Former Members: Faith Christian Church (Tucson, AZ) Coerced Donations

Earlier today, Arizona Daily Star writers Carol Ann Alaimo and Emily Bregel reported that the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability is now investigating the Faith Christian Church to determine whether or not ECFA guidelines are being met by the church.  From the article:

Dan Busby, president of the Virginia-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, expressed support for Faith Christian’s financial practices last week. In an email Tuesday, Busby said, “Since the issues were raised last week, we have had a senior ECFA executive on the ground in Arizona to confirm the Church’s compliance with our standards.”

I wrote Busby and ECFA counsel Michael Martin to find out if the “senior ECFA executive” would meet with former members of FCC. I have received no answer. Thus far, no former members I have interviewed have spoken with the ECFA about their experiences. In addition to the allegations about bizarre teachings on spanking infants, former members have described feeling forced to give money to the church. The level of coercion described by members would certainly violate one tenet of the ECFA’s Donor’s Bill of Rights:

Give cheerfully without being pressured by the organization.

The ECFA lists the following rights:

Donor’s Bill of Rights
You have the right to:
Know how the funds of an organization are being spent.
Know what the programs you support are accomplishing.
Know that the organization complies with federal, state, and municipal laws.
Restrict or designate your gifts to a particular project within the organization’s mission objectives.
A timely and courteous response to your inquiries about finances and programs.
Visit office and program sites of an organization to talk personally with the staff.
Give cheerfully without being pressured by the organization.
Obtain a copy of the organization’s most recent audited financial statements
Know that there is a responsible governing board providing oversight to the organization’s mission.
Know that all appeals for funds are truthful and accurate.

The former members of FCC and sister churches describe coercive tactics by church pastors and elders to gain contributions. Aaron Marley was a bookkeeper at sister church Hope Christian Church in Tempe, AZ. He told me that the giving history of members is reviewed by the ministers. Marley said a minister, who was not part of the church administration, interrogated him about his giving because it didn’t meet expectations. Marley assumed a church would keep giving records for tax purposes but not for the purpose of coercing donations.
Former staff minister Jeff Phillips told me that “tithing is strictly enforced. We were taught that if we did not tithe, we were cursed.” Phillips said he remembered FCC pastor Steve Hall say, “‘I WILL NOT pastor cursed people.'”
Phillips related the following account:

There was one occasion when some of the staff, including me, were caught not tithing soon enough. We were waiting until we had deposited our checks into the bank to tithe to the church. Steve found a verse in the OT about paying late fees for late tithes, so we were forced to pay extra for our lateness. So, essentially the ministers raised their own salaries and gave 13% of that and beyond to the church, which went to pay Steve’s salary along with the other members’ tithes.

A thorough investigation by the ECFA should take into account testimony from former members.

Why Did David Jeremiah's Turning Point Give Up Membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability?

When I first heard former Turning Point CFO George Hale’s account of David Jeremiah’s methods of gaining spots on best-seller lists, I checked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability membership directory to see if David Jeremiah’s ministry, Turning Point, was a member organization. It is not.
I checked because, in 2014, ECFA president Dan Busby took a public stance against the best-seller list manipulation scheme paid for by Mars Hill Church. At the time, he first told Ruth Graham that the scheme was “unethical and deceptive.”
Later, I asked Busby for an expanded statement which he provided and I published at the time. Busby said concerning best-seller manipulation schemes:

It is unethical and deceptive for ECFA-accredited churches (and other organizations) to:
a.   make efforts to mask the method of procuring products authored or developed by an organization’s leader in order to improve product ratings, and/or
b.   procure products authored or developed by an organization’s leader at a higher price than otherwise available for the sake of improving product ratings, even if there is a valid ministry purpose for paying the higher price.

These two elements appear to be true of former CFO Hale’s description of what Turning Point ministry does to elevate David Jeremiah’s books. According to Hale, Turning Point takes donations for the promise of a book in advance of the publication date. In addition to the book, the donor is often promised resources from Turning Point which are provided at the expense of the non-profit organization. The donations are then used to purchase books at retail cost from a variety of locations around the country in order to maximize the “product ratings.” The books have to be purchased at retail price in order to count in the best-seller list calculations. Jeremiah, as author, is able to purchase those books from the publisher at a tremendous volume discount but such purchases don’t “improve product ratings” nor do they generate royalties.
Busby then pointed to an advisory opinion which remains relevant today.

Product Procurement

Overview.  The leaders of many ECFA members author or develop various intellectual properties, including books.  Royalties received by these leaders for intellectual properties owned by the ECFA member should be considered as one of the elements of compensation when the organization’s governing body determines compensation for the leaders.
Additionally, the organization’s governing body should ensure that the organization is not involved in unethical and deceptive practices relating to the procurement of products authored or developed by its leaders.  The appropriate avenues with which to procure products should be reviewed against the backdrop of ECFA’s Standards 1, 4, and 6.
Standard 1 – Biblical truths and practices.  “Every member shall subscribe to a written statement of faith clearly affirming a commitment to the evangelical Christian faith, or shall otherwise demonstrate such commitment and shall operate in accordance with biblical truths and practices.”
In several of his letters, the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of being beyond reproach and behaving in such a way as to avoid even the appearance of wrong-doing. He tells us that we need to be circumspect to those outside the Church. The reason Paul most often gives is that we must not give Satan any opportunity to destroy the reputation of Christ. Arguably, and in an eternal sense, it may be true that the business of ministries and churches is of concern to God and not to others judging from the outside. However, Scripture is also very clear about our need to be open, honest, and above reproach as we wrestle with the issues of life before Christ’s return. As the Apostle Paul said, “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men” (2 Corinthians 8:21).
Standard 4 – Use of Resources.  “Every member shall exercise the appropriate management and controls necessary to provide reasonable assurance that all of the member’s operations are carried out and resources are used in a responsible manner and in conformity with applicable laws and regulations, such conformity taking into account biblical mandates.”
The use of resources in a responsible manner includes managing resources in a God-honoring way. An organization that has expended assets in an unwise manner may diminish its own Christian witness.
Standard 6 – Compensation-Setting and Related-party transactions. Every organization shall set compensation of its top leader and address related-party transactions in a manner that demonstrates integrity and propriety in conformity with ECFA’s Policy for Excellence in Compensation-Setting and Related-Party Transactions.”
Analysis. In reviewing these Standards and their related commentaries against certain methods in which products may be procured, the ECFA Board, Standards Committee, and Staff found the following:
A potential conflict of interest arises when an organization’s leader decides the organization will promote or purchase books authored by the leader, with the leader receiving royalties on the books.  This risk of a conflict-of-interest is heightened when, in relation to products authored or developed by leaders of ECFA members, (a) products are purchased at a higher price than is required and/or (2) there is an effort to mask the method of procuring products in order to improve product rating.
ECFA members must avoid an actual conflict-of-interest by utilizing the related-party transaction process outlined in ECFA’s Policy for Excellence in Related-Party Transactions when purchasing products authored by an organization’s leader.
If an organization pays a higher price than required for procuring products authored or developed by leaders of an ECFA member, there must be a valid ministry purpose for paying the higher price.  Otherwise, the excess expenditure of funds is for a non-ministry purpose.
Where an organization attempts to mask the method of procurement from organizations that determine product ratings, ECFA believes such practices are not in accord with biblical truths and practices.
ECFA’s Positions.  It is unethical and deceptive for a member organization to:

  1. make efforts to mask the method of procuring products authored or developed by an organization’s leader in order to improve product ratings, and/or

  2. procure products authored or developed by an organization’s leader at a higher price than otherwise available for the sake of improving product ratings, even if there is a valid ministry purpose for paying the higher price.

Given Busby’s stance, it is not surprising that Turning Point is not now accredited; the Turning Point approach as described by former CFO George Hale runs afoul of this advisory opinion. However, I recently learned that David Jeremiah’s ministry was once accredited by ECFA. According to a 2010 ECFA newsletter (page 8), Turning Point voluntarily resigned membership in the ECFA in 2010. Who was involved in that decision from Turning Point? Presumably, the key decision makers were David Jeremiah as CEO and Sealy Yates, Jeremiah’s literary agent, who chairs the Turning Point board.
An anonymous source with knowledge of situation told me that the resignation was allowed by the ECFA after an investigation into Turning Point’s means of elevating Jeremiah’s books to the best-seller lists. Turning Point’s leadership was offered the opportunity to stay in the ECFA if the book promotion schemes ceased. However, according to the source, Jeremiah declined and was allowed to resign without action from the ECFA.
I continue to get silence from Turning Point to all questions regarding the best-seller list promotions. I wrote ECFA to ask for comment about the narrative disclosed by the anonymous source. I received no answer from Dan Busby. If anything in this article is incorrect, I invite Turning Point and/or the EFCA to let me know.
On one hand, I am encouraged that the ECFA would insist on compliance with their standards. However, it is discouraging that the ECFA would not alert donors that Turning Point – an organization that pulls in nearly $40 million/year — is not following these standards. Such a deal does not help donors and raises again the value of the ECFA for donors.
See also Christianity Today’s article on using book buying schemes to game the best seller lists.

ECFA Tells World Magazine Mars Hill Global In Compliance With Guidelines; Purges Another Page From Website

Yesterday, prior to Mark Driscoll’s resignation announcement, Warren Smith posted an article at World magazine which summarizes many of the controversies surrounding Mars Hill Church.  In it, Smith tells of statements made by Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability about Mars Hill.

The ECFA’s Dan Busby told me in July that his group reviewed Mars Hill Global and found it to be in compliance with ECFA standards. In September, a week after Driscoll announced his sabbatical and the church announced its review of his behavior, Busby said, “ECFA will let the church complete their review. Then, ECFA will be in a position to determine if our separate review of the same issues is warranted.”

The ECFA’s statement regarding Mars Hill Global is useless without explanation. Essentially, the ECFA is asking the public to accept their word. No explanation or rationale was provided as required by their own principles (now purged from their website).  Just a couple of days ago, ECFA promised:

ECFA’s only public relations contacts are its President (or his designee) and Board Chair. While they will protect confidential and proprietary information, they will communicate publicly that a Compliance Review is in process or has been completed, what the Standards of concern are or were, and the final decision once the Compliance Review has been completed.

Another page (which is also now missing – see cache) promised that all allegations which involved their guidelines would be investigated.
I have raised several issues about Mars Hill’s lack of compliance with ECFA guidelines and the ECFA has never suggested mediation. All I have gotten is an assurance that everything is as it should be without explanation. I don’t know of anyone who has leveled a complaint with the ECFA who was pointed to mediation.
Since I raised the issue of a public statement with Dan Busby, there has been no response from the ECFA except to purge two pages from the ECFA website. I know of no direct response to the hundreds of people who have signed the ECFA/Mars Hill petitions which request increased transparency from both groups. It is amazing that people would have to beg for an organization to live up to its name.

Calling for More Transparency from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability

Rob Smith continues to raise questions for the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. In a column this morning, Smith asks: Why is ECFA certifying churches without requiring the same public disclosure as non-churches?
While Smith believes the government should not insist on wider disclosure, he believes the ECFA should insist on a similar level of disclosure from the organizations who are accredited by the organization. Lack of transparency should be a red flag about the church and about the ECFA.
While they may be above it all, the comments at the petition continue to sharply criticize the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability for their handling of the various problems at Mars Hill Church. The ECFA remains silent in the face of nearly 140 signers as of this morning.
The comments bluntly call on the ECFA to drop Mars Hill and restore credibility to ECFA accreditation.
Former member Sara Brinton said:

We were members at Mars Hill for 10+ years. Through those years, we gave sacrificially. Although my husband had a good corporate job, there were lots of months we struggled to afford groceries because of the amount we were giving to the church. Mars Hill taught us that this was the right thing to do. We gave because we thought we were on mission – that we shared a genuine desire to see people in our city and around the world meet Jesus. We are devastated as more and more of the truth comes out. We are angry and we feel we have been deceived by a church that was misusing funds and taking advantage of orphans and widows.

James Petroski wrote:

The ECFA seal means nothing if MHC is allowed to receive a positive rating by the organization.

Jim Caldwell wrote:

The financial integrity of every entity effects every other group in the ECFA.

Al Doyle wrote:

Over the years, as a donor, I have relied on ECFA to vet and authenticate the practices of Christian professing non-profit organizations. As a former Board member of more than one 501 (c ) 3 organizations, I have relied on ECFA guidelines to shape financial practices. This is a very public and egregious situation that needs immediate investigation and attention with the intent to protect the interests of the hundred of faithful donors giving to a cause that may be misrepresented.

Stephanie Hopkins:

I listened to MH sermons while attending a healthy church for years. After moving to Seattle, I attended MH-Ballard for most of 2011. I was deeply concerned and disgusted by what appeared to me to be deceptive fundraising campaigns and exorbitant spending practices for a church once I was attending and part of their communication network. What stood out most was an email at the end of the year thanking us for helping meet budget after a month of pleas for funds specifically to help a list of projects and open four new campuses – nothing about the fundraising goal amount being something like half regular budget was mentioned until we were told that is what the money raised was going to first and that anything extra in the next few days would actually go to the projects we’d been receiving emails and messages about the funds going to all month. I stopped giving and eventually attending specifically because it seemed to me that their financial practices were opaque and deceptive. Unless and until the ECFA removes MHC, I can be nothing but suspicious and skeptical of their endorsement of any organization or church. As long as MHC is endorsed by the ECFA I can only believe that their endorsement is nothing more than a purchased rubber stamp.

One Day, Two Views of Mars Hill Church

Yesterday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and World magazine posted articles about Mars Hill Church. To me, the articles do not seem to be about the same church.

The Seattle PI piece addressed the newest development among former Mars Hill Church members and leaders: the Facebook group which alerts the public that many ex-Mars Hill members are not and have not been anonymous in their complaints about the church. Mark Driscoll claimed in a speech to the church just over a week ago that leaders at the church could not reconcile with ex-members because they were anonymous. The Facebook group now has over 260 member and features many very visible ex-members and their stories.

The World article painted a much nicer picture of the church, failing to include voices of ex-members or evidence to counter the favorable comments of Mars Hill Public Relation deacon, Justin Dean, or the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability which apparently is not going to require adherence to the organization’s guidelines. Surprising to me was the lack of challenge from World to this explanation of Mars Hill Global from the church:

However, it is difficult to determine where the money went, though it is now clear some of the money went not to international efforts but to domestic church plants, including some in the Seattle area. When WORLD asked via email for an itemized accounting of those funds, Dean wrote, “Since donations given by the Mars Hill Global family were never intended to be designated solely for international efforts, we don’t provide an itemized accounting of those funds.”

“Some of the money”? The church has already admitted that the preponderance of donations when to domestic church plants. Justin Dean’s statement is a dodge of World’s question which went unchallenged. There is plenty of evidence that Mars Hill created a Global Fund in 2012. Members and pastors of the church alike were under the impression those donations were being solicited for international missions. In spite of all the evidence that after 2012 the Global Fund was pitched as a ministry of Mars Hill Church to support international missions (not a group of non-members), Mars Hill spun the situation with no challenge from World. There was no mention of the fact that Mars Hill has issued two takedown orders to You Tube to keep video evidence about Mars Hill Global out of the public view.

At last, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability speaks. However, even this group ignores the clear evidence. Worse yet, apparently ECFA will not require the church to reveal how much they spent on international missions and how much was spent on domestic efforts.

Finally, I have no problem with the interviews of current pastors at Mars Hill, but to then give ex-pastor Dave Kraft only a brief blurb at the end was not nearly enough to report on the level of distress and conflict there is currently among former members (Mars Hill in exile). Usually World is more balanced and demonstrates a better ability to investigate the crux of a matter. I hope World will revisit this issue and report on the extraordinary distress that is taking place daily among those who want to see reform at the Seattle megachurch.