All too often, the best instruction on integrity, accountability and transparency in our churches and nonprofit ministries is largely ignored by the very leaders, organizations and churches that most need to embrace it. Today we find the church in the midst of one of the largest public inquires in memory, with headlines calling integrity into question: "Televangelists Face Intense Federal Probe." "Senator Probes Televangelists' Finances." "Accusations Force Charismatic University President to Resign."
For those Christian leaders who've had their heads in the sand or simply opted not to follow the developing story, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, recently initiated an investigation into "possible misuse of donations" among six prominent charismatic ministries. On Nov. 5, 2007, Grassley sent out detailed four- to six-page letters to each nonprofit inquiring about various allegations including excessive compensation, luxury automobiles, a personal jet aircraft and a number of financial transactions that appear to have personally benefited those under scrutiny. Those ministries currently targeted by Grassley are led by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula White.
Only weeks prior, a multilayered scandal erupted at Oral Roberts University (ORU) involving the institution's financial dealings, along with alleged moral and ethical problems concerning then-president Richard Roberts and his family. Starting with allegations from three former ORU professors of wrongful termination, the saga snowballed into further accusations of the school's improper involvement in politics, a "breaking" story regarding its $50 million-plus debt, Roberts' eventual resignation and an 11th-hour $70 million donation pledge to the university. Interestingly, donor Mart Green, founder of Christian supply store chain Mardel, had no ties to ORU but simply wanted to help the university move forward. After giving $8 million in cash, he stipulated the remainder on a review of financial records after 60 to 90 days and is requesting at least two seats on the board of regents for his family. "We're coming in and saying it's a spiritual issue—let's get integrity, let's get trust built back and the rest will go away," Green said.
Clearly matters of integrity and trust are playing a huge role in the ORU situation and the Grassley investigation. Yet rather than looking at this problem from the perspective of the more pragmatic trio of integrity, accountability and transparency, let's look at it from a more biblical perspective. I believe it's time for the church at large to get serious about holiness.
Who's Influencing Whom?
Since the ORU story broke my phone has continually rung with requests for comments by the nation's press. The reason: The organization I represent, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), has accredited more than 2,000 evangelical ministries. None of the aforementioned ministries belong to our association. It's by default that I've become a popular spokesman for nonprofit accountability. I've had numerous questions about what I believe Grassley may be after in his inquiry of the six television ministries (I try to answer those). I also get several questions about so-called "prosperity preachers" and their seemingly extravagant lifestyles (I like to avoid those).
In light of the varied questions, I believe it's more important here to address the topic of holiness than the specific inquiries being made by Grassley for two reasons: First, the interrogatories need to be answered by each ministry, and until they are answered, we can only speculate regarding any specific Internal Revenue Service code infraction, penalty or remedy. (As of this magazine's printing, the appointed due date for these ministries, Dec. 6, had not arrived.) Second, there are no specific standards by the government, the IRS, the ECFA or even anywhere in the Bible regarding how much salary is too much, at what price does a vehicle become inappropriate for a minister, or whether ministry leaders should fly coach, first class or on their own private jets.
The Bible does speak, however, about holiness. I remember learning years ago that holiness is about being separate. Not separate from the world, but separated from sin. I've also learned holiness isn't so much about being free from the distractions of the world as being uncorrupted by the things of the world.
When my daughter and son were younger they would challenge me from time to time about the rules their mother and I had placed on them that were meant to keep them from unholy influences. I told them often that although Jesus had the opportunity to eat, visit and fellowship with both saints and sinners, He always had more influence on the people around Him than they had on Him. We should be circumspect of unholy influence.
Unfortunately, in the midst of teaching on prosperity, the tithe and the hundredfold return, many have forgotten the basic understanding of holiness. One of the great expositors of the 19th century, J.C. Ryle, described holiness as "the habit of being of one mind with God ... hating what He hates, loving what He loves, and measuring everything in this world by the standard of His Word." In Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, Ryle wrote that "a holy man will endeavor to shun every known sin and to keep every known commandment. ... [He] will follow after temperance and self-denial. He will labor to mortify the desires of his body, to crucify his flesh with his affections and lusts, to curb his passions [and] to restrain his carnal inclinations."
Keeping Things Separate
Though the topic of holiness involves an array of issues, let's hone in on those particular to running a ministry—more specifically, a ministry that has the opportunity to receive large amounts of money from donations given freely and provided a tax receipt.
One of the principles we at ECFA talk about—in fact, we insist on it for ministries that are accredited by ECFA—is that the duties of the board of directors should be separate and distinct from the duties of the chief executive (CEO, president or senior pastor). In addition, we encourage each ministry to hire or secure the services of the best accountant or CPA possible to further separate the rather mundane but extremely important duties of finance, accounting and board governance from the senior leader.
As our churches and ministries grow, we need to allow those with the gift of administration the opportunity to exercise their gift to the extent that God has enabled them (see 1 Cor. 12:28). Pastors usually have numerous gifts, including those of leadership, preaching and teaching, to name a few. Yet pastors really should not be involved in setting their salaries, determining what types of cars the ministry should provide them and various other perks, let alone what the IRS requires regarding documentation on expenses and receipts.
All too often, we hear reports at ECFA from well-qualified, highly competent accountants and CPAs that they are overruled and often overrun by the senior pastor and other ministry leaders. Personal integrity often causes these qualified financial experts to resign rather than knowingly permit unethical practices to continue. Of course, the most uncomfortable situation is when they must deal with founder of a ministry who still runs the day-to-day operations and is accustomed to making all decisions and asking no one for permission to do anything. In these worst-case scenarios there is usually no accountability, no financial disclosure and, most often, a degree of corruption by the world.
Although donors and congregants are often forgiving, neither the IRS nor the Senate Finance Committee wants to see a man or woman fully in charge of any one organization. We find numerous passages in the Bible offering similar advice for a "multitude of counselors" (e.g., Prov. 11:14) and the appointment of elders for leadership and oversight (see Titus 1:5-7; 1 Tim. 3:2).
Senior pastors and other ministry leaders who insist on rejecting the counsel of properly trained accountants and CPAs typically believe they do not need to be accountable to an elder board or an independent board of directors. Yet those who continue to handle financial accountability and transparency via a "seat of the pants" approach are looking for trouble. Being too close to large sums of money is too much of a temptation for most men or women. Those who are wise will seek the counsel of others and find ways to separate themselves from that which would cause them to stumble.
Although we are all disturbed that Christian ministries and churches are currently the subject of government inquiry and public ridicule, I'm prayerful that we can see that "all things work together for good" (Rom. 8:28) through these inquiries. I certainly hope that in the end, many nonprofit and church boards will be strengthened, financial accountability will be improved and transparency enhanced.
An ordained minister, Kenneth Behr is president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an oversight and accreditation organization with more than 2,000 Christian nonprofit organization members that represent more than $16 million in revenue.