Novmber 15, 2007
Paul Edwards, host of “The Paul Edwards Program” on WLQV in Detroit, interviewed the president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Ken Behr, about the recent Senate Finance Committee investigation led by Senator Charles Grassley into the ministries of six prominent televangelists in America. The six ministries identified as being under investigation by the committee are led by: Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.
Edwards: What do you make of Senator Grassley and his investigation?
Behr: I am not surprised at all that Senator Grassley continues to pursue, and inquire about, non-profit organizations. Senator Grassley has been having hearings for the last three years on non-profits, and you may remember the hub-bub about the Smithsonian Institute and the compensation that was paid to their president, the American Red Cross has gone through five or six different presidents within the last four or five years and the American University inquiry. So, there have been a number of non-profits that have appeared before the Senate Finance Committee.
What is a little surprising to me is that it is these six ministries that have certain things in common. One of the things that they have in common is that they are all churches. It is a little bit unusual for the government to intentionally focus their attention on churches.
Edwards: Am I correct … that none of these six ministries are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA)?
Behr: Yes, that is one of the other things that they have in common. None of them are members of the ECFA.
Edwards: And if they were what would you be doing today?
Behr: We’ve vigorously defended our members against any attacks. But, fortunately, that doesn’t happen too often. Occasionally, in the blogosphere for example, people can say anything they want about any organization, and occasionally one of our members is mentioned and if it comes to our attention we try to correct that. It doesn’t happen very often; in fact, quite frankly most of the comments and complaints that we receive, most of the e-mail we receive, is about non-members.
Edwards: I am hearing reports of $30,000 conference room tables, $12,000 toilets—just all kinds of wild and wacky things where money is going in these particular six ministries. What is the standard that the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability puts on ministries? Would those kinds of things, those kinds of expenses, raise the eyebrows of ECFA?
Behr: Well, certainly they would. One of the things that I try to make a distinction on is that neither the ECFA nor the government have much to say about specific tables that are purchased, or what you drive, or actually how much salary you make. It’s really the process that is followed—making sure that those transactions are accountable, truly tax-exempt transactions. Also, that there is a board of government—maybe a board of elders or board of directors—that has oversight responsibility, and that the people that have started these ministries aren’t just receiving a lot of the private benefits themselves.
The benefits of the church are supposed to be for the community. They are out there supposedly doing the great commission and great commandment. They are out there teaching people to love each other and to love Jesus. That used to be the primary activity. If they get too involved in too many other things, they risk their tax-exempt status.
Edwards: What is Senator Grassley exactly after? Senator Grassley, as you pointed out, for the last three years has been doing this. Does he and the Senate Finance Committee risk crossing a church-state line here?
Behr: That is the one thing you have to be really careful of. I am not a real fan of looking to the government to be able to fix this, especially religious issues. You have articulated very well some of the problems that you may see in these ministries. That is a great role for you. That is a great role for apologists within the Kingdom of God. It is not my role.
In my role I am very closely aligned to the regulations, to the policies, the practices that are followed in Washington on non-profits and what non-profits need to do. So, as a result, what Grassley is doing if you take a look at the letters—and the letters are available on the Senate Web site—the letters are five and six pages long. A lot of them have 30, 40, 50 questions on them that have to do with things like not only board government (when did you meet, how often did you meet, send us copies of the board minutes, when did the executive committee meet to discuss the compensation of the executive officer, what was the basis of the comparison that was used), but also when they get into transactions such as sales, purchase of properties and lands, and things like that. The reason Grassley is asking those things is because he is trying to determine if … a person got rich, for example, by being a part of the non-profit in ways that were not appropriate.
Edwards: Is [Sen. Grassley] really dispassionate about the fact that these ministers may be living lavishly—is he really just concerned about protecting the government?
Behr: I think he uses the tax laws to his advantage. I think he very wisely uses the available laws on the books to uncover the actual facts of the transactions and whether or not there were excess benefits transactions.
Edwards: From where you sit at the top of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, how do you feel this is all going to wash out?
Behr: Well, I think it is going to fall pretty orderly. It most likely is going to result in hearings with the Senate Financial Committee where some of these ministers, or all of them, will be called in to answer specific questions, or actually under oath testify that the responses they gave to some of these inquiries are in fact true.
There is a little bit of grandstanding here—you wouldn’t believe that, right? Nobody believes there is grandstanding in Washington. But the cameras will role, and because the cameras will roll there will be a little bit of grandstanding on behalf of the Senators questioning some of the transactions. And they will bring up things like $35,000 conference tables, or Leer jets and things like that. They will do this knowing full well that there is nothing in and of itself illegal about those transactions, but it is embarrassing to the minister.
Paul Edwards is the host of The Paul Edwards Program, a columnist and pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on godandculture.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.