Livets Ord Swedish Centre: Conflict in Donetsk and Issues in Relations with National Churches

5 March 2013, 16:43 | Analysis | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Jan SKVORTSOV

livets_ord.jpgBoth in the social networks where numerous rumours and speculations have spread quite quickly and in personal conversations the Swedish side representatives and supporters are attempting to reduce the situation involving pastor L. Padun and Word of Life Donetsk church to the 'financial and ethical' level in order to produce stronger influence on the believers and churches. To a certain degree this is supported by the position of Livets Ord centre which leaves the situation in limbo. When asked about specific facts and essence of claims lodged against Pastor L. Padun, the Swedish centre representatives prefer to ignore the question. However, in the social networks they keep actively posting accusing quotes from sermons advocating the inadmissibility of lies, referring to 'certain sins' and 'certain ethical deviance' regarding relations with co-workers, et cetera.

As regards problems of Pastor Leonid Padun, Livets Ord and Word of Life International representatives referred to the 'health state', 'church team crisis' and 'expensive support'. Nonetheless, a broader look at the situation as well as analysis of the Swedish Centre international working methods make it clear there are other reasons not related to 'caring of the local church' for placing pastor L. Padun 'on a long-term leave' and taking over Donetsk church and projects management in Ukraine. The publicly voiced claims are just a façade concealing the real causes of the current situation.

Livets Ord and national church (centres)

Livets Ord Swedish Centre was founded in Uppsala in 1983 by Ulf Ekman. The legal organization form of the Centre is a fund. Until 2012, the Centre had been headed by

U. Ekman, but starting with the second half of 2012 due to certain circumstances the centre management was taken over by the fund management board comprising Jonathan Ekman (U. Ekman's son), Robert Eck, Carl-Gustaf Severin, Christian Akkerhelm, Magnus Vestergaard.

Livets Ord commenced religious activities in the now post-Soviet territory in the second half of the 1980s. The main base for the activity at the initial stage was formed by the Pentecostal communities, which in many cases suffered internal splits upon arrival of the Swedish Centre representatives.

Until circa early 2000s, Livets Ord Swedish Centre had been attempting to conduct activities in countries within the former Soviet Union territory by means of establishing relations with local churches on a partnership basis, organizing joint conferences, Bible studies, missionary projects, etc. Afterwards, the Swedish Centre gradually started introducing changes to relations with national churches showing a "policy of domination" bias along with 'religious colonialism' elements.

In terms of time this coincided with Ulf Ekman's vision of '15 Bible Centres' to be built 'after the fashion of the centre in Uppsala'. Initially, the idea was that the said Bible Centres would coexist subject to partnership and fraternal relations as well as further participate in realization of joint projects. However, step by step Livets Ord implemented 'policy of domination' in the relations with national churches (centres) implying not only patronage and cooperation in the spirit realm, but also influence on the organizational and administrative sphere as well as managerial decisions of the Bible Centres.

At the International Congress of Word of Life Churches held in March 2012 in Turkey establishment of Word of Life International organization was announced with the organization to be headed by Ulf Ekman and the Centre in Uppsala (Sweden). It is noteworthy that the Congress organizers did not provide sufficient information to the participants concerning the organization (such as legal organization form, cooperation principles, management structure, etc.), but regardless of this, all Congress participants were asked to fill out questionnaires on entering the organization.

Later in May 2012, the Word of Life International Charter was adopted in Uppsala stipulating the main principles such as strict centralization and subordination to Livets Ord Swedish Centre. Several pastors expressed disagreement with such principles. The cause of critical response was the fact that at the initial stage of this international organization establishment the principles implied partnership and cooperation, rather than centralized leadership and subordination.

Currently, the Word of Life International management board comprises the heads of the national Word of Life centres in other countries (except for the Swedish Livets Ord Centre head), namely: Russia (Moscow and Nizhnevartovsk), Armenia (Yerevan), Azerbaijan (Baku) and Uzbekistan (Tashkent). Obviously, these are not the 'fifteen Bible Centres' and their geography is different from the original U.Ekman's vision. As is well known, initially the idea had implied construction of centres in Sweden (Uppsala), Russia (Moscow), Ukraine (Donetsk), Armenia (Yerevan), Azerbaijan (Baku), Uzbekistan (Tashkent), Israel (Jerusalem), India (several cities) and others along with missionary work expansion.

In fact, for Livets Ord Swedish Centre the Word of Life International organization is nothing but a tool for achieving objectives and goals of its own. Representatives of the national centres (churches) comprising the Word of Life International Board of Management have no real authority, since in fact the organization management is performed by the Swedish Centre.

A striking illustration thereof is the situation involving Pastor L. Padun and the Word of Life church in Donetsk. The decision on his deprivation and removing the Donetsk church from 'list of Bible Centres' had in fact been taken by Ulf Ekman and the Livets Ord Swedish Centre management board, whereas the Word of Life International Board of Management 'consecrated' the decision only a few weeks later. Notably, this was performed in violation of the organization Charter, provisions of which deserve a separate analysis.

Word of Life Church in Donetsk and Livets Ord Swedish Centre

The Livets Ord representatives came to Donetsk for the first time in 1989 to visit the registered Philadelphia Pentecostal church. However, it is the Word of Life Donetsk church that would become the basic church for further cooperation during many years.

The Word of Life Christian Church in Donetsk was founded as the local community in 1990 by a group of young believers from an unregistered Pentecostal church. The new church with its pastor becoming L. Padun established contacts with the Swedish Centre a year later – in 1991. Further on, in 1993, the Word of Life Donetsk church together with other Ukrainian religious communities, independently of Livets Ord, became the founder of the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church association (UCEC). In 1997, Ulf Ekman and Leonid Padun established pastoral relationship at the initiative of the latter.

In 2002, during a private conversation the Livets Ord Centre representative (Carl-Gustaf Severin) suggested to pastor Leonid Padun that the Donetsk Church becomes one of the 'fifteen Bible Centres' according to U.Ekman's vision. The proposal was accepted by pastor L.Padun and announced respectively both to the Donetsk church and the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church association. However, as is well known, the Swedish Centre has not taken any action in terms of granting status of the 'centre' to the Word of Life church in Donetsk. Absence of any respective statement, contract or any other official form of proclaiming the 'Bible Centre' in Donetsk poses contradiction to the recent statements by Livets Ord and Word of Life International representatives as to depriving the church in Donetsk of the 'centre' status.

Further on, Livets Ord implemented the policy of expanding influence on the Word of Life church in Donetsk, gradually going beyond the pastoral care and spiritual cooperation, far more affecting the administrative and internal issues of the community. In the mid-2000s, in terms of 'granting support in construction of the Bible Centre' the Swedish Centre initiated Donetsk church pastoral council renewal by appointing ministers loyal to Livets Ord. At that, Livets Ord representatives (K.Akkerhelm, M.Vestergaard, K.-G.Severin and others) made ​​regular trips to Donetsk for many years and until recently.

In terms of 'granting support in construction of the Bible Centre' in Donetsk during the recent few years the Swedish side conducted training programmes for pastors, retreats with the ministers, training at the Word of Life Bible Institute in Donetsk (established by UCEC), business training courses, conferences for young people, conferences for the local church and UCEC association with participation of Swedish preachers and teachers.

Despite these efforts, cooperation with Livets Ord has failed to result in establishment of a strong and nationally independent 'Bible Centre', and instead caused stagnation of development by the Donetsk Word of Life community and union of the Churches in general. After years of expensive training according to the Swedish programmes Ukrainian ministers have not obtained Bachelor's degrees in theology (not to mention the Master's degrees and so on) required to form the teaching base of their own and to carry on development of a religious school in Ukraine. Dependence on the Swedish Centre has also restricted international contacts of Donetsk Word of Life Church, since all the contacts were to be mediated by Livets Ord. A similar situation was observed in the field of international missionary work.

Livets Ord and Leonid Padun conflict causes

As mentioned above, Livets Ord training programmes contributed to improving the knowledge level of Ukrainian pastors and ministers, still they but did not ensure training of professionals at the national level. In fact, Livets Ord Centre commercialized Bible studies in Ukraine as well as conduct of conferences attended by Swedish teachers and preachers, organization of pilgrimage tours, sale of the Centre's literature, audio and video products, etc.

The so-called 'support' rendered by the Swedish Centre through its representatives with the purpose of 'improving organization of work and cultural level of the Bible Centre in Donetsk' has not yielded the expected results, which in turn led to pastor L. Padun revising the issues of management and work organization of the local church and UCEC association. In particular, the issue of the church (pastoral) council renewal was raised concerning the ministers appointed according to Livets Ord recommendations. Along with that, a project implying training of Bachelors in Theology at UCEC was launched in 2011independently of the Swedish Centre.

These and other similar factors but not 'health state', 'church team crisis' and 'expensive support' are the causes of problems in the relationship between Livets Ord top management and pastor Leonid Padun. The Swedish Centre has during recent years been engaged in consistent work aimed at changing leadership in the Word of Life Donetsk church with a view to gain control of the local church and the projects in Ukraine.

The leadership change tactics applied in Donetsk had at the time been successfully 'tested' in churches of Estonia (Tartu), Latvia (Riga), Kazakhstan (Almaty), Germany (Russian-language churches), Norway, and Russia (including the common practice of 'dismissing' disagreeable ministers in the Word of Life Moscow Centre). The main components of such Livets Ord Swedish Centre tactics are the following: information gathering, selection of the 'influence agents', their infiltration to the pastoral councils and other local church administrative bodies, spreading of defamatory information concerning the disagreeable ministers, isolation, providing negative background information through rumours, threats of publicizing 'sins', etc.

As a result of such actions by Livets Ord, several Russian churches experienced drastic internal splits. However, one of the most striking consequences of the Swedish Centre actions involves the church in Tartu (Estonia). Once a strong local community there, it was broken apart turning into a small group and was deprived of the church building after the pastor had left the church at the strong 'recommendation' from the Livets Ord management.

So, what is the Word of Life International secret?

As indicated above, the Word of Life International organization was established in March 2012, headed by Ulf Ekman and the Centre in Uppsala (Sweden). As of present, there are no reliable data as to whether the organization has been registered, what kind of legal status it has, what is the number of its members, etc.

Analysis of the Word of Life International Charter approved in May 2012 clearly shows dominance of Livets Ord Swedish Centre in terms of adopting all decisions in this organization.

The Charter stipulates that Word of Life International performs functions of the 'spiritual guidance centre for all affiliated churches, centres, associations and other organizations' as well as acts as a representative body authorized 'to represent interests of its members in terms of communication with the governmental and other organizations'.

Special attention should be paid to the Word of Life International managerial authority with respect to the church associations and local communities within its structure. The Charter provides for submission of each Word of Life International member to the spiritual leader and compliance with rules of the organization. At that, the organization management board has the right to initiate replacement of any church pastor 'in case of Word of Life International Charter violation by the latter', or in case pastor's conduct damages Word of Life International reputation, or 'in case a pastor in any manner abuses the official pastoral position'. That is, the organization has quite a broad scope of authority with respect to its members.

The key decisions of Word of Life International are adopted by the Management Board comprising leaders of the centres located in Uppsala, Moscow, Yerevan, Donetsk (until recently), Baku and Tashkent. However, none of decisions can be adopted in case of disapproval by the Chairman of the Board, the latter under any circumstances and pursuant to the Charter being the head of Livets Ord Swedish Centre in Uppsala.

It should be noted that joining Word of Life International is quite simple with special procedures provided for. However, according to the Charter separation from the organization may take a lot of effort and entail ambiguous consequences.

For the purposes of membership termination by member's own volition the latter 'shall provide the Word of Life International Management Board with a written application and the original minutes of the meeting of the organization authorized body concerning the decision to separate from Word of Life International'. That complied with, the Management Board shall discuss the separation circumstances and causes with the applying organization and the latter shall be considered deprived of the membership in Word of Life International, only provided the situation is not remedied within 6 months after the application submission.

According to the Charter 'a Management Board member in breach of the organization Charter or damaging the Word of Life International reputation by inappropriate conduct or having serious theological differences with the Word of Life International may be deprived of duties as a member of the Board after a series of discussions held in regard of the above issues by the Management Board'. Such deprivation with respect to a Management Board member is approved by three fourths of the Management Board votes, including the vote of the Chairman.

However, even in case an association of churches separates from the Word of Life International, the organization reserves the right to keep working with local communities of such an association in terms of individual membership.

Using plain language, peculiarities of the Word of Life International Charter and the long-standing practice of the Livets Ord Swedish Centre indicate that all those wishing to be Word of Life International members shall accept the following principles as uncontested: 'The Swedes are always right' and 'Any objection or criticism shall be unacceptable and punishable'.

Divide et impera (divide and rule)

The actions in relation to the Word of Life Donetsk church and its pastor Leonid Padun indicate that the declared fraternal communication of the national centre leaders in the format of the Word of Life International Management Board is in practice replaced by the sole will of the Livets Ord Swedish Centre. The events of November and December 2012 which took place in Donetsk offer evidence of authority abuse by Livets Ord representatives. In particular, this implies violation of the procedure stipulated by the Charter concerning deprivation of a Management Board member and separation of the represented national centre from Word of Life International, since no dialogue with the Management Board ever took place with regard to the issue.

At that, a defamatory media campaign was launched in the social networks and on certain discussion boards forums against pastor L. Padun based on abstract claims on the part of Word of Life International and rumours generated by this uncertainty. Most often he is accused of 'U. Ekman's pastoral authority disobedience', but at the same time there is no mentioning lack of the proper dialogue between them and the leaders of other Bible Centres in the format of the Word of Life International Management Board. The authority abuse facts by Livets Ord representatives in regard of the Word of Life International activity pursuant to the Charter are also hushed up.

Moreover, the Word of Life International announcement of 'removing the Donetsk church from the list of Bible Centres' in December 2012 was followed by energetic efforts on the part of Livets Ord aimed at engaging communities within UCEC as individual members of Word of Life International. Such actions not only impede peaceful Christian settlement of the disputes, but also overtly promote discord and splitting of Ukrainian churches within UCEC association. The examples include unauthorized participation of Livets Ord representatives in church services and pastoral meetings in Donetsk and other cities of Ukraine since November 2012.

Such an attitude of Word of Life International towards the national centres (churches) implying establishment of centralized power and dependency relations looks quite detached against the background of current practices in the Protestant Evangelical Community. Within the post-Soviet territory the foreign missions and funds of various Protestant trends have rendered great assistance to local churches in various countries, including Ukraine, with the vast majority of them seeing as objective the raising of national spiritual leaders, pastors and various kinds of ministers, as well as laying local basis for theological and biblical education in order to enable national churches to develop independently and spread the Good News without external assistance and regular subsidies of different kinds.

While recapitulating, we should hope that in the light of the events mentioned the basis of relations in the community of Word of Life International members and supporters will eventually be formed not of different sorts of DNA emphasizing uniqueness and superiority over the others, but of fraternal relations in the Spirit of Christ, the lack of which has during recent months become apparent.

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