Leaders from Gospel for Asia (GFA), one of the largest missions agencies in the United States, says they may have been “unintentionally negligent” in their financial and management practices. But they deny any wrongdoing after being ousted by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).
In a rare move last week, ECFA terminated the membership of Gospel for Asia (GFA), one of its charter members.
ECFA believes that GFA misled donors, mismanaged resources, has an ineffective board, and failed to live up to its promises as an ECFA member. It had been investigating GFA since June.
All told, ECFA found that GFA violated five of the accountability group’s seven core standards. As a result, the ECFA board voted on October 2 to cut ties with GFA. The board said its decision is final.
“This ends Gospel for Asia’s 36-year-long status as an ECFA member,” the council said in a statement.
The move caught GFA by surprise. In a statement provided to CT, GFA said that no money “was found to be missing” in ECFA’s extensive review of the ministry’s finances. But the review did reveal conflicts between GFA procedures and ECFA standards. Leaders at GFA said they were working to make changes recommended by ECFA, and had expected to remain in good standing.
“Although this is disappointing, Gospel for Asia accepts the decision with regret and sadness,” GFA said in a statement.
David Carroll, GFA’s chief financial officer, told CT that the termination letter from ECFA and the report of its GFA review have not been released to the public. Founder K.P. Yohannan was not available for comment.
Losing ECFA membership is the latest setback for GFA, which has been under scrutiny since the summer of 2014. In a letter to the GFA board of directors, a group of former staff calling itself the GFA Diaspora accused the group’s leaders, including Yohannan, of mistreating staff and lying to donors.
In response, GFA’s board of directors launched a formal investigation. The board said the investigation found no merit to the complaints.
“While the board investigation concluded that there was no wrongdoing on the part of leadership, we recognize that, as humans, our leadership is not always going to be perfect,” Carroll told blogger Warren Throckmorton in a statement earlier this year.
Cody Carnine said he originally dismissed the critics’ claims as untrue when he worked as volunteer manager for GFA.
“When the letter from the Diaspora first came out, I thought they were crazy,” said Carnine, who left GFA in June 2015 after 10 years on staff.
Carnine said that as he looked further into the complaints made by former staff, he began to agree with them. He felt that too much deference was being paid to Yohannan.
And he worried that GFA has too much control over the lives of its staff members. Most live in GFA-owned housing at the group’s campus in Wills Point, Texas. Yohannan, he said, discouraged staffers from attending a local church. Instead, they were told to turn to him and other GFA leaders for spiritual guidance. Staff members were also told that their work was more important than anything, including their families—a charge also made by the GFA Diaspora.
Carnine also worried about the work GFA was doing overseas.
American staffers were allowed to visit India on so-called “vision tours,” said Carnine. But they weren’t privy to any of the finances of the overseas work. And they were discouraged from even being Facebook friends with overseas staff.
“When it comes to the field, we were totally kept out of that ministry,” he said.
Yohannan is best known for his sometimes controversial approach to missions, said Greg Parsons, director of global connections for Frontier Ventures. He said Yohannan argues that sending out Western missionaries is old-fashioned and ineffective, and that churches in Western nations should instead send money to support national ministries.
It’s an extremely effective message for recruiting church support, said Parsons.
“They have done a really good job in getting a bunch of churches on board [to get] missions done,” he said.
To fulfill Yohannan’s vision, GFA raises funds to support missionaries and a child sponsorship program. Those funds are then sent to GFA’s overseas offices—in India, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh—and to Believers Church, a denomination in India run by Yohannan.
In 2013, GFA brought in $93.8 million, according to its audited financials. Patrick Johnstone, author of the first six editions of the widespread missions handbook Operation World, ranked GFA second among the “world’s largest mission agencies in 2010” in his book The Future of the Global Church. GFA is listed below Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ International) and above Operation Mobilisation, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Youth with a Mission.
Critics of GFA say the US-based GFA board has little oversight over the work in India.
One of those critics is Tom Sluberski, who resigned earlier this year after 12 years at GFA. When he first arrived, Sluberski said, GFA was focused on reaching unreached people with the gospel. Now, he said, GFA exists mostly to raise money to build infrastructure for the 2-million-member Believers Church. That’s a worthy goal, he said. But it’s not what he or donors signed up for.
Sluberski doesn’t think that Yohannan can tell the difference anymore between the two organizations. There’s too much crossover in Yohannan’s two roles, he said. And a great deal of money passes between the organizations.
In 2013, Believers Church gave $19.8 million to GFA. The money was used to help complete construction on GFA’s $40 million headquarters.
On its 2013 audited statement, GFA reported the $19.8 million as a “temporarily restricted contribution from an anonymous donor.” But in May 2015, Carroll told the GFA staff that a “board that is under Believers Church umbrella” had taken out a loan in Asia for the $19.8 million and sent money to the GFA in the US. (Throckmorton posted a recording of that staff meeting.)
“There really is no difference anymore between Believers Church and GFA,” Sluberski said. “They are one and the same.”
Travis Helm, former director of development at GFA, agrees.
By the time he left the ministry this past summer, after 10 years on staff, he’d lost faith in Yohannan and the organization. He worries that donors are being misled about GFA’s work.
He said that GFA’s leaders did not reveal the loan from India to staff or donors. Yohannan also downplayed some of the details about Believers Church.
In its ordination services, for example, new priests are asked to kiss Yohannan’s rings as an act of obedience. Helm said that Yohannan, whose title as head of Believers Church is metropolitan, denied that the ring-kissing ceremonies have taken place for fear of offending evangelical donors.
For years, Helm said, GFA told donors that building a new church in India cost $10,000. Then he was told to increase this amount to $40,000 in GFA promotional materials. He said that there was no indication that the cost of churches had actually increased.
Helm doesn’t believe that GFA has mismanaged money. Instead, he thinks it is less than truthful with donors, which caused him to lose faith in the organization.
“If I can’t trust them with the small things, why would I trust them with money?” he said.
In its statement, GFA acknowledged it had experienced growing pains and may have been “unintentionally negligent at times.”
“While we will be working to improve our reporting of financial matters to donors, we will always be cautious about disclosing anything that may jeopardize the safety of ministry partners working in areas hostile to the gospel,” GFA said in a statement to CT. “We continually look to the Lord for his wisdom and guidance in often complicated international financial and political environments.”
Helm, the former development director, believes ECFA’s decision will cost GFA money. The ECFA seal of approval appears on all of GFA’s literature, he said, and is used to promote the trustworthiness of GFA.
“They live and die by ECFA,” he said.
David Cooke, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Riverhead, New York, said that he was disturbed by the loss of ECFA membership. Cooke has endorsed GFA in the past, but that may change.
“I find the reported issues at GFA to be very concerning, and I will likely be asking to have my endorsement removed,” he told CT in an email. “I pray that they will repent of all wrongdoing and make things right.”
In contrast, Jimmy Morales, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in Las Vegas and another GFA supporter, said it was “heartbreaking to see these things happening” but that GFA leaders had “historically been exceedingly meticulous regarding their financial accountability.”
“Knowing the leadership of [GFA] intimately, I am certain that none of these things were done out of wickedness or greed, but apparently some amount of carelessness has crept in regarding finances that needs to be addressed,” he told CT in an email. “I am looking forward to seeing GFA resolve these matters, and I hope that they do it before they lose very much of their support base.”
The ECFA decision was troubling to pastor and author Francis Chan.
Chan joined GFA’s board earlier this year. He’d only been to one meeting before the ECFA decision was announced.
“I was surprised and concerned when I read the report from ECFA,” he told CT in an email. “It has been weighing heavy on my heart. It’s not often that I make a decision that impacts millions of people.”
Chan told CT he’s still learning about the size and scope of GFA’s ministry. That will help him make better decisions as a board member.
“I know too little about the culture in India to make judgments about their decisions,” he said. “I have never run a ministry of this magnitude. I have experience with leading thousands, but not millions. I have experience with budgets of millions, not hundreds of millions. I am going to spend time listening and researching.”
Chan said he wasn’t sure if he should stay on the GFA board. But he plans to stick by Yohannan.
“While there remains uncertainty, I do know that I love K.P. and pray for him,” he said. “I see him as a brother and a friend, and I want to be the godliest friend I can be to him during this time.”
For several former staffers, a breaking point came in 2013, when GFA began sending cash money overseas in unmarked envelopes.
At the time, the ministry was concerned about increased scrutiny from the Indian government. So it began asking staff, students, and pastors on vision tours to carry cash for the ministry without declaring it to US officials, according to former staff members.
US regulations stipulate that travelers must declare any amount over $10,000 when leaving the country. Former staff members and students in GFA’s school of discipleship told CT that GFA attempted get around that rule by having a number of group members carry smaller amounts—as much as $4,500 each.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warns that such “bulk cash smuggling” is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Helm said he carried $4,500 in cash on one occasion and that Yohannan asked him to give similar envelopes to the group of pastors he was leading. The total amount of cash exceeded the $10,000 limit, he said. Helm refused to hand the cash to the pastors.
Upon arrival in India, Helm said he turned over the cash to GFA staff but did not receive a receipt. Some cash was also carried by students in GFA’s School of Discipleship.
“We’ve taken more than a half million through these students to India—and never got a receipt,” Helm said.
Several former School of Discipleship students and one other former staff member confirmed to CT that they had carried cash for the ministry. They requested anonymity, saying they had been contacted by DHS as part of an investigation into GFA’s actions.
In a May staff meeting, Carroll said the practice of carrying undeclared cash was legal. He also said that GFA had decided to stop the practice.
“We would never endanger students or anyone else,” Carroll said in a recording of the meeting, posted online by Throckmorton. “We’ve had pastors carry money, we’ve had staff carry money, we’re always looking for ways to get money into India because the reality is that it’s getting more difficult to do that, and we are looking for other ways that we’re able to do that.”
Carroll told CT that GFA contacted DHS earlier this year, after becoming aware that it should have filed declarations. He said that GFA’s attorneys have now filed all the necessary paperwork, but said that he did not have copies of the paperwork.
“If we are being investigated, we have not heard anything about it,” he said.
A spokesperson for DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement told CT the agency “does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation unless the matter is publicly available through court documents.”
Although they aren’t happy with the outcome, GFA leaders say they’ve learned from the ECFA’s review.
“We believe that much of the conversation we have had with ECFA has indeed been part of the Lord showing us the way and how to walk in it,” GFA said in its statement. “We are truly grateful for this part of our journey in learning how to better serve our Lord Jesus, our donors and sponsors, and our field partners as we go forward.”
Morgan Lee and Ruth Moon contributed to this report.