affiliate where the presiding bishop serves as chancellor.

Rev Ntombura earlier told Nation that he found a university in a financial crisis with “cooked books”.

“We wondered why the university was borrowing yet its books indicated a surplus of Sh156 million. The VC and the finance department could not explain, leading to a forensic audit that unearthed shocking details of cooked financial records,” he explained in an earlier interview.

“The audit revealed unpaid statutory dues, loans and credit amounting to Sh2.8 billion. We had to move with speed to restructure the loans and fix the management to save the university from the auctioneers’ hammer.”

But his predecessor Rev Kanyaru maintains he handed over a financially stable University bursting with students across its eight campuses.

“When I left, there were more than 10,000 students at KeMU. Rev Ntombura fired staff and closed the campuses. He changed vice chancellors severally. He fired workers at Marimanti Resource Centre and others at Methodist guest house. The institutions have been run down,” Rev Kanyaru countered.

The shakeup in KeMU did not spare Rev Kanyaru, who had taken up the position of resource mobilization.

Meanwhile, with little success in the courts, in late 2018 a group led by Reverends Dr John Kobia, Dr Isaac Kaberia, Misheck Kanake, Jeremiah Anondo and Jacob Gituma kicked off public rallies in Meru sensitizing Church members about the 'ills' of the presiding bishop.

At the coast, the clamor for autonomy from the head office reached its climax in 2019 leading to establishment of the Coast Region Conference by the late Rev Wellington Sanga.

They have been demanding the devolution of church resources to regions consisting of synods instead of the conference based in Nairobi.

In 2020, Rev Kanake with backing from Rev Kanyaru and other church leaders, declared establishment of Mt Kenya region conference, disassociating from the leadership of Rev Ntombura.

“We have been trying to ask questions in the church without answers. For example, the defrocking of clergy did not follow the process. We have tried to seek an audience with the presiding bishop to no avail and this is why we decided to go public. We will occupy the headquarters again and establish the right leadership,” Rev Kanake said.

Several churches have since delinked their operations from the Methodist Church saying they were not answerable to Rev Ntombura.

On the other hand, bishops allied to Ntombura, declared Rev Kanyaru’s group as ‘impostors who have since been kicked out of the church’.

As the splinter group fought for the removal of Rev Ntombura, in 2022, he earned the extension of his 10-year term, which was ending on August 4.

This kicked up a fresh storm with the move attracting the wrath of more former presiding bishops including his ally Lawi Imathiu as well as Rev Zablon Nthamburi.

But acording to Rev Kanake, the conference that endorsed Ntomura’s third term was not properly constituted and the clergy have since led several meetings calling on Rev Ntombura to leave office.

Last week, the three published a caveat emptor (buyer beware) in the Daily Nation, warning Kenyans against any dealings with Rev Ntombura.

In the notice, the retired bishops state that Rev Ntombura “continues to hold office on account of the purported resolutions of a disputed Conference meeting of August 3, 2022…”

“…by this notice, let it be known by all and sundry that therefore, any actions, undertakings, covenants and or liabilities entered by the said Rev Joseph Ntombura Mwaine by himself, his agents or on his authority under his instructions purportedly on behalf of the Methodist Church in Kenya are wholly unauthorized and unlawful.”

They added that any persons or parties dealing with Bishop Ntombura do so at their own risk.

Rev Kanyaru, who spoke to Nation said they published the caveat after discovering that there was a plan to sell seven acres of prime church land at Gitanga in Nairobi valued at about Sh20 billion.

Last year, Lawyer Danstan Omari, who was representing Reverend Ntombura in a suit against Bishop Misheck Kanake and 15 others, told the court that powerful individuals were colluding with three former bishops and 13 former members seeking to have the church’s properties, worth over Sh500 billion, sold.

Rev Ntombura recently dismissed those calling for his removal as outsiders saying the church was thriving under his leadership.