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.

Petition Asks Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to Suspend Mars Hill Church

GlobaFundA petition posted today “Mars Hill Church – Walk in the Light” at asks the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to suspend the membership of Mars Hill Church. The petition specifically points to a memo on Mars Hill’s Global Fund which planned to use “highly visible” mission projects as a draw to gain donations which were mostly used to support Mars Hill’s expansion and current expense spending. Very little actually went to missions according to the church, although Mars Hill leaders will not disclose details about how much went to missions and how much to fund current expenses.
The petition states:

Despite numerous scandals of confirmed deception to donors Mars Hill Church points to its ECFA standing to assure donors of its accountability and transparency. This is misleading donors and frustrating members and ex-members who are calling for financial questions to be answered.

The statements of support for the petition are quite strong. Alexa Shelley wrote:

I am an attorney for an ECFA-accredited organization. We are proud of our ECFA accreditation status and, I believe, it is important to many of our donors. For Mars Hill with its questionable accounting practices and complete lack of financial transparency to remain accredited only calls into question the meaning or value of any ECFA accreditation, including that of my organization. Frankly, if ECFA sits back and does nothing, in my opinion, it will devalue the ECFA accreditation of all accredited organizations…

Susan Gingrich:

I’m signing because it’s time for the Church to get its own house in order before the IRS does. ECFA is not doing its job and does the evangelical world no favors by looking the other way in the glaring light of Mars Hill’s obvious failure to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel in its financial (and likely other) affairs.

Benjamin Dennison:

Using promo videos of foreign locations to get people to give to “missions”, while spending nearly all the money raised for U. S. buildings and keeping the exact amount secret (as revealed in a recent internal memo), is a disgusting and immoral practice. Mars Hill needs to own up to exactly what was planned and done with the Mars Hill Global Fund, and promise transparency going forward.

Rob Smith: Where is the credibility of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability?

At Musings from Under the Bus this morning, Rob Smith asks, “Where is the credibility of ECFA?” Also, Smith wonders:

One has to wonder what type of financial scandal has to become public before ECFA decides that it will no longer give its once esteemed stamp of approval to Mars Hill Church.

I wonder the same thing and have written about the benefit of ECFA to donors. I don’t see how there is much benefit when organizations can shield their activities from member and public scrutiny and still be accredited.
Smith refers to the Real Marriage scandal, plagiarism and the Global Fund as indicators of deception which have drawn little action from the ECFA. The organization has commented helpfully on the use of Result Source to buy one’s way onto various bestseller lists.  However, the organization has been mostly silent on the Global Fund. What we have learned about the ECFA is that they remain silent in the face of violations. Instead of alerting donors that an organization has been in violation or was once in violation (as they used to do), ECFA now works behind the scenes out of sight of donors. Mars Hill Church has made significant changes to their Mars Hill Global brand (most recently rebranding it to Mars Hill Go) since I started reporting on Mars Hill Global and the Global Fund, but the church’s explanations still do not represent what actually happened in the past. Due to the ongoing stealth at Mars Hill and silence from the ECFA, there is no certainty that Mars Hill is in compliance with the ECFA standards.
If Mars Hill Church has truly conformed to ECFA guidelines, then that would be a good step toward repairing the damage to Mars Hill’s credibility. However, how can anyone know if the ECFA and the church keep it all secret?
For the sake of potential donors and other organizations looking for guidance, the ECFA should be transparent about their investigations into potential violations of their standards. Who would benefit from such transparency? Donors, of course. Who would not benefit? The answer to that question should tell us something about the value of ECFA accreditation.

Paul Tripp's Resignation from the Board of Mars Hill Church Calls Into Question ECFA Standards on Governance

In March 2014, Mars Hill Church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability issued a statement regarding the church and Mark Driscoll. One area covered was church governance changes made in 2007.  Here is that statement:


For many years Mars Hill Church was led by a board of Elders, most of whom were in a vocational relationship with the church and thus not able to provide optimal objectivity. To eliminate conflicts of interest and set the church’s future on the best possible model of governance, a Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) was established to set compensation, conduct performance reviews, approve the annual budget, and hold the newly formed Executive Elders accountable in all areas of local church leadership. This model is consistent with the best practices for governance established in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability standards. Mars Hill Church joined and has been a member in good standing with the ECFA since September of 2012.

According to this video by Mark Driscoll, we now know that the changes were made in order to keep Mars Hill Church from killing Mark Driscoll:

And so everybody got to speculate for years what the motive was, “oh he’s power hungry, he’s controlling, he wants to take over, he doesn’t love people, you know he’s just a bully.” And no, it’s actually he’s broken and his wife is hurting and the church is gonna probably literally kill him or put him in the hospital and his wife needs him right now, so he’s gotta make some adjustments. So, you know, by the grace of God, we weathered that storm.

One of those “adjustments” was the change in by-laws and governance.

In April, I raised some concerns about the model of governance at Mars Hill Church, specifically the BOAA. Then I wrote:

If Mars Hill truly is in compliance with what ECFA [Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability] considers to be good governance, then I should also turn my attention to the ECFA. I think the ECFA guidelines seem reasonable for a non-profit organization that is not a church. However, I question how a local church can adopt these guidelines and still be a church. To me, Mars Hill and other stand alone megachurches seem more like mini-denominational organizations than local churches. I will explore these ideas in my next post on the ECFA and Mars Hill, probably tomorrow.

I said at that time that I wanted to expand on those thoughts in a future post. With Paul Tripp’s resignation statement, I think now is a good time to do that.

About the form of governance used at Mars Hill and recommended by the ECFA, Paul Tripp said:

But it became clear to me that a distant, external accountability board can never work well because it isn’t a firsthand witness to the ongoing life and ministry of the church.

Such a board at best can provide financial accountability, but it will find it very difficult to provide the kind of hands-on spiritual direction and protection that every Christian pastor needs. Unwittingly what happens is that the external accountability board becomes an inadequate replacement for a biblically functioning internal elder board that is the way God designed his church to be lead and pastors to be guided and protected.

So, since I knew that I could not be the kind of help that I would like to be through the vehicle of the BoAA, I resigned from that position.

I would still love to see the leadership community of Mars Hill Church become itself a culture of grace and I am still willing to help, but not through the means of a board that will never be able to do what it was designed to do.

Tripp says the type of board required of churches to be ECFA accredited “can never work well.”  Such a board is “an inadequate replacement for a biblically functioning internal elder board,” according to Tripp. Mars Hill Church had an elder board in place before Driscoll made his “adjustments” and such an elder board is what many of the Mars Hill members in exile are hoping to see restored.

Tripp says the BOAA “will never be able to do what it was designed to do.” I call on the ECFA to consider Tripp’s words and reconsider their guidelines for churches.

Former Staffer Says That Mars Hill Church’s Global Fund Was Restricted

A week ago, I posted an anonymous statement from a former staff member in the central office at Mars Hill Church. Today, I can offer you another statement from the same staffer. I received this quote from Rachel M, a former staffer in Mars Hill finance department.  Here is her quote.

I believe that Mars Hill leadership knew from the start that donations to the Global Fund were restricted and could not be used for unrestricted purposes. In fact, there was a separate account for Global in the books to note this distinction. During my time in the Finance Department, there was a pointed emphasis to be sure that restricted funds were not co-mingled with general funds. I believe that among the Financial Leadership Team (which includes multiple CPA-level staff, who would know all the ins and outs of restricted and unrestricted donations), there was a clear awareness that any restricted funds could not be directed to the general fund.  Without a doubt in my mind, Mars Hill leadership knew what they were doing.

This statement pulls back the curtain a bit on the situation and indicates some conflict between at least some members of the finance team and the executive elders. The concern expressed here by Rachel is understandable given the solicitations for Ethiopia and India in the Mars Hill Church services. Those solicitations should have triggered a more vigorous reaction from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. According to a ECFA publication written by president Dan Busby, video promotions like the following signal to donors that their donations to a specific fund will be used in keeping with the solicitation.

Busby’s guidance on how to determine donor intent is important and reproduced below: ECFARestrictedFundBusby makes it clear that donors signal donor intent, not the organization who received the donation. Mars Hill Church has it backward. In a recent World article, church spokesman Justin Dean said, “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.” First, Dean implies that donations to the Global Fund were given by the “global family” (podcasters, non-members). However, much evidence presented here and in other posts demonstrates that members were asked to give to the Global Fund. Second, Dean assumes Mars Hill’s leaders know the intent of the donors. Busby’s article places donor intent with the donor, not the organization.  To discern donor intent, according to Busby, the organization can look to explicit and implicit expression of donor intent.

As the videos demonstrate (see also the image at the end of the post), Mars Hill Global, during 2012-2014, was promoted as the arm of Mars Hill Church dedicated to international missions. However, as Mars Hill now admits, very little of that money actually went to international missions. I have provided a wealth of information in prior posts to demonstrate that the Global Fund and Mars Hill Global became the missionary outreach fund of Mars Hill Church from 2012 to 2014.

Donors to Mars Hill Global Fund explicitly signaled their intent by checking Global Fund on the website when they gave. The implicit intent can be gleaned by donor response to the videos of Sutton Turner in Ethiopia asking the church members (not just podcasters) to give “above and beyond” their tithes in order to support Ethiopian evangelists. Before May 2o14, the church website clearly gave donors the option to choose Global Fund explicitly over the General Fund. If the donations were always intended to go to the General Fund as Mars Hill Church now claims, then why have two funds?

Busby’s guidance is clear but not being followed by Mars Hill Church:

Once the donor had indicated the intent for which the donation was given, and the charity has accepted the gift, it is the responsibility of the charity to fulfill that intent. The charity could have chosen not to accept the gift if the fulfillment of the donor restriction was in question.

In most cases the donor is responding to a specific appeal. The appeal itself generally identifies the purpose for which donations are sought. If the donor simply responds to the appeal, it should be assumed that the donor’s intent is that the funds be used as described in the appeal.

Another important point is that once the gift is given and the church accepts it, the church must honor donor intent. Donors can change their mind but donors should not have to jump through an additional hoop to inform the church how the money should be spent.

In my opinion, based on the assumption that the Global Fund was restricted, Mars Hill Church’s current policy is backward. Currently, they are requiring Global donors to contact the church to designate (again) that donations go to missions. However, as I understand ECFA guidance, the church should be requiring donors who want to redesignate their donation for the General Fund to contact the church to authorize those funds for general purposes.

Those Ethiopian and Indian evangelists should have gotten millions in support. Instead they only got a tiny fraction.  The “preponderance” of the money went to church plants in the United States and who knows what else. In my opinion, for Mars Hill to remain accredited, the ECFA should require the church to honor donor intent, expressed explicitly by the selection of “Global Fund” and implicitly by the responses to the constant promotion of Ethiopia and India via videos, the annual report, and the church website.
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