NRB member Larry Lea leaves the air in the wake of an ABC-TV exposé of televangelism.
As the nation’s religious broadcasters prepare to gather in Washington, D.C., later this month for their annual convention, they are once again facing tough questions about integrity and financial accountability within their ranks. The lastest round of questions has been prompted by an exposé segment on ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” that highlighted the practices of three Dallas-based television ministers: Robert Tilton, W. V. Grant, and Larry Lea.
Tilton and Grant have generally been regarded as outsiders to the mainstream evangelical broadcast community. Neither has official ties to any denomination or to national organizations, such as the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) or the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).
Lea, however, has been a prominent NRB member. In 1990 he addressed the organization’s annual convention. And during the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, Lea emphasized that his ministry had received the NRB Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission (EFICOM) seal of approval.
Following the November 21 broadcast, Lea complained that “PrimeTime” treated him unfairly. But about three weeks later, Lea announced he was going off television on December 29 for “an indefinite period” in order to re-evaluate his priorities and seek the counsel of other Christians. He also pledged to open his ministry to inspection by NRB.
“PrimeTime” raised questions about the truthfulness of Lea’s on-the-air fund appeals. Among the allegations leveled by ABC were charges that Lea raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a church in Auschwitz, Poland, but gave only a small percentage of that money to a church that had been founded two years earlier by Polish believers. According to “PrimeTime,” Lea implied that a fire at his home in Tulsa left his family virtually destitute—when he still owned another furnished home on a 5.1-acre estate in Dallas.
Lea wrote a four-page letter to his supporters offering detailed explanations to refute each of ABC’s allegations. Ministry executive vice-president Tim Lavender told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that prior to the “PrimeTime” broadcast, Lea provided ABC with information clarifying the situations the network raised, but ABC did not use the material. He also said Lea was given a “totally different” list of questions from the ones Sawyer asked, so he was not prepared with the information she asked about and appeared evasive on the air.
Lavender emphasized that the time away from television is not a resignation. “Anytime you have adversity, if you are halfway smart, you use it as a time to re-evaluate what you are doing,” Lavender said. “We are just using this as a time … to make sure that television is one of the ways that we want to use to promote the gospel.”
Lea founded the charismatic Church on the Rock in a Dallas suburb in 1980. The church has grown to 8,000 members. And today, more than 70 churches across the nation are affiliated with Lea in an umbrella association that some observers have pointed to as a virtual denomination (CT, Mar. 11, 1991, p. 30). Lea has since stepped down from daily pastoral work to devote his energies to his television ministry.
In his donor letter, Lea said he has asked for “an examination of the allegations and our financial affairs” by EFICOM. Lea further said he is asking “a group of pastors and spiritual leaders to review the accusations against us and recommend any changes they feel would be appropriate in our life and ministry.” “The message we want to give to everybody is that we are open,” Lavender said. “If we made mistakes, we are willing to correct them.”
Not In Compliance
Following the “PrimeTime” report, the NRB executive committee released a statement emphasizing that Larry Lea Ministries “has not been in compliance with the EFICOM requirements since February 1991 because it did not submit the required audited financial statements for 1989.” The statement further noted that Lea’s organization had not responded to written and telephone reminders about the situation. “Upon receipt of the required audited financial statements for 1989 and 1990, we will review the recent accusations if the Larry Lea Ministries desires recertification by EFICOM.”
Lavender said the ministry has already sent NRB a copy of its 1989 audited statement and hopes to deliver the 1990 information before the national convention, which begins January 25. During the convention, the EFICOM committee will meet to address those members who are not in compliance. According to NRB president David Clark, if all Lea’s information has not been supplied by then, “I’m sure he would be dropped from membership.”
NRB officials told CT the long-term impact of the allegations on religious broadcasting depends to a large degree on how NRB handles the situation. “We have all intentions of handling it on a forthright and open basis,” said executive director E. Brandt Gustavson. “Either there is compliance with the rules and regulations of EFICOM or there is not. And if there is not, there will not be continued membership.”
In an attempt to forestall any renewed government attempts to regulate the industry, Gustavson wrote last month to members of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, assuring them that EFICOM was looking into the situation. “We want you to know that NRB and EFICOM are very actively upholding the standards set by and for our members,” he wrote. “We will also be looking at ways to strengthen the standards.” Following the PTL and Jimmy Swaggart scandals, a congressional subcommittee held hearings on the possibility of stronger government regulations for religious broadcasting, but they were never adopted.
Meeting The Standards
The new allegations, however, have resurrected questions about the ultimate effectiveness of the EFICOM program, which was formally approved at the broadcasters’ 1988 convention. According to the latest figures released by NRB, of its 810 members, 105 organizations are “fully certified members of EFICOM,” and 90 meet EFICOM standards by virtue of being ECFA members. Ninety-five organizations are “registered members of NRB,” but because their broadcast revenues are less than $150,000, they are not required to meet EFICOM standards, and therefore may not use the EFICOM seal.
The remaining 520 members are for-profit groups, foreign corporations, and “affiliate members” that need not comply. However, according to an NRB staff member, some 9 percent of the 810 members (approximately 70) are still not in compliance with any of the categories, although NRB is working to bring them into compliance by convention time.
Steve Winzenburg, chair of the communications department at Grand View College in Iowa and a regular analyst of religious broadcasting, told CT he has his doubts about the commission’s potential, “EFICOM is a good idea that just doesn’t have much guts behind it,” he said. “It’s self-regulatory; therefore, it doesn’t do any good.”
Winzenburg recently conducted a study of 21 of the largest television ministries (both members and non-members of NRB). Of those surveyed, 14 responded to his requests for financial information merely by putting him on their fund-raising mailing list. Seven provided audited financial statements, but only four of those listed boards of directors and salaries.
Another similar study, conducted by Quentin Schultze, author of Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion, showed financial openness has increased since the PTL scandals. Writing as a viewer/listener, Schultze requested financial information from the largest 30 television ministries and 20 national radio ministries. According to Schultze, half of the TV ministries and 40 percent of the radio ministries provided the requested financial statements—a dramatic improvement over a survey he did before the televangelist scandals.
Schultze also found that the vast majority of those who refused to provide the information came from Pentecostal and charismatic ministries not affiliated with ECFA or NRB/EFICOM. However, he noted, 21 percent of the EFICOM members and 13 percent of the ECFA members surveyed did not provide the information.
In spite of outside criticism, Clark actively defends the program, noting that Lea has asked for EFICOM’s advice to clear his reputation. “I think that shows the importance of having an organization like EFICOM in place.”
Acknowledging that Lea was kept on the NRB membership rolls even though he was not in compliance with EFICOM for nearly a year, Clark said he believes NRB will act to “tighten the EFICOM procedural rules so that we don’t wait as long” to address groups not in compliance. Clark said NRB has been “pretty generous” with compliance deadlines since EFICOM’s beginning. But, in the words of executive director Gustavson, “Now time is virtually up.”
Clark believes these latest questions of integrity will ultimately strengthen EFICOM. Still, he cautioned, EFICOM can never fully guarantee compliance with ethical standards. “If someone has a larcenous soul, and wants to steal or be dishonest or immoral, EFICOM regulations will not prevent that, nor will any other type of law,” he said.
By Kim A. Lawton.
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