WASHINGTON – Since Sen. Charles Grassley concluded his report on six Christian ministries Thursday, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has announced that it will form a commission to address eight key concerns noted in the report.
During a press conference held Friday in Washington D.C., ECFA Board Member Michael Batts said of Grassley's report, "I don't think there was a lot of significant news."
The report summarized findings from a Senate investigation that started three years ago on the spending of Joyce Meyer Ministries, Benny Hinn's World Healing Center Church, Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International, Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, and Without Walls International Church – formerly pastored by both Randy and Paula White.
The last time the tax exempt laws were reviewed was in 1987 during the Jimmy and Tammy Bakker scandal. Jimmy Bakker backed away from his television ministry PTL Club in 1987 after a "sexual encounter" with a female church staff member. Later, the ministry filed for bankruptcy, exposing mismanaged money and a lavish lifestyle that included a $1.3 million-dollar parsonage, a 55-foot house boat, a Mercedes-Benz and a Rolls-Royce.
They were ordered by a federal bankruptcy judge in 1988 to repay $7.7 million to PTL for reaping undeserved profits and mismanaging the television ministry.
Though that was more than 20 years ago, Grassley's staff report noted that it was "common to hear about religious organizations being ―a reinvented form of the money-positive strand of televangelism that was disgraced with the scandals involving Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker."
The report concluded with the unsolved problems of financial accountability and excessive lavishness in most of the six ministries today. Only two of the ministries – Joyce Meyer Ministries and World Healing Center Church – implemented financial reforms.
Days prior to the report's release, Grassley tapped the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, to take up the mantle of reform. The Iowa senator and ranking member of the Committee on Finance asked the accreditation agency for input on how to address the problems and to help facilitate discussion on whether these issues can be addressed without legislation.
ECFA President Dan Busby told reporters that religious entities share Grassley's desire to follow the law.
However, Busby also stated that the practices which brought the six ministries to light "are not pervasive."
Along with fully cooperating with the Senate probe, Joyce Meyer Ministries joined the ECFA in 2009.
Still, the accreditation group said it has accepted Grassley's request as an opportune chance for them to get involved in the issue. ECFA thus established the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. Batts was appointed to chair the commission. Busby and ECFA Board Chairman Mark Holbrook will serve as ex-officio members to the board.
The commission's main task will be to obtain feedback from the non-profit religious sector as to possible solutions for increasing accountability. Already, the points laid out for the committee will pose tough challenges for all ministries nationwide.
Some of the issues it will address include whether churches file the same highly detailed annual information form as other non-profits (Form 990), an excise tax on non-profits that engage in improper business, the possible repeal of IRS audit protection for church leaders and limits on the housing allowance tax exemption.
The housing allowance tax exemption is already under attack by a 2009 lawsuit filed by atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation. The lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the existing parsonage tax code.
Batts made it clear that religious leaders are wary of regulation, preferring instead independence from the government. He anticipated that the committee would consider church size in its future discussions. Still, he noted, "People in the ECFA believe that least amount of regulation is better."
"It is our hope, as well as the senator's, that solutions will be found without the need for burdensome legislation that creates excessive entanglement between the church and the government," he stressed. "One obvious area that will be explored carefully is the concept of self-regulation. That's what ECFA is all about – self-regulation and accountability."
When the Senate committee probe into the six televangelist ministries began three years ago, the ministers lamented that efforts were an infringement on their privacy and on set church/state separations. Four of the ministries sent back either incomplete disclosures or none at all.
In spite of that past, the ECFA anticipates there will be full participation with committee efforts for feedback.
The commission has not set a time table for when its efforts will be completed. Batts said this momentous task "should not and cannot be rushed."
The ECFA has documented its efforts thus far on www.ecfa.org/commission.