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What do Churches Have to Hide?

IRS filings don't help show that God existsThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is a freethought organization that has won some high-profile lawsuits that support the separation of church and state. It is also known for displaying freethought statements to balance religious Christmas messages on state property.

Want to know what the revenue of the FFRF is? For 2010, it was $2,234,307. Exactly.

Want to know how I know that? I looked it up; it’s public information. That’s true for all U.S. nonprofits. All nonprofits, that is, except churches and other religious organizations.

Isn’t it startling that church leaders, who supposedly believe that the all-knowing Accountant in the Sky will judge them eternally for how ethically they spend the money given by parishioners, are embarrassed to show their financial records to the rest of us? That they want church donations to be tax exempt but refuse to show the public (who is picking up the slack for the missing taxes) how they spend this money? What do you suppose they have to hide?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s form 990 has a bold “Open to Public Inspection” at the top. The form gives the salaries of each staff member, to the dollar. It shows revenue, expenses, cash in the bank, mortgages, and lots more financial details. They seem to shoulder this burden pretty well, and I think churches can, too.

Go to GuideStar, the Foundation Center, or similar organizations to look up any nonprofit to which you’re considering a donation to check how they spend their money.

Any nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Let’s remember what religion we’re talking about. It’s the religion that tells the story of the rich man who was (tragically) too attached to his wealth to follow Jesus’s command, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:17–31). It’s the religion in which Jesus will say to the worthy people, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:31–46). And, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). And, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19–21).

Apparently Jesus didn’t care much for rich people but cared greatly for the poor. How do you suppose he would react to churches and ministries being secretive today about how they spend the money given to them? About churches exempting themselves from the requirement to open their books?

There are some groups trying to fix this problem. MinistryWatch asks for financial information from ministries and publicizes the results. For example, Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason gets an A rating, and they deserve praise for doing the right thing. But this is just a baby step. First, MinistryWatch has only 600 ministries in their list when there are an estimated 335,000 congregations in the U.S. Second, the financial information is still not as thorough as that provided on Form 990s by nonreligious nonprofits.

And third, many of the ministries don’t get an A rating. In fact, those who get an F (typically because they ignored MinistryWatch’s request for information) are a Who’s Who of high-profile televangelists and religious newsmakers: Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland, TD Jakes, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Rod Parsley, Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, Harold Camping’s Family Radio, and more. They all got an F. Doesn’t this evasion reflect badly on all religious organizations?

Some churches are open about their finances, but only to members. According to one survey, 92% of churches provide financial information upon request to members. Why is this not 100%? And what good is this to the U.S. taxpayer who wants to verify the claimed benefit that churches provide a good to society that earns them nonprofit status? Compare this with the financial records of the more than 1.5 million ordinary nonprofits easily accessible in a single database.

Let’s make a simple, logical change—a change that helps churches look better. This cloud of doubt hangs over every church. The change costs churches and other ministries very little and makes things fair, and it shows that they have nothing to hide. Remove the exemption allowing churches to avoid providing financial information.

Some ministries will have to clean up their acts, but isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t this benefit the Christians at the churches that spend their income honorably?

Photo credit: IRS

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Mosethyoth

    Uhm, the Link to the survey how many churches provide financial information seems to be defective. I can’t open it with Firefox (12.0).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks. Should be fixed now.

  • Rick Townsend

    Bob,

    I actually agree with you on this. We have only been a part of churches that make their finances available to members, and to organizations with strong ratings. We don’t search for organizations based on ratings, but based on personal knowledge of those ministries and their staff members. I was pleased (but not surprised) to discover using your links that all the organizations we contribute to on a regular basis are well rated.

    It is not surprising that the frequent targets of your attacks, the likes of Benny Hinn, et al, are rated poorly. I would have expected these wolves in sheep’s clothing to be so rated. They should be dismissed as representative of the over 300,000 or more churches that are out there doing a good job. They are indeed an embarrassment to the cause of Christ and to all those who are legitimately living out their faith with integrity.

    Rick

    • Bob Seidensticker

      It’s great to hear that we agree.

      The challenge for me, as you can imagine, that few within the Christian community care what an outsider like me says. A tool like embarrassment is pretty blunt. But someone like you has a much better platform. How could we ignite this meme within the Christian community?

      • Rick Townsend

        Bob,

        I guess I don’t see the problem as severely as you perceive it. The vast majority of churches and organizations are solid. If you want to start a petition drive against one or more that aren’t, I’ll sign it. But for now, the federal deficit, the infanticide we call “abortion rights” and other issues seem like more pressing problems. And I’m making sure through due diligence that the targets for our personal philanthropy are doing right by the contributions we send.

        You are free to tilt at windmills, but the tsunami is going to wipe them all out if we don’t get some control on the big issues.

        Rick

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The vast majority of churches and organizations are solid.

          How do you know? You have a gut instinct, and it may well be reading pretty accurately in this case, but we simply don’t know. My guess is that if tomorrow we had a database of all churches’ internal finances, there would be some surprises that would bother both of us.

          In particular, how much of money to churches goes to good works? Christians like to point to this, but they (of course) point to nothing, since we have no reliable data. I’ve heard 2%. That sounds low, but how am I going to trump that statistic?

          Is a church more like a country club (the dues of which are not deductible) or a charity like Worldvision (donations to which are deductible)? If 2% (or even 10%) of income to churches goes to good works, a church is far more like a country club than a proper charity.

          And I’m making sure through due diligence that the targets for our personal philanthropy are doing right by the contributions we send.

          I feel pretty comfortable that you do your homework. But what explains the $100 million that goes annually to each of the charities like those that Sen. Grassley focused on? A laissez-faire approach obviously lets sleazy “ministries” fleece gullible believers with bogus claims. “The more you need, the bigger the seed of faith that you must plant!” and all that.

          I wonder how much goes to these ministries vs. how much goes to gambling. I don’t care for either one.

          You are free to tilt at windmills

          To some extent I agree in that churches and politics are so far in bed together than common sense no longer holds sway. This bugs me, and I would hope that it bugs Christians as well. That we agree to some extent is reassuring.

        • Rick Townsend

          Bob,

          Your own statistics said that 92% of churches provide information on request to their members. While I agree it should be 100%, 92% is still pretty consistent overall.

          Again, I would be a lot more concerned about the glaring issues on both sides. Sen. Grassley’s committee highlighted a few. I’m still waiting for the outrage over the widespread problem of Planned Parenthood failing to report underage kids seeking abortions and enabling child predators, along with other missteps. This would be a better use of your “tilting at windmills” energy.

          Also, Charity Navigator is another reference source that focuses on all charities, not just the Christian ones you seem to want to focus on. That is where I found out that Planned Parenthood gets significantly lower scores than the Freedom from Religion Foundation you cited so prominently. There are some bad stories on your side, too.

          Rick

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Your own statistics said that 92% of churches provide information on request to their members. While I agree it should be 100%, 92% is still pretty consistent overall.

          Let’s imagine it were 100%. How does that help? You’ve still got to be a member of that church to find the information. Hardly transparency. Hardly what the other nonprofits do.

          This would be a better use of your “tilting at windmills” energy.

          $100 billion per year going to churches with zero public oversight? That’s not tilting at windmills; that’s a colossal problem.

          I don’t know why you try to change the subject. If Planned Parenthood is breaking laws, prosecute them as the law demands. If the deficit is outrageous, let’s find solutions. And if churches are playing games with the law, let’s make sure that everyone follows the same rules. Where’s the problem?

          Also, Charity Navigator is another reference source that focuses on all charities, not just the Christian ones you seem to want to focus on.

          Good point. Let’s demand that those other charities open their books, too. Oh, wait a minute–they already do.

          I guess that means that only the religious organizations are scamming the system. How about a level playing field for all?

          There are some bad stories on your side, too.

          How do you know? Because of transparency? As taxpayers, we deserve to have all nonprofits earn their nonprofit status.

  • Rick Townsend

    Bob,

    Chill, Dude. We started out in essential agreement. You just like to spark a fight. Nevertheless, I will answer your concerns and wait for your complete research in response.

    Let’s imagine it were 100%. How does that help? You’ve still got to be a member of that church to find the information. Hardly transparency. Hardly what the other nonprofits do.

    Show me the statistics on all non-Christian non-profits and show me their transparency is better. Get your own house in order.

    $100 billion per year going to churches with zero public oversight?

    Your favorite pet government project wastes that amount on trash liners. The “stimulus” shoved that amount times an unknown number into banking executives’ pockets and did not force them to help solve the housing insolvency crisis. Get your own government watchdogs looking for fraud in the real places it flourishes.

    Let’s demand that those other charities open their books, too. Oh, wait a minute–they already do.

    You’re saying that everyatheist-oriented NGO and non-profit does better at transparency then Christian churches? Did I get that right? Bold assertion. Back it up. I see no statistics on that.

    I guess that means that only the religious organizations are scamming the system. How about a level playing field for all?

    Huh? Nice illogical jump.

    “There are some bad stories on your side, too.” … How do you know? Because of transparency? As taxpayers, we deserve to have all nonprofits earn their nonprofit status.

    I certainly don’t know from your statistics, as you’re only looking at the Christian subset. Do a complete analysis and come back to us with your data on NGOs and Non-Christian non-profits.

    And as taxpayers, we deserve to know where all tax money is going. We don’tnecessarily have a right to know where private money contributed by free will to private organizations goes.

    If they are scamming old folks out of retirement money, there are ways to investigate on a case by case basis. But we have no right to know everything about every dollar contributed to every private organization. We do have a right to know where our tax dollars go. Looking forward to hearing what you discover about that.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      You just like to spark a fight.

      Well, maybe, but you were the one who brought up abortion and Planned Parenthood. A little off topic, IMO.

      Show me the statistics on all non-Christian non-profits …

      One stop shopping: http://www.guidestar.com. As I mentioned above.

      … and show me their transparency is better. Get your own house in order.

      I don’t understand the question. They have transparency; the churches don’t. If you don’t understand why transparency is better than secrecy when you and I are footing the bill, I don’t know how to explain it to you.

      Your favorite pet government project wastes that amount on trash liners.

      Who’s trying to spark a fight now?

      You’re saying that the easy solution to this problem is a diversion until we get other problems solved?

      You point to things that have no easy solution. Your government boondoggle might be my shining example of man helping his fellow man. But in the case of transparency, we can agree that it’s good and that churches shoot themselves in the foot by hiding their finances.

      You can make a list of things to do, prioritize the list, and then do them in strict priority order. Why spent an ounce of effort on item #3 when item #1 still hasn’t been resolved? I sure don’t do things this way, and I can’t imagine you do either. If we can make easy progress on item #100, let’s go for it.

      Unless this is all just a smokescreen on your part to change the subject. But this is hard to imagine since we agree on the fundamentals.

      You’re saying that everyatheist-oriented NGO and non-profit does better at transparency then Christian churches?

      Why ask what you already know?

      I’m saying that we have detailed financial information for every baby-eating atheist nonprofit (and all the nice ones, too). There is no single database that has the equivalent information for all churches and ministries. Is there a single example of a church that provides the same financial information (including salaries) in a publicly-accessible place? Probably, but this (1) isn’t all of them, and (2) it’s not in a single, easy-to-access place.

      Since this is now common knowledge, I’m missing the bold assertion.

      Nice illogical jump.

      I’d like a level playing field with no special benefits given to one group or another. I’m missing the illogic.

      I certainly don’t know from your statistics, as you’re only looking at the Christian subset. Do a complete analysis …

      I don’t see what you’re asking for.

      We don’tnecessarily have a right to know where private money contributed by free will to private organizations goes.

      We’re talking about tax exemptions. A ministry claims that it’s doing good work. I want to see the evidence.

      If they are scamming old folks out of retirement money, there are ways to investigate on a case by case basis.

      How about if we simply let a little sunshine in and let that scare away the rats? With transparency, some of the problems may just vanish.

      I’m sure you’ll agree that there are sleazy ministries–Peter Popoff, Jim Bakker, etc. Or religions–Scientology, cults. And I’m sure you’ll agree that investigating them is very difficult. Let’s remove some of the ways they have of hiding their schemes.

      But we have no right to know everything about every dollar contributed to every private organization.

      When I’m footing the bill for the taxes that aren’t being paid, you bet I have the right to know.

  • Rick Townsend

    you were the one who brought up abortion and Planned Parenthood. A little off topic, IMO.

    I thought the topic was accountability for non-profits, but you were focused only on Christian organizations, which is a subset of all non-profits. My apology. You only want to focus on the subset, while I think there’s a bigger problem with government fraud and non-Christian nonprofits who don’t report and aren’t listed in http://www.guidestar.com.

    This article (The new realities of non-profit accountability) indicates there is a significant accountability problem on your side of the table. You address those. I’ll be carefully watching my local church, which gives a half million dollars a year to mission outreach. I don’t care enough about this to do further research and prove my point, but I’m certain there are scads of non-profits not listed in the Guidestar site. And I suspect their lack of transparency would be a far worse problem than that of churches, your pet target.

    I’d write more, but I need to get ready to do some volunteer work. I think I’m done with this topic in any case. Get off your computer (and your high horse) and go get involved somewhere, Bob! Maybe a local church could use your efforts.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I thought the topic was accountability for non-profits

      The topic was financial transparency for all nonprofits.

      You only want to focus on the subset

      Well, only a subset is getting a government-approved shield from scrutiny.

      … while I think there’s a bigger problem with government fraud

      A completely different subject, but we can touch on that a bit, if you want.

      … and non-Christian nonprofits who don’t report and aren’t listed in http://www.guidestar.com.

      I didn’t know that there were any. Tell me more about these nonprofits.

      there is a significant accountability problem on your side of the table.

      I think you meant, “there is a significant accountability problem.” I thought we were both on the “nonprofits are great ways to help people” side of the table. I thought you liked seeing nonprofits pick up the slack rather than the government doing. You know how those government bureaucracies get big and bloated and unaccountable.

      I suppose “significant” is debatable, but let’s forget that. Sure, let’s focus on the problems and try to fix them.

      I’m not sure why the diversion, but it sounds like we’re pretty much on the same page. It’s good that we’ve put that to bed.

      You want to fix accountability problems within the nonprofit sector, and dropping the religious exemption makes it a level playing field. A good change to make, right?

      You address those.

      You have no interest in addressing one nonprofit problem until all other nonprofit problems are solved?

      my local church, which gives a half million dollars a year to mission outreach.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “mission outreach.” Giving money to food banks? Or is it a way to spread the gospel?

      I don’t care enough about this to do further research and prove my point

      What’s your point? That the nonprofit sector is imperfect? Consider it proven.

      Now, let’s get back to the subject of the blog post.

      I’m certain there are scads of non-profits not listed in the Guidestar site.

      Why do you say this? I thought it has a complete list of all nonprofits who provided 990s. What are the missing nonprofits?

      And I suspect their lack of transparency would be a far worse problem than that of churches, your pet target.

      Unless you’ve explained this before, I need an example of this non-religious nonprofit that slipped through the net so I can figure out what you’re saying.

      Get off your computer (and your high horse) and go get involved somewhere, Bob!

      Another valid point, and another diversion. Why don’t we talk about the topic on the table?

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