District Lutheran President says he 'bears responsibility' for financial mess, promises review

The president of the Alberta-British Columbia District of the Lutheran Church-Canada says he’s willing to take responsibility for the financial mess the church is now in, a situation that happened under his leadership.
Investors met at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Stony Plain on January 15, one of many meetings held in Alberta and B.C. in January. (CBC)

The president of the Alberta-British Columbia District of the Lutheran Church-Canada says he takes responsibility for the financial mess the church is now in, a situation that happened under his leadership.

“It happened on my watch,” Pastor Don Schiemann said during an interview in his Edmonton office.

He said he realized how serious the financial situation was about a year and a half ago. In March 2014, the investment fund at the centre of the problem stopped accepting deposits.

“I personally feel terrible for what’s happened and certainly, as I say, bear responsibility for it, because I’m president of this district.”

In a letter to about two thousand investors sent Jan. 5, Schiemann said the Church Extension Fund (CEF), an investment fund that has existed since 1921, has been suspended and is not able to fully pay back the $95 million owed to investors.

Two staff at the district office have been laid off, though one person left before being given a layoff notice. Schiemann isn’t ruling out more layoffs, saying “that’s on the table, if need be, we’re fully prepared to do that.”

In 2012 the Prince of Peace Village development had a loan worth $70 million from the investment fund. (CBC)
Sources close to the Alberta-B.C. district say the CEF ran into trouble when money from it was used to build the Prince of Peace Manor and Harbour east of Calgary in the 1990s.

“We made decisions in favour of ministry, and as a result there were some poor financial decisions,” said Schiemann, who has no regrets over the ministerial work done at the Prince of Peace development east of Calgary.

"Perfect storm" led to financial crisis

Schiemann said he’s still trying to understand how the district landed in such financial trouble. The financial crisis was caused by what he describes as a “perfect storm” of factors, including: investors withdrawing; outstanding loans, including the one to the Prince of Peace that in 2012, the last audit available, shows it was worth 70 million dollars; and, not having any other investments that could earn money.

The church must now start selling off assets. Investors are being asked to consider two options: liquidate the district’s assets immediately; or receive payments from Prince of Peace Manor and Harbour, while also selling off assets, such as sites purchased for new churches. There is no timeline for when a final decision will be made.

The Alberta-British Columbia District of Lutheran Church-Canada ran into financial troubles after investing in the Prince of Peace development in the 1990s. (Prince of Peace Christian Community)
What is clear is that everything, even the building Schiemann currently works in, could eventually be up for sale.

“We’re not tied to a building," he said. "If this building needs to be sold, it’ll be sold, but we will continue to do our work as the Alberta - British Columbia district of Lutheran Church Canada."

Schiemann couldn’t say exactly how much the church’s assets are worth, but did say if investors choose the first option, of selling off the assets immediately, a return of up to 65 cents on the dollar is expected.

From November 2012 to November 2014, almost 13 million dollars was withdrawn from the CEF. In December, all withdrawals and all accounts were frozen.

Schiemann is adamant that anyone who knew about the financial situation did not make withdrawals.

“How could we stand in front of investors and say with inside information we took advantage of that and we saved our dollars but you’re stuck with what you’ve got? There’s no way we could do that."

Schiemann, who has served as district president for 15 years, doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the situation and said the church administration has a moral and ethical obligation to try to return as much of investors' money as possible.

A review will happen, says Schiemann

He agrees with the Lutheran Church Canada’s national president, Reverend Robert Bugbee, that the current precarious financial situation raises the question of whether church’s should be in the business of financing. Schiemann said the district intends to review how it has been running the investment fund with the goal of determining how it ended up in this financial mess, adding that some churches that have relied on fund may need to look at refinancing with the banks.

He confirmed the church has hired a public relations firm to help communicate with investors about what’s happening with their money.

Schiemann intends to retire from the position of president in May, a decision he said has nothing to do with the current financial crisis facing the district.

“I look at our church, and I look at our people and I look at our gracious God and we’ll pull through this. Our church may look somewhat different, and that may not be bad,” he said.