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‘ELMER GANTRY’: Why can’t the church put its house in order?

By Ron E. Keener

It was Wednesday evening New Community at Willow Creek Community Church and Bill Hybels had some “family” business to share with the congregation. Four couples in the church had come together to provide a private jet so that Bill and other staff members wouldn’t have to deal with the limitations of commercial airline schedules when carrying the ministry to European cities and elsewhere in this country.

Bill was understandably hesitant, and wanted the church to know that the fuel costs would be carefully monitored and the plane would be used in a limited way for the furtherance of the ministry.

I’m sure that’s been the case. No extravagant lifestyle, no jetting about the country for Willow Creek Association beyond what were legitimate business reasons. That was 10 years ago. In recent months there have been reports about other ministries that may have over stepped reasonable financial boundaries — much less IRS regulations.

In real trouble with the federal government is Richard Roberts, who has stepped down as president at Oral Roberts University, under investigation for financial issues, including using a university jet for what might have been inappropriate personal trips. Co-mingling of funds seems to be the main problem for Roberts, but time and court actions will tell.

Then there is the “Grassley Six”—Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula White — representing six mostly television ministries that are being looked at by the U.S. Senate subcommittee of Senator Chuck Grassley.

Not all have come forward with the requested financial records. As Grassley said at the start of the year: “This has nothing to do with church doctrine. It’s only about tax-exempt policy. The ministries are no different from any other tax-exempt group in terms of an obligation to cooperate with a Congressional oversight inquiry exploring tax policy.”

Why do churches and ministries have so much trouble over the years with money? While no one has been convicted of anything yet, most of the news accounts “don’t pass the smell test.”

“Elmer Gantry” is alive and well, it seems — that 1926 satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis that “tells the story of a young, narcissistic, womanizing college athlete who, upon realizing the power, prestige and easy money that being an evangelical preacher can bring, pursues his ‘religious’ ambitions with relish, contributing to the downfall, even death, of key people around him as the years pass … The novel ends as the Rev. Gantry prays for the USA to be a ‘moral nation’ and simultaneously admires the legs of a new choir singer.” [Wikipedia]

Financial and moral misdeeds are common stories in the church. Elsewhere in this magazine is an interview with the pastor of a Chandler, AZ, megachurch who recites the admitted theft by a member of the executive team in embezzling half a million dollars.

Theft and frauds in churches happen monthly (use Google Alerts). But the amazing part to this writer were the contacts made by parishoners suggesting that Cornerstone Christian Fellowship might not want to prosecute and instead apply forgiveness.

A Georgia church that had a theft of a computer disk by an employee did prosecute, but got such comments (on the city newspaper’s blog) as “churches around here JUST DON’T take people to court” and “couldn’t [the pastor] have sent him to counseling instead of prison?” Some common sense did prevail though from others:

  • “If while you are at church next week, your car is stolen from the parking lot, just start walking and don’t report it, if that’s what Matthew 18 means to you.”
  • “I would be very scared if you could do anything you wanted in a church and get away with it as long as it was not a ‘crime against humanity.’”
  • “When we break the law, we must pay the price. Our job is to forgive people. It is the job of the legal system to judge them.”
  • Every time a church gets into difficulty, it’s a black eye for the Gospel. More people have cause to call us hypocrites and worse. And it is so unnecessary.
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