The Election-Year Issue No One Is Talking About

The Election-Year Issue No One Is Talking About February 9, 2016

churches’ closed financial recordsLots of polls are monitoring the concerns of U.S. voters, and the usual issues come to the top: the economy and jobs, terrorism, dissatisfaction with government, and so on. What also seems to be an election-year staple is Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an initiative of the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, in which pastors deliberately break tax rules against endorsing candidates. Said another way, it’s where American Christianity lobbies for even more handouts from the government. They want an exception to the Johnson amendment that prohibits nonprofits (all of them, not just churches) from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

An issue that never gets the attention it deserves is another exception, churches’ closed financial records. Every U.S. nonprofit can receive tax-free donations, but in return it must annually fill out an IRS 990 form that divulges to the public its income, expenses, assets, the salaries of its executives, and more. Every nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Why is this embarrassing exception not on more people’s radar?

I’m a nonbeliever, but let me emphasize that the issue here isn’t nonbelievers annoyed that they must help pick up the slack (the subsidy that American society gives religion because of its tax-exempt status is estimated at $83.5 billion per year). The issue also isn’t to challenge churches’ nonprofit status. Those are worthwhile conversations, but the real issue is the embarrassment the closed books should cause Christians. What do churches have to hide? Nothing, you say? It sure doesn’t looks like it. American Christians, this exception makes your religion look bad.

Christians should be leading the charge on this issue. They should be telling their representatives that churches don’t need the secrecy of closed financial records. The only benefit would be to hide fraud or financial excesses such as lavish mansions or excessive salaries. Does a high-profile televangelist deserve an enormous salary? I’m not sure that that’s how Jesus rolled, but whatever—simply make it public to the society that is helping to foot the bill.

You remember Jesus, right? He’s the guy who told the rich man, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” What would Jesus say about churches’ secrecy?

If executives at public corporations and other nonprofits can make their salaries known, surely God’s representatives can do the same.

Isn’t it ironic that an atheist must point this out? If Christianity has something to teach society about morality, shouldn’t it be setting the example by taking the narrow path? And if God can critique the books—and consequently judge the church’s leadership in eternity—what possible concern could there be about letting the rest of us see?

Sensitive to the problem, some organizations within the Christian community have emerged to restore confidence. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability imposes on its members standards of financial accountability and transparency. Membership becomes a seal of approval. Another organization is MinistryWatch, which evaluates ministries for the benefit of potential donors. While these affect some big ministries, they do nothing to illuminate the workings of the vast majority of the 350,000 congregations in the United States.

In 2007, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) investigated six high-profile ministries that each had revenue in the $100-million-per-year range. He wasn’t an insignificant busybody; this was a U.S. Senator on the Senate Finance Committee, and understanding where the money went and trying to restore confidence and accountability was his job. However, the playing field has been so tipped in Christianity’s favor that five of them felt comfortable not cooperating, and they got away with it.

The solution is available and it already works for the 1.5 million nonprofits large and small that fill out IRS 990 forms every year. The 990 does the job, it’s been in use for 75 years, and it should be our window into the operation of all nonprofits, including churches. These forms are easily and anonymously accessible from sites like GuideStar or Charity Navigator. If a church has enough revenue to keep records, it can fill out the form. There is a four-page 990-EZ for organizations with less than $200,000 in revenue, and an even simpler 990-N for those with less than $50,000.

The change is trivial to make: simply amend the document “Instructions for Form 990” by striking the first four items from section B, “Organizations Not Required To File Form 990.” That’s it. The only difficult part might be the church leadership taking a deep breath and disclosing to the world how they spend your money.

Keep in mind who benefits from the status quo. Wouldn’t you like to see Scientology and other cults forced to disclose their assets?

Christians, I know that many in Congress are eager to subsidize Christianity, but tell them that you don’t want it. Tell them that your religion doesn’t need a crutch and that its activities can withstand the light of scrutiny like every other nonprofit. Secret financial records benefit no one except those with something to hide.

The overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward.
— Titus 1:7

Other relevant posts:

Image credit: Nick Ares, flickr, CC

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • JBrown971

    Broad Brush! Which churches are being secretive? Did Grassely find any financial misconduct? Or did a vast right wing Christian conspiracy ‘tip the scales’ preventing his investigation?

    I have been a member of many and served on the board of multiple congregations. I have yet to come to a church where I couldn’t see the budget/balance sheet if requested.

    I completely disagree with any church that chooses to endorse a politician or political party.

    Ironically, when the Christian God appears to fail, the non-believer is quick to request we all pray to the secular god, government, for the answer.

    • watcher_b

      I appreciate that you want statistics as far as how many churches are being secretive and what evidence there is of misconduct. But then you point out your own personal experience as if it is the norm.

      Having gone to church for 30+ years, I personally have Never been to a church where they show that level of detail as required by the 990 forms. And I have been to a number of churches where they flat out refuse to show even its members the budget/balance sheet in order to avoid criticism. Even the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability profiles only show revenue and expenditures (not salaries of the pastors).

      I also have never been to a church around election time that did not endorse or denounce a candidate from the pulpit, which to me to all kinds of shady if they are claiming to be a non-profit. (and would be an example of the financial misconduct you mention above)

      The point of the article is to cry out against the entitlement culture of the church here in America and propose they follow the same rules as everyone else.

      I’d like to see the change go even further and tighten up the rules for non-profits; that being a religious organization is not enough and it must be contributing, financially, to the community in some way as any charity would.

      • JBrown971

        I think instead of additional regulation on non-profits, we need to slim out the tax code. The result would be the same with far less government oppression.

        Curious, what misconduct do you believe to be occurring that the government must correct? Furthermore, whose version of government gets to set what is misconduct.

        • Greg G.

          There are no additional regulations on non-profits. The laws are to keep partisan politics away from non-profit organizations.

        • JBrown971

          Sure. Lois Lerner?

        • Greg G.

          Right. She investigated many tax-exempt entities but the IRS crossed the Tea Party, though the FBI and Justice Department found no evidence of wrong-doing.

        • JBrown971

          That is the Obama version.

        • instead of additional regulation on non-profits

          If you read the article, that’s clearly not what I’m proposing. I’m proposing that we drop some exceptions to simplify the rules. Instead of “Every nonprofit files a 990 … except churches,” it’s “Every nonprofit files a 990.” Understand?

        • JBrown971

          Right, exactly like removing tax exemptions, they aren’t adding taxes.

        • I’d like to see churches lose their tax-exempt status, but that’s not the topic here. I don’t know how adding/removing taxes suddenly became an issue.

        • JBrown971

          You said, “I’m proposing that we drop some exceptions to simplify the rules.” Which is like saying, “removing tax exemptions, they aren’t adding taxes.”

          I assume you agree that removing tax exemption is adding taxes; thus removing regulatory exemptions is adding regulations.

        • watcher_b

          I get the distinct impression that you are not reading anyone’s replies or care what anyone has to say. I could be wrong. You are involved in a lot of conversations on this blog and it probably gets confusing. So I’ll just reply to this and you are more than welcome to have the final word in this discussion with me.

          I think instead of additional regulation on non-profits, we need to slim out the tax code.

          As Bob mentioned below, that by slimming down the exceptions to the law I 100% agree with you. I am proposing tightening up the definition of “non-profit” and not having any exceptions so that there aren’t any loop holes or vagueness games to be available to groups, specifically churches. I am claiming that churches are taking advantage of the over complicated tax code by getting extra rules put in to exempt themselves and creating a vague scenario where they do not have to prove that they are not a non-profit.

          Curious, what misconduct do you believe to be occurring that the government must correct?

          Like I said (and many people have said in this comment section), the misconduct of churches breaking the law by not paying the taxes that political groups are required to pay by endorsing and denouncing candidates.

          Furthermore, whose version of government gets to set what is misconduct.

          I don’t understand the question…. the version of government that gets to set what is misconduct is the version of government that gets voted in? I mean, it is tax law we are talking about here.

          If congress decides that political organizations and lobbyist groups get to not pay taxes AND help define the laws that benefit them… I don’t know, that is kind of a dumb way to go about things; but if you really feel that is necessary since churches have a hard enough time following the law when money is involved go ahead and try to convince people to vote that way.

    • adam

      “Ironically, when the Christian God appears to fail,”

      Which has been EVERY SINGLE TIME.

      “the non-believer is
      quick to request we all pray to the secular god, government, for the
      answer.”

      You mean believers go to the government.
      That is WHY they want government sanctions to keep from paying their fair share of taxes.

      • JBrown971

        I was hoping you would post that. It actually fits here.

        • adam

          Yes, it actually represents Jefferson’s belief that the “Church” was corrupt and seeking power with the despots.

    • Greg G.

      Broad Brush! Which churches are being secretive?

      http://www.pgdc.com/pgdc/grassley-baucus-urge-four-ministries-cooperate

      Did Grassely find any financial misconduct?

      Apparently only one shared allowed their books to be checked. That may have been the only one that didn’t have financial misconduct or could cover it.

      I completely disagree with any church that chooses to endorse a politician or political party.

      A church is free to support any politics they wish but they cannot claim to be a non-profit entity. If non-profits could do this, it would allow political parties to operate tax-free.

      Ironically, when the Christian God appears to fail, the non-believer is quick to request we all pray to the secular god, government, for the answer.

      It’s always we, the people, who do the answering. Ever notice that?

      • JBrown971

        I think you argue for the sake of arguing.

        So, no misconduct.

        We agree on church and political affiliation.

        It is not ‘we the people’. It’s, the government entity that will care for our every need/complaint. If it were ‘we the people’ the government wouldn’t have its tentacles in every orifice scrounging for more taxes. This would be a non-issue if the tax code was a bloated weighted on the citizens.

        • Greg G.

          I think you argue for the sake of arguing.

          Sure. If I’m wrong, I want to be convinced that I am wrong.

          So, no misconduct.

          We don’t no that. We only know that there was no misconduct found. If they were like other non-profits with nothing to hide, wouldn’t they cooperate? Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland were among those who refused to cooperate. Creflo Dollar is the TV evangelist who is asking for donations toward a $65 million jet. Prosperity preachers claim private planes prevent flying with ‘demons’ on commercial airlines [Christian Examiner].

          The IRS is not even investigating these churches. The government is doing nothing because the government is full of Christians who get their support through these churches.

        • JBrown971

          So let do a fishing expedition and see if we can find some wrong doing. Jets are obviously sinful. Vast right wing Christian conspiracy.

        • What part of $34 billion in church fraud every year do you not understand?

        • JBrown971

          I accept your call to action for the Christian church. However, is this governments responsibility to determine proper stewardship or do the congregants own the responsibility? If you are swindled, who is to blame? Furthermore, who will be the judge of the truth claims regarding religion to determine the swindling?

          If I give to my congregation because I believe it is properly doing the work of God in spreading his word; could a non-believing politician believe that I am being swindled?

        • adam

          “could a non-believing politician believe that I am being swindled?”

          Actually a non-believing politician could PROVE that you were being swindled and it might make no difference at all…

          Peter Popoff
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Popoff

        • Greg G.

          If I give to my congregation because I believe it is properly doing the work of God in spreading his word; could a non-believing politician believe that I am being swindled?

          Of course, but it comes down to evidence. If a person is being swindled, somebody should be paying taxes on the con game. A good scam leaves the victims not even knowing they were scammed. If a church is doing that to its members, they should be investigated.

        • JBrown971

          Define the victim in donations if they see the wealth and excess of the minister?

          As an example, I thought the Wounded Warrior Project was a good organization. As it turns out, those in charge are making a healthy salary. Have I been swindled, should they face some sort of reprimand? No, I just won’t support them any further. If enough people feel that way, they will cease to exist. If the more feel the organization is still providing a good service, they will keep going. The church is the same. If the congregation is ok with the wealth of the minister, why are you concerned? Why do (or government) get to determine who is a victim and what is the work of the church? With the exception of the currently laws regarding political affiliation.

        • adam

          “Define the victim in donations if they see the wealth and excess of the minister?”

          Someone who donated money for a project and that money went to the excess of the minister…

          Too easy.

          “If the congregation is ok with the wealth of the minister, why are you concerned?”

          Fraud on gullible, ignorant or stupid people.

        • If the congregation is ok with the wealth of the minister, why are you concerned?

          You don’t get it. How many Christians know the salaries of the church staff? How many who give to televangelists know the salaries and luxuries (if any) of the stars on the show?

          You’re avoiding the issue: is there any upside to churches having closed financial records?

        • adam

          ” is there any upside to churches having closed financial records?”

          Easy to hide fraud, theft and lies?

        • Quite so. I doubt any parishioner would want that, though.

          I’m trying to go behind the backs of the Christian and GOP leadership to appeal to the ordinary Christians. Am I missing something? Or is this falling-off-a-log easy for Christians to get behind?

        • adam

          ” Am I missing something? ”

          The complete lack of morality in christianity.

          As MNb, these people all identify as ‘sinners’

          So christians should expect fraud.

        • Philmonomer

          I can see a plausible argument (I’m not saying I’d agree with it), but I can see a plausible argument that the salaries of church staff would be freely released to any member of the church (but not necessarily to those outside of it).

          If a church won’t release salaries to its own members (of everyone, including its most senior pastor), I think there is a massive problem there.

          And, ideally, any church should freely tell salaries to anyone who asks (that is, they should have nothing to hide).

        • I can see how a church might be embarrassed by its salaries, but I couldn’t care less. Where’s the plausible part of the argument?

          If Fortune 500 companies can disclose their executives’ salaries, I think God’s leaders here on earth can do so.

        • Philmonomer

          I can see how a church might be embarrassed by its salaries, but I couldn’t care less. Where’s the plausible part of the argument?

          To my mind, the members of the church pay the salary (so they are entitled to the information), just like the shareholders “pay” the salary of the executives.

          Others (outside) aren’t paying. (Although you could argue that tax-exempt status entitles the public to the information.)

          At any rate, I think they should disclose.

        • adam

          ” (Although you could argue that tax-exempt status entitles the public to the information.)”

          I would

        • JBrown971

          How are you so sure they don’t? Why is the assumption blind ignorance? (oh, that’s right because their are religious) It is very obvious which preachers are living higher on the hog than the congregant.

          The upside is the inability for the government to determine when a congregant is being defrauded on the basis of deceit. If you think religion itself is a fraud, wouldn’t you desire all preaching punished in order to protect the congregant? If not, how do you live with yourself?

        • adam

          ” If you think religion itself is a fraud, wouldn’t you desire all preaching punished in order to protect the congregant?”

          I think you are on to something here.

          If a church is going to CLAIM eternal life for your donations and support shouldnt they provide evidence of such. You know Truth in Advertisment https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising

          Now if they are raising money to feed children in the slums of Phily and raise a hundred dollars and only give a nickel to Phily, shouldnt that be demonstrated as FRAUD as well? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/49f1bc51f0fdf744257eb1e6d95ca429985d74f4032c93279caae5b7781828c7.jpg

        • That you continue to apologize for the church amazes me. Secret financial records is indefensible. Or am I missing something? If so, tell me why secret finances should continue.

          Is there fraud? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s worry about that in step 2. First, let’s work on getting the books open to the public.

          You’re desperate attempts at changing the subject are becoming annoying.

        • JBrown971

          I am not arguing that a Church should never disclose. Nor am I arguing that criminality should not be punished. I am arguing that church should not be required disclose it books to the government or any simpleton fishing for a reason to attack their choices in financial matters. As those choices, to the unbeliever are all fraudulent in nature. Right? Requesting money for what you perceive to be an imaginary entity would be fraud according you, would it not?

          However, if a church intentionally withholds financial information from everyone (without engaging in illegal activity), it is on the congregation to hold its leadership in check. If the congregants fail to do such, they themselves are being poor stewards of the gifts God has given them.

          Regardless of what you feel happens behind the closed doors of some congregations or whether they are being suspiciously secretive, injecting government into the financials of all congregations sounds nothing like a separation of church/state.

        • I am arguing that church should not be required disclose it books to the government or any simpleton fishing for a reason to attack their choices in financial matters. As those choices, to the unbeliever are all fraudulent in nature. Right?

          Wrong.

          Requesting money for what you perceive to be an imaginary entity would be fraud according you, would it not?

          No. Fraud is defined by laws, and I’m happy with those.

          You’ve not answered the question. I’ll make it easy for you. Fill in the blank: “Churches should be allowed to keep their finances secret because ___.”

          I’m stating the simple fact that churches keeping secret records makes them look bad. Are they spending their money wisely? Maybe. But who knows? That the records are secret hurts Christianity. You disagree? What message do you think that sends?

          Regardless of what you feel happens behind the closed doors of some congregations or whether they are being suspiciously secretive, injecting government into the financials of all congregations sounds nothing like a separation of church/state.

          Nice try, but no. The First Amendment says that government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion. That works for me.

          If a church wants to also become a nonprofit, that’s a different story. They certainly can, but they do that with the IRS, and strings are attached. Everyone who gets this benefit from society (through the IRS) should show that they are, indeed, providing the public service that they promised.

        • JBrown971

          “Churches should be allowed to keep their finances secret because ___.”

          Again, you use the word secret when you really mean not public or known by the government. Completely different ideas. How can I answer your question if it is built a false premise?

          Greg and Adam have happily placed Christian doctrine in the ‘fraud’ category as defined by law. They are the reason government should not be allowed view the ‘secret’ (using your definition) financials of church. Because fraud could be used to attach religion by controlling the finances. If that is not the case, please correct Greg and Adam.

        • adam

          ” Because fraud could be used to attach religion by controlling the finances. ”

          Nope, but by not giving them a tax FREE ride on the public teat.

          “Greg and Adam have happily placed Christian doctrine in the ‘fraud’ category as defined by law.”

          Nope, not happily, but REALISTICALLY….

          IF they are making claims and promises they can’t demonstrate as true while collecting money then THAT is FRAUD.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quackery

          So it seems to be YOUR position that ‘religion’ should be exempt from FRAUD and Quackery by government, because…..

          Jesus?

        • If you have a disagreement with Greg and/or Adam, I’m sure that you and they can work it out.

          I don’t usually do this, but for this post, I’m actually trying to do you a favor. The books are secret, and your euphemisms do nothing to change that fact.

          This is what criminals do, so why do you put up with it? It’s making you look bad, bro.

          You’re running from the issue. You refuse to engage. What does that tell you?

        • Greg G.

          Again, you use the word secret when you really mean not public or known by the government. Completely different ideas. How can I answer your question if it is built a false premise?

          You are playing the semantics card. Secrets may be shared with members but withheld from outsiders. Isn’t that how many churches treat their financial information? It may not be treated as “top secret” information but just saying it is not secret doesn’t mean it is not secret information.

          Greg and Adam have happily placed Christian doctrine in the ‘fraud’ category as defined by law.

          Greg who? There is a frequent commenter whose handle is “Greg” who happens to be a Christian.

          This Greg has pointed out that there isn’t much difference between many religious claims and fraud except as defined by law, where religion gets a pass.

        • Greg G.

          Why do (or government) get to determine who is a victim and what is the work of the church? With the exception of the currently laws regarding political affiliation.

          There is often a fine line between the work of the church and fraud. Who else but the governing body to do it? We don’t allow human sacrifice no matter what the religion. We don’t allow tortured confessions of witchcraft anymore. It’s a matter of where to draw the line. We require warning labels on cigarettes. Psychics have to display something like “for entertainment only” signs. Religion has no better proof of effectiveness than psychics. If people are paying for a seat license for weekly gospel singing and to have a preacher yell at them, that is their choice. If they are being bamboozled out of their money by preachers taking advantage of their gullibility and greed by promising wealth in the future for seed money now, that’s more fraudulent than a Pontiac scheme. If a parishioner happens to come into some money, it is dishonest to take credit for it in order to suckered in more victims. Promising a heavenly reward would be the height of scam. Yet people call it “religion” and it works for any religion.

          PS:

          If the congregation is ok with the wealth of the minister, why are you concerned?

          Why are the victims not concerned about it? Why are you not concerned about it?

        • adam

          “Why are the victims not concerned about it? Why are you not concerned about it?”

          Because he KNOWS that they are greedy sinners and HIS ‘god’ forgives them for lying, cheating and stealing, so why shouldnt he?

          Besides look at what kind of ‘god’ they worship:

        • In response to the cartoon: the wife wasn’t killed, only the children. So not so bad after all!

        • JBrown971

          “Religion has no better proof of effectiveness than psychics.”

          This is why the books will never be public. You claim equal regulation, but that will quickly change as the government begins to assert what is religion. You choose ‘human sacrifice’ as the low hanging fruit. No is claiming that, but if the government decides when a congregant is swindled, they get to determine the religion.

          I am not defending the wrong doers; either those politicking from from the pulpit or the prosperity gospel people. My point is that government never takes one step, rather it starts an entire new path. Explain how this won’t become an easy way to control the speak from the pulpit under the guise that the bureaucracy feels the speech is deceitful. Simply making the playing field level between non-profits discounts the difference between religious and non-religious entities on how they service their product.

        • Philmonomer

          This is why the books will never be public.

          Churches should freely give out the salaries of their staff. There should be nothing to hide.

        • JBrown971

          Agreed. I disagree with the IRS involvement.

        • So you do want the exemption removed?

        • Philmonomer

          Do you think most Christian churches give out the salary of their staff (including pastors)?

        • Greg G.

          Non-profit organizations are not permitted to play partisan politics. If churches do not want IRS involvement, they should play by the law and not invite their scrutiny. If they want to be able to push their agenda into politics, they should give up their exemption and pay their share of taxes.

          Churches are getting away with less scrutiny than other non-profits. If they push the envelope, they are asking for scrutiny.

        • So are you saying that churches should fill out 990 forms like other nonprofits?

        • rabbit

          and also their sources of income, especially if those sources are church-run businesses. If other non-profits (which are not taxed) must show such income, so should churches. If churches find this openness threatening, well, that says something about them–and the amount of money involved– doesn’t it?

        • This is why the books will never be public. You claim equal regulation, but that will quickly change as the government begins to assert what is religion.

          The government already does decide what’s religion, that’s the problem! The government needs to understand what’s a church and what’s not so that it can know who’s entitled to keeping secret books.

          Fraud is fraud. Whether it was done by a religious leader or not is a red herring.

          Explain how this won’t become an easy way to control the speak from the pulpit under the guise that the bureaucracy feels the speech is deceitful.

          What part of “this only affects the secret books” do you not understand?

          And tell me any legitimate reason a church could have for maintaining secret books. Am I missing something? Don’t be shy–tell me.

        • adam

          “This is why the books will never be public. You claim equal regulation,
          but that will quickly change as the government begins to assert what is
          religion. ”

          Government already asserts what is religion.
          And christian government influence limits other religions that dont agree with their own.

          I cant create a religion with peyote (and a number of other things) as a sacrament.

        • Greg G.

          I pointed out human sacrifice as an obvious limit to what can be called religion. But there is a gradient of questionable religious practices that go too far. The Bible commands children to be stoned for sassing their parents. Parents who decide to pray for healing when a child has a deadly disease that can be treated is another. How much risk can a religion go to as a matter of faith with children? Religion is all fun and games until they kill a child.

          A person’s freedom to swing his fist ends at the next guy’s nose. A person’s freedom to practice religion ends when they try to practice on someone else. Practicing partisan politics to pass laws on religious restrictions is practicing religion on others.

          Christians fled Europe to come to America because church and state were not separate and other religions were oppressed. That is why our government is separate from religion.

        • rabbit

          I agree with you–what about religion-based laws requiring women to die (be denied available medical treatment) because they have for whatever reason become pregnant?

        • rascal barquecat

          The founding of the US was galvanized by “No Taxation Without Representation!” but you seem to be quite content with churches getting representation without taxation or even accountability. If churches want to maintain their special tax exempt status, they should have to follow the same rules as other tax exempt entities and file a 990. It’s a simple concept which you seem to be having a hard time comprehending by continuing to promote a strawman.
          (Hint: The 990 doesn’t have a space for listing the previous years sermons.)

        • rabbit

          Other non-profits, as a condition of their non-profit tax status, must keep their books open (and most of them have demonstrable public benefits). Why not churches? Other non-profits are not taxed because their books are open, but people can see the six-figure salaries of charity CEOs before they donate. What are churches afraid of? Well, some of us have an idea, because some churches are big businesses with massive untaxed profits.

        • tsig

          Since I have to pay more taxes to make up for what the church doesn’t pay I have a direct financial interest in the running of the church.

        • MNb

          In civilized countries swindling is a crime. Perhaps not in the theocracy you’d like to establish?

        • adam

          ” Perhaps not in the theocracy you’d like to establish?”

          What was that you said about sinners and greed?

        • is this governments responsibility to determine proper stewardship or do the congregants own the responsibility?

          The government should keep its nose out of religion—how’s that for a good plan? But that means that when it hands out goodies to religion, little benefits that only religion gets and others don’t, that’s not the way things are supposed to work.

          And you’re saying that you’re OK with churches’ closed books? I realize that very few Christians think about this (or even know about it), but you do agree that this makes Christianity look very bad, don’t you?

          If you are swindled, who is to blame?

          I’m trying to do you a favor. The status quo makes your religion look bad.

          Furthermore, who will be the judge of the truth claims regarding religion to determine the swindling?

          The truth claims regarding religion don’t hold up, but that’s a different topic.

          If I give to my congregation because I believe it is properly doing the work of God in spreading his word; could a non-believing politician believe that I am being swindled?

          Is this a long-winded way of defending the status quo? What possible upside is there to churches keeping closed books?

        • JBrown971

          Is viewing the financials of the churches your only desire? For what purpose?

          If your charge is that churches who have closed books (I assume you mean closed to the IRS or non-members) are capable of committing ‘X’ crimes. You have yet to prove any crimes are actually happening. Thus I ask, what misconduct are your claiming is occurring? Purchasing jets? Building large Cathedrals? Weekly offerings in access of [insert dollar amount]? Well paid ministers?

          Currently, the answers to all those are based on the desire of the congregation. If they support the decision, they give their offering. If the government believes a con has occurred, how do they separate con from willing stewardship? Who sets that criteria?

        • Is viewing the financials of the churches your only desire?

          No, but it’s a biggie. And it’s probably the only issue where my position should be the Christians’ position (am I missing some reason why secret books legitimately helps an honest church?).

          If your charge is that churches who have closed books (I assume you mean closed to the IRS or non-members)

          Yes, but my focus is closed to the IRS (that is, the public).

          You have yet to prove any crimes are actually happening.

          You haven’t been reading the news. Gospel for Asia has problems:

          http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2016/02/09/details-about-the-fraud-lawsuit-against-gospel-for-asia-full-text/

          http://ministrywatch.com/pdf/MWDA_113015_GFA.pdf

          http://www.worldmag.com/2015/10/ecfa_strips_gospel_for_asia_s_membership’

          Open books would reduce the chance of more.

          I have no ability or interest in proving crimes. Not the issue. The issue is that nonprofits promise society that they will do good. In return, we give them nonprofit status. Are they doing good? They provide open books so we can see.

          What do churches have to hide that they can’t do the same? Why the reluctance on their part or on your part?

          Currently, the answers to all those are based on the desire of the congregation.

          Why is the atheist teaching the Christian about right and wrong? Society gives nonprofits a benefit, and in return they open their books to prove that they’re providing that benefit. Why do churches need an exception?

        • Philmonomer

          Are you saying that churches freely give out the salaries of their staff to their members? If you were a member of Mars Hill church (Mark Driscoll’s church), Mark Driscoll would tell you his salary if you asked? I sincerely doubt it.

        • rabbit

          +churches don’t pay taxes because they are non-profits

          +other non-profits don’t pay taxes–their financials are transparent

          +churches, like other non-profits, should make their financials transparent as a condition of their tax exempt status

          +it’s only fair–non-profits show they have nothing to hide–most don’t mind–

          +hesitation on the part of churches makes it look like they have something to hide–

          +(and many of us, who are paying more and more taxes now–think they do)

          +Opening their books would be self-protective–show they, like other non-profits, were honest groups providing genuine benefit to society

        • Greg G.

          +Opening their books would be self-protective–show they, like other non-profits, were honest groups providing genuine benefit to society

          Now you’ve gone too far.

        • rabbit

          hee hee

        • Greg G.

          No, it was only about the TV evangelists who preach a prosperity gospel. Do you think that is a wholesome religion. Old lonely people are sending in their meager monthly income to people who live in mansions. They are being exploited. You are supporting the exploiters of poor people.

        • XCellKen

          I see the people going into Lakewood Church. They are on the lower end of the socio economic ladder. They really can’t afford to be supporting Joel Osteen with $600k in weekly donations

        • JBrown971

          Can you prove this? I agree the religion of the prosperity gospel is extremely suspect, but can you prove your claim.

        • Greg G.

          but can you prove your claim.

          United States Senate inquiry into the tax-exempt status of religious organizations

          On November 5, 2007, United States Senator Chuck Grassley announced an investigation into the tax-exempt status of six ministries under the leadership of Benny Hinn, Paula White, Eddie L. Long, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland by the United States Senate Committee on Finance.

          List of television evangelists

          Kenneth Copeland (born 1936)
          Creflo Dollar (born 1962)
          Benny Hinn (born 1952)
          Eddie L. Long (born 1953)
          Joyce Meyer (born 1943)
          Paula White (born 1966)

          Christian Rapper Calls Out, Names Prosperity Preachers

          His full list of false teachers calls out Osteen, Meyer, Jakes, Dollar, Hinn, Paula White, Fred Price, Kenneth Copland, Robert Tilton, Eddie Long, Juanita Bynum and Paul Crouch. [my bolding. their spelling]

        • rabbit

          better known as con artists

        • Greg G.

          AKA swindlers, defrauders, chiselers, gougers, scammers, grifters, deceivers, cheats, tricksters, beguilers, and slickers.

        • Yeah, I see what you mean about the taxes. The top marginal rates have come down dramatically.

          https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Historical_Marginal_Tax_Rate_for_Highest_and_Lowest_Income_Earners.jpg

        • XCellKen

          You’re wasting your time. Right wingers do NOT understand the difference between marginal and effective tax rates

      • Joyce Meyer, admirably, cooperated fully. The other five told Grassley to, in effect, go fuck himself. (But I’m sure they were polite about it, so it’s OK.)

        • Greg G.

          I saw a meme of Winston Churchill on FaceBook with a quote (from memory): “Tact is the ability to tell somebody to go to hell so that they look forward to the trip.”

        • XCellKen

          The polite response is ” Go perform a sex act upon yourself which is anatomically impossible”

        • Greg G.

          “Go forth and multiply yourself.”

      • Rudy R

        We the we people or god. Democracy or dictatorship.

    • Cognissive Disco Dance

      Ironically, when the Christian God appears to fail, the non-believer is quick to request we all pray to the secular god, government, for the answer.

      Ironically when the Christian God appears to fail, people keep praying to the Christian God instead of maybe trying out other gods or even a turnip and getting the same results.

    • There was a study that said that 92% of congregations (not “Christians”) allow members to ask to see the books. First, that means that 8% refuse. Second, that you can’t look at the books anonymously; you’ve got to insult the leadership (in effect) by asking to see the books. Third, that does nothing for the rest of us who can’t see the books. Fourth, even if every church allowed it, you still don’t have a single, comprehensive, anonymous database where you can see any 990 within seconds. Imagine how long it might take you to find that information if you were told, “OK, it’s at this web site somewhere–Go!”

      Details on the Grassley investigation at my post here.

      You don’t like for nonbelievers looking to the government for help. Are there other options besides just us? If so, show me how they’re helpful.

      I’ll remind you that “the secular god, government” gave us the internet, GPS, a man on the moon, no smallpox, and nuclear energy. Thanks, government.

      • JBrown971

        Exactly what misconduct are you looking for?

        I love how you cite yourself.

        “I’ll remind you that “the secular god, government” gave us the internet, GPS, a man on the moon, no smallpox, and nuclear energy. Thanks, government.”

        Nice stock response.

        • I love how you cite yourself.

          I love how you don’t bother researching the blog before you ask.

          Nice stock response.

          I’m a little thick. Are you saying, “Yes, I agree to all your points”? Since you didn’t even try to rebut any of them, I’m guessing that’s the case, but the tone of your comment didn’t seem to be saying that.

          I guess we’re on the same page now?

        • XCellKen

          Nice non reply

        • L.Long

          The type of answer you get from someone who knows the church gives next to nothing to anyone! Much less gives anything useful to humanity.

    • MNb

      “Broad Brush!”
      Perhaps. But you as a christian accept the concept of sin – specifically the sin of greed. So you should expect churches, which are run by sinners, to commit fraud. That is, if you take your own belief system seriously, which I at this point highly doubt. And no, the Bible doesn’t say that only right wing christians are guilty of the sin of greed.

    • Rudy R

      I completely disagree with any church that chooses to endorse a politician or political party.

      Do you disagree with your church’s endorsement of a politician or that they’re breaking the terms of their tax-exemption agreement? It’s commendable that you respect the law, but do you speak for the majority of Christians who vote, based on their minister’s recommendations? I think not. I know it’s anecdotal, but I’ve never heard a Christian complain about a minister endorsing a politician. Churches aren’t forced to take the tax-exemption, but the when they do, the agreement is that ministers won’t endorse a candidate on the pulpit. But many do and feel slighted when confronted. So much for Christian morals.

      • JBrown971

        I think the pattern of the country over the last one hundred years has been away from individual responsibility toward more dependency on assumed authority entities. The same goes for the church goers. Some are looking for more guidance (outside the Bible) and hence look to churches that play a larger political role. While I have no concrete evidence, I would assume those congregation that take on the authority of God (Creflo Dollar) vs serve God will more likely to also claim political allegiances. While many are within the liberal/progressive wing of the Christianity, there are fringe right groups (Westboro) doing a lot of the same thing.

        I think if a church wishes to go political, they deserve to own the tax implications.

    • L.Long

      It aint so much that ALL churches are secretive or dishonest but that the churches get a free pass and do not have to pay large sums to bookkeepers to do the work that other charities have to do and submit to the gov’mint!! So what the xtian controlled gov’mint is saying indirectly is that we give ANOTHER cost savings to churches automatically and we also think that ALL other charities are criminals so they must PROVE their status, but churches, because JESUS, are automatically considered honest, with NO PROOF that they are!!!
      And YOU as a church member may be able to see their books, but would they let a fraud investigator look at them?????

    • Believing the government should regulate tax-exempt organizations is not “praying to the secular god”, for crying out loud. Hyperbole much?

      • rabbit

        More than a few churches own and/or are big businesses.

    • Otto

      I notice many Christians will ‘pray to the god of government’ in order to attempt to regulate the lives of others when God is ineffective.

      • busterggi

        Christians are also quick to pray to the ‘god of government’ for financial rescue from natural disasters aka ‘acts of god’.

      • Yes, and isn’t that curious? The “small government” conservatives suddenly want to give government power to control peoples’ lives–and by that, I mean “lives of people who aren’t like me.”

  • MNb

    “Nothing, you say?”

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/walterpavlo/2013/11/18/fraud-thriving-in-u-s-churches-but-you-wouldnt-know-it/#364e6cf76fea

    Christianity is all about sin – and believers being sinners. One of the capital sins is greed. So christians should expect fraud.

    • Good link. That adds more to the fraud data that I’d seen.

      Churches lose more to mismanagement and fraud than they spend on spreading the word ($45B vs. $32B). Wow.

  • Greg G.

    This has me wondering about the businesses these “seven day a week” churches run as services, such as day care, after school, and classes. Do they charge a feed for these? Is the check made out to the church making it tax-deductible? That would shift the tax burden to others. Are their day care services subject to the same regulations as secular day care? If the church profits from these services, they should pay tax on them just like any other business. Why should everybody else be responsible for the infrastructure that provides the roads to their churches?

    • XCellKen

      Back in the late 90s, when I fooled myself into believing Christianity was still relevant, I belonged to the neighborhood Methodist Church. A young lady wanted to run a day care center there. The City of Houston sent a person to look at the building, which was built in 1955. Bathrooms weren’t ACA compliant, etc. It would’ve cost $20k or thereabouts to bring the building up to code. So the day care was a no go.

      Also, a health inspector from the city came by once a year to inspect the kitchen. I was there once when she came by. A funny story for another day.

    • I understand that church services have fewer regulations.

    • rabbit

      It’s more than that–there is, just as an example, this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology_as_a_business

      • If only Scientology’s books were open … wait a minute–what am I saying?! They’re a church, so it’s OK.

        • rabbit

          and they aren’t the only ones–think hospitals, for example…

  • tsig

    The Full True Gospel Fire Baptized Second Coming Holiness Church account sheet:

    Income: 20 million

    Pastors salary: 10 million

    Pastors house: 5 million

    Pastors Travel expenses: 5 million

    Pastors Misc. expenses 2 million

    As you can see we are in the red so dig deep and give your mite to god AKA The Pastor.

    • Greg G.

      The Lord commands the pastor to not spend his salary on his expenses so dig deep into your pockets until they are empty.

  • Philmonomer

    This is a fascinating link. I think the study of Church salaries is severely marred by the fact that participation is voluntary.

    http://leadnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2014-Salary-Report_082914_reduced-print1.pdf

    • Philmonomer

      Indeed, reading through the fine print, the survey only got responses from 15 percent of the churches it identified as large (that is, Protestant Churches who have current worship attendance of at least 1000 people).

      It identified 4994 such churches, and got (voluntary) valid responses from 727 of them.

      So these results could be hugely wrong (although likely not).

      • those churches with the most embarrassing numbers were most likely to not participate, I’m guessing.

        • Philmonomer

          If someone really wanted to do some investigative digging, one way to get at this issue would be to try to examine Pastor’s homes.

          Given the massive tax incentives for homes–essentially, the part of the pastor’s income spent on anything related to the home, including the mortgage, is tax free (unless the church has a parsonage–which most don’t anymore). So those with lavish homes are almost certainly doing very, very well.

          And home ownership records are (in theory) public records. You just have to find them.

          I wonder what Mark Driscoll’s home is worth?

        • To go off on a tangent, the huge difficulty of finding the worth, church by church, shows the value in having a single database of all these financial records, and in a consistent format. That’s why the IRS 990 (in use for 75 years) and databases like Charity Navigator are so valuable … for regular nonprofits, anyway.

        • Philmonomer

          Good point.

  • Pofarmer

    More from the fount of objective morality.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/10/catholic-bishops-not-obliged-report-clerical-child-abuse-vatican-says

    Catholic Bishops not obliged to report Child Abuse

    • Incredible.

      “According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds”

      How does that work?? Where the church must report, the Vatican is saying to flout the law? I hadn’t seen it stated so blatantly before.

      • Pofarmer

        It means they want to spirit the offending charachters away to the Vatican to avoid trial.

        • These guys want to teach morality to us? What’s wrong with this picture?

        • rabbit

          or move them to a different parish where they have fresh blood

  • epicurus

    I’ve heard that American farmers get a fair bit of subsidization, so it’s interesting when some of the rural, anti big government/cut taxes people start getting on their high horse. That’s another sacred cow that will probably never be examined.

    • The difference there, I imagine, is that you can make an argument for subsidizing agriculture (even without pork barrel issues). Not so secret books.

  • Sheila Warner

    This issue really struck me when I finished your book “A Modern Christmas Carol” just a couple of weeks ago. I had no idea this was going on. I won’t hold my breath waiting for churches to begin asking for that form and filling it out voluntarily!

    • If there actually were the supernatural, maybe that could pound some sense into the televangelists getting fat off the system.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

  • candide

    Churches and other religious institutions do much charitable work. But we don’t know really how much of what they receive through donations and tax exemptions really gets to those in need. Secular charities have a terrible record of using large percentages of their take on benefits for their top officials. Clergy in some denominations are relatively poor. In others, they wear Rolex watches and drive Mercedes cars. It would be good if they were reduced to apostolic poverty. The current pope is a man who lives simply and in apostolic poverty; most of his previous popes have lived in scandalous luxury and their chief aides even more so.

    I have the impression that black clergy, like black politicians, are very much on the take.

    • Maybe 15 years ago United Way got into trouble because their CEO was making a lot. How do we know he/she was making a lot? Because their books were open. Is there a lesson here?

      Secular charities have a terrible record of using large percentages of their take on benefits for their top officials.

      I disagree. Show me the overhead. For the best, it’s less than 10%. I’ll grant you that there are bad apples, but they’re pretty few … again to a large extent because the books are open.

      Churches and other religious institutions do much charitable work.

      Oh? How much are we talking about? If only those books were open, we could find out …

    • Greg G.

      I have the impression that black clergy, like black politicians, are very much on the take.

      I don’t think singling out any race makes it more accurate for clergy or for politicians.

  • Guthrum

    Let me say from the top that I do support full openness and transparency in the financial affairs of churches, and not just because of the tax exemption. Our church had monthly financial reports that detailed contributions, expenditures, funds, and salaries. Every penny was accounted for. These reports were available to anyone, not just members. Reports were given out, put on the website, put on bulletin boards, and on a table near the entrance. Many churches do the same. That is how all churches should be. It builds trust in the congregation. I have mixed feelings about the non profit issue. As one of our pastors once said, it gives the government one foot in the door.

    • Greg G.

      A church doesn’t have to be a non-profit organization if they don’t want to be. Without 8t, they could be as partisan as they wish. The restriction keeps political parties from forming fake churches to do politics tax-free.

    • It’s great that some churches are OK with transparency, but that information is still all over the place. Even if all churches felt like yours, there wouldn’t be a single, anonymous, easily accessible database (like Charity Navigator) with the data in a single format (like the IRS 990).

      The exemption must be removed.

      • Guthrum

        But a lot of churches are partnered legally with charity organizations and community service groups (BSA, AA to name a few) and have schools. Removing the tax exempt status would present a huge legal quagmire.
        This has been discussed before and it went no where.
        Years ago one church group dropped their exempt status and actually got more contributions. But on their books they actually showed a loss (property dep, expenses, and their contributions to local schools, food banks, overseas work, and Habitat.) So, even without the tax exempt status, the many activities of the churches can be deducted: everything from carnivals ( community involvement) to adult literacy camps. We once had a tax lawyer who was a church member and said that he would do the paper work and tax returns for free. He wrote up some grants that the church got that paid for playground equipment and sime nice outdoor lighting .

        • I’m not talking about tax-exempt status. I’m talking about removing the filing exemption for IRS 990 forms given to churches (and only churches).

          As for tax-exempt status, you’re missing the point. The point is that you, as a contributor, would no longer be able to deduct your contributions from your taxes.

        • Guthrum

          But they could designate it to go to the AA group, the BSA troop, the church school (legally a non-profit in itself), Habitat, and other various charitable events and organizations. It could not go to the church budget. But the various expenses involved in sponsoring and hosting these groups (the church as a community center) would be deductible, and if you add in the enormous property mortgage interest then most of the churches would show a loss: all perfectly legal according to the tax attorneys. They just have to get their paperwork right.

        • Greg G.

          There are some non-profits that offer a magazine subscription for a donation. The cost of the subscription is not tax deductible.

          The things a church does to benefit the community should be deductible. Other things should not be deductible. The books would have to be open to be able to make those determinations accurate and reliable.

        • In the first place, yes, it could bypass the church and go right to those charities. Then the donor would get the tax deduction. But the fraction of church income that passes through to good works is minuscule–perhaps a few percent. If churches were no longer nonprofits, it would have a bit hit on donors.

          In the second place, this (again) isn’t what we’re talking about. We’re talking about churches having to open their books. All nonprofits have to fill out 990 forms to inform the public what they do with their money … except for churches. That’s the exemption that would be done away with.

        • Guthrum

          I don’t have a problem with full disclosure and openness. Our church would not have a problem with it. We deplore some of these huge churches that pay extravagant salaries, have private jets, and exorbitant mansions for their pastors. Their books should be fully open.
          Our church does not have a mortgage and is not in debt. Close to 70% of the contributions goes to food banks, overseas relief, disaster relief, and mission work.

        • Greg G.

          Many churches don’t see it that way. I’ve seen studies where 2% or less goes to charity.

          Of that 70%, how much of that goes to inedible Bibles and religious literature being included with the beneficial parts?

          Still, I applaud your church’s efforts.

        • Guthrum

          That would be included in the budget for outreach or Christian education. We have Bibles here that are free if someone requests one. We have literature for those who want information. We do not put those in the budget for community service, food basket, overseas relief, etc.
          Most of the mainline denominations have dropped or reduced their service budgets as they try to pay for the increasing administration, their salaries, and expensive headquarters properties. That is one reason so many members have left. They see a big problem with that and what the Gospel teaches. The newer church organizations are more “flat” and not a top down pyramid bureaucracy.