Trouble with the ECFA


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 24th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: financial accountability and Christian ministry.

The first 16 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deal with the “establishment of religion” and “the free exercise thereof,” to quote some of its famous words.

This is what’s known casually as the wall of separation between church and state, a hotly debated metaphor to be sure. But we do have broad agreement that the state is bound by the constitution not to intrude into matters of the church.

What about financial impropriety, though? 

Even then, when government threatens investigations or actually investigates, that generally results in pledges of transparency and steps taken to police our own.

Historically, one practical outgrowth was creation of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability—the E-C-F-A.

Our sister publication WORLD Magazine over the past several weeks sought answers to questions about ECFA’s effectiveness. With me this morning to talk about it is Michael Reneau, deputy editor of WORLD. Michael leads our team of investigative reporters, our Caleb team, so named for the watchful biblical character Caleb. 

Michael, good morning to you.

MICHAEL RENEAU, DEPUTY EDITOR: Good morning, Nick. Thank you for having me.

EICHER: Really meant to say, welcome. Michael is new here after editing his local newspaper in Greeneville, Tennessee. So good morning, of course, but primarily welcome to the team. Tell me, Michael, about ECFA, what gave rise to it and its purpose in the evangelical world?

RENEAU: So, in the 1970s, a number of scandals among nonprofits—some Christian, some not—got the attention of a lot of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and several of those lawmakers began threatening some pretty strict regulation of the nonprofit industry. Now, evangelical leaders, and Billy Graham was among those, decided that to ward off some pretty expensive and detrimental financial regulations, that they should create their own organization to police its members and to help restore some trust in the nonprofits, specifically the Christian ministry world. And so in 1979 after a few years of conversations, those leaders formed the Evangelical Counsel for Financial Accountability. 

EICHER: So, you said 1979. Quick math on that, 40 years. Was this a 40-year story or was something amiss that prompted you to look into it? 

RENEAU: No, we actually did not set out to do a 40-year how are we doing sort of story. What caught our attention was in June, a radio host and independent journalist who’s done some reporting for WORLD—Julie Roys—posted a story on her website detailing some precarious positions that the National Religious Broadcasters, a large trade group of Christian broadcasters, found itself in. Over the previous several years, they had been spending a lot more money than the ministry was generating. And, actually, their net assets over a few years had really taken a hard hit and as of the end of 2018, according to emails that she obtained, those net assets were actually in the red. They were negative $600,000, actually. 

EICHER: So do you regard this as a dropped ball on the part of ECFA or do you think that that was ECFA’s ball to carry?

RENEAU: So, we think that there could have been more that the ECFA could have done to warn donors about the problems that NRB was facing. So, our question with this was if you’re a donor giving money to the National Religious Broadcasters or if you want to give money to the NRB, did you have any warning signs whatsoever that they were really going down a financially dangerous path with the spending that was going on and the overall degradation of its financial position? 

EICHER: And so you’re saying that in answer to the question about adequate warnings, what’s the answer? 

RENEAU: If you go to the ECFA website, they have member profile pages for all of their accredited members. And those profile pages do provide some raw financial data for the previous couple of years, but we realize that a lot of folks in the public may not be versed in that sort of language. So, again, we come back to thinking that there really could have been more that ECFA could have been doing for the public to raise some red flags for them. 

EICHER: In the early days, ECFA likened itself to a “Better Business Bureau.” That it’s sort of the evangelical BBB. And you’re saying that doesn’t quite match the reality. 

RENEAU: Right. There are some structural differences there. ECFA president Dan Busby has in previous years told WORLD that the ECFA is not a watchdog. But a lot of folks do consider it as a watchdog over evangelical ministries. But the Better Business Bureau, for example, does give grades to different member organizations. If you’re a member of the public and you have a problem with a BBB accredited business, there’s a mechanism by which you can go and you can post on forums, you can contact the Better Business Bureau. And the Better Business Bureau will say this business gets a B+ or a C- or whatever. The ECFA only gives a pass/fail. So, there’s not a good early warning sign, again, for the general public that an organization may be having financial problems. 

EICHER: Michael Reneau is deputy editor of WORLD. He leads our Caleb team of investigative journalists. His story is on the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. If you look at the transcript online at worldandeverything.org, we will place a link to that story. Worth your time. Michael, great to see you and thanks so much. 

RENEAU: Thanks, Nick.


(Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom) NRB’s former president, Jerry Johnson, speaks during a rally at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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