Members of a south London-based evangelical Christian church have written to the Charity Commission to complain about spiralling costs and the length of time it is taking the interim manager appointed by the regulator to conclude his investigations into the charity.
The commission opened a statutory inquiry into Rhema Church London in August 2015 after its auditor told the commission that it was unable to obtain sufficient audit evidence for more than £280,000 worth of expenditure.
In December 2015, the commission said it had appointed solicitors Helen Briant and Keith Mills of the law firm DWF to take over the management and administration of the charity on a temporary basis in order to protect the charity’s assets. The interim managers were also asked to conduct a review of the charity’s governance and administration, the regulator said.
Mills became the sole interim manager when Briant went on maternity leave. Mills subsequently joined the law firm Trowers & Hamlins in March 2016 but remained interim manager.
In a letter seen by Third Sector, which was sent to the commission on 23 August, members of Rhema Church London complain that the investigation has lasted considerably longer than envisaged and that the costs currently exceed £150,000.
According to the complainants, the investigation was supposed to last three months and cost approximately £24,000. They also complain that Mills has disrupted the church’s work by changing the locks to its buildings.
A statement from Mills posted on the charity’s website on 18 August said that "due to the issues that the interim manager is currently investigating and the failure/refusal of certain employees to hand over keys to the charity's properties" he had no choice but to change the locks on the charity's premises.
The statement said that a meeting would take place in late September or early October with members to discuss any queries.
The complainants argue that Mills has failed to conclude the investigation in the shortest time possible with the least disruption to church services and at the lowest cost to the charity.
They also say that some of Mills’s work is "unnecessary and time consuming and costly" and that his management has left the church "under severe threat".
They call for the conclusion of the commission’s investigation, the possible discharge of Mills as interim manager and a resumption of the church’s services.
The letter says Mills has also suspended or removed a number of the church’s key staff.
The complaint letter says: "There is reason to believe that the current interim manger’s decision to suspend key staff members could have caused further delays as only these staff members are able to provide the specific information requested."
Third Sector contacted Mills but he said he could not comment because of client confidentiality. It is thought he rejects the claims of delay and overspending, and denies his actions were not taken in the best interests of the charity.
Mills said a full public report would be published at the conclusion of the statutory inquiry.
A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said in a statement: "The commission recognises that some of the recent events at the charity will be unsettling and frustrating for congregation members."
The statement said the interim manager had endeavoured to ensure that the charity’s activities, including Sunday services, were not disrupted but that had not been possible "due to recent events", which are understood to include the suspension of key church staff and the changing of the building’s locks.
"We have asked the interim manager to consider whether it is possible to resume some of these activities in the meantime," the statement said.
"The interim manager, along with a representative from the Charity Commission, also plans to meet congregation members to discuss the issues facing the charity and its future. However, we are unable to provide further information or comment at this stage to avoid prejudicing the work of the inquiry or the interim manager."