Even since the televangelist scandals of the 1970s, a group called the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) has given stamps of approval to ministries that they say are handling their money properly. Think of it like Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau for Jesus. But like so many things meant just for Christians, the organization isn’t even close to being as good as the real thing.
According to an article in WORLD (a Christian publication) by Michael Reneau, ECFA has given positive ratings to ministries even when we learned later that a more thorough analysis of those ministries’ finances would’ve picked on all kinds of shenanigans.
For example, Harvest Bible Chapel, a megachurch based near Chicago, recently saw a scandal with its pastor that involved money, abusive leadership, and a potential hit man. Yet it was only after the pastor was fired that ECFA terminated its relationship with the church. If they had been going through the books, so to speak, for all the years when the church received a stamp of approval from ECFA, wouldn’t they have caught some of the problems?
Part of the issue is that, like churches, ECFA isn’t transparent about its own operations. They leave it to the churches themselves to tell members where the money is going, while focusing themselves on the “financial viability.” So if there’s money being spent for all the wrong reasons, they may not intervene, as long as the church is still in the black.
Here’s the bigger problem: ECFA depends on fees from its own members for its own existence. It’s like a college that relies on tuition payments; even when a student deserves to flunk out, the college has a financial incentive to keep the student coming back for more. That won’t happen if a degree is out of the question. As the article notes, “If ECFA terminates members, it cuts off revenue.” So ECFA has an incentive to say everyone’s doing just great regardless of what the facts are.
When problems arise, ECFA’s website says, they “are addressed respectfully, confidentially, and with a redemptive approach.” That approach appears to value the confidentiality of member organizations more than donors’ need to know.
Simply put, as long as you abide by ECFA’s standards (one of which involves agreeing to a specific brand of Christian mythology), and you pay the fee, you can call yourself “accredited.” Maybe that’s a way to get strangers to trust you enough to give you money, but the reality is the accreditation tells people far less than it should.
The good news is that ministries are catching on. Some of them have willingly walked away — saying they’ll be fine without being able to call themselves ECFA-approved — and haven’t noticed any drops in donations as a result. The more ministries that walk away without consequences, the more likely others will follow. At that point, ECFA will be useless.
The down side, of course, is that it’s possible no one will investigate church finances, even superficially, leaving people even more in the dark. ECFA was formed to stop a serious problem in the Christian community, but now they’re part of the problem. It’s clear that the church can’t be trusted to police itself — something we already knew from the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals — but unless Christian worshipers demand openness and honesty from their own churches under threat of withholding all future donations, nothing’s going to change.
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