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What Do Churches Have to Hide?

Church Accountability Open BooksThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is a freethought organization that has won some high-profile lawsuits supporting 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 2012, it was $3,075,998. 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.

Church transparency

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 (which 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.

What Would Jesus Do?

Let’s remember what religion we’re talking about. It’s the religion that tells the story of the rich man who was 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 being secretive today about how they spend the money given to them? About churches exempting themselves from the requirement to open their books?

Some groups are trying to fix this problem. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability imposes on its members standards of financial accountability and transparency. It’s a nice step. I wish all large ministries and churches followed these rules.

MinistryWatch is a clearinghouse that compares financial and governance information from ministries. But this is just a baby step. MinistryWatch has only about 500 ministries in their list when there are an estimated 350,000 congregations in the U.S.

And many of the ministries don’t get a five-star rating. In fact, those who get zero or one star are a Who’s Who of high-profile televangelists and religious newsmakers: Benny Hinn, Rod Parsley, Creflo Dollar, Paul and Jan Crouch and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland, TD Jakes, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Colson, Harold Camping’s Family Radio, and Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis.

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.

A request for change

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?

If there really is a God
who created the entire universe with all of its glories,
and He decides to deliver a message to humanity,
He will not use, as His messenger,
a person on cable TV with a bad hairstyle.
— Dave Barry

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/7/12.)

Photo credit: IRS

About Bob Seidensticker

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