Last week, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) named its new president: Michael Martin, who previously served the organization’s executive vice president.
Dan Busby, his predecessor, had been involved with ECFA for 31 years of its 40-year history and spent more than a decade as president. ECFA membership nearly doubled to 2,400 during his tenure.
Martin takes over following a year of record growth for ECFA but also continued scrutiny over prominent members that were eventually forced out for significant violations, such as Harvest Bible Chapel.
When ECFA began in 1979, CT applauded its efforts to provide a financial seal of approval and help evangelical groups “more readily prove to the public that they have nothing to hide.” At that time, 65 percent of Americans expressed confidence in the church as an institution, per Gallup polling. By 2019, it was down to 36 percent.
“There isn’t the implicit trust that there used to be for churches, for Christian ministries,” Martin said in an interview with CT. “More and more people are recognizing that we need to have that third-party accountability, some way to demonstrate outwardly the integrity that we have.”
The growth of non-denominational churches, networks, and ministries has also resulted in more organizations seeking out outside review. The ECFA’s fastest growing segment of membership is churches, now up to 300 congregations (including most of the 100 largest in the country).
Even as societal expectations have changed and its membership has shifted, the accountability organization has stayed focused on its financial stewardship standards, such as an independent governing board, financial oversight, available financial statements, appropriate use of donor funds, and integrity in operations and compensation.
“The command has always been in Scripture about being above reproach, but I think in today’s era, organizations have to step that up even multiplied times over,” said Martin, who’s trained as an attorney and accountant and has worked for ECFA since 2011. “With the internet, we’re in a day and age where information can travel faster than ever and everybody’s a reporter.”
A 2019 investigation by World magazine critiqued ECFA for “proceed[ing] slowly with ministries getting into trouble.” In the same way the #MeToo movement in the church was spurred by watchdog bloggers, online voices have been quick to call out and investigate financial wrongdoing by Christian organizations.
Prompted by a whistleblower, Warren Throckmorton followed the case of Gospel for Asia on his blog before it was ousted from ECFA in 2015 for misleading donors. While Julie Roys wrote about financial mismanagement at James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel in 2018 and 2019, an ECFA investigation determined the church to be “full compliance” with its standards. Then, after ECFA discovered new information that had been withheld by Harvest, the church lost its member status last April.
Martin declined to comment on specific organizations, only saying, “Even from situations like that, where you have a high-profile member that ultimately has to be terminated, there are lessons learned. EFCA’s model will continue to grow and become stronger over time.”
Critics believe these cases represent a failure by the ECFA to ensure its members are indeed in compliance and as trustworthy as its seal is meant to indicate. Throckmorton told CT he wants to see more transparency in the membership and investigation process under its new leadership, and for ECFA to “actually be a watchdog and not a lapdog for evangelical institutional interests.”
The organization makes it clear that it is not an auditor or fraud examiner. As a member-based organization, ECFA is made of up groups that join on their own and agree to comply with the standards, so its watchdog role is limited by design.
“It’s not perfect by any means because it’s voluntary,” Frank Sommerville, a Texas-based attorney, CPA, and editorial adviser for Church Law and Tax (a fellow CT publication) told the Religion News Service last year. “But the goal was to create a gold standard, for lack of a better word, for people to know that these entities, these Christian organizations, have met the minimum standards. … Their role is, if you’re not in compliance, if it’s out of ignorance, you work with them to bring them into compliance.”
Martin put it this way: “It’s a redemptive approach. We’re really trying to build organizations up rather than tear them down.”
A growing part of ECFA’s work is helping members improve their financial stewardship, become more effective, and avoid the kinds of financial missteps that could get them in trouble. He hosts the Excellence in Church Administration podcast and helps create a range of webinars, trainings, books, and other resources to promote compliance with ECFA standards and best practices.
Warren Cole Smith, president of the watchdog site Ministry Watch, believes the volume of online chatter around evangelical organizations and leaders makes it even more crucial for Christian donors to find voices they can trust to hold ministries accountable.
“I think the ECFA can play and at times has played a crucial role in the Christian ecosystem,” he said. “However, there are some problems with depending entirely on the ECFA for accountability and transparency when they are not truly independent,” noting that it relies on membership fees from the organizations it oversees, with bigger nonprofits paying more. (According to the Form 990 posted on the ECFA site, the organization brought in $3.75 million from its members in 2018.)
ECFA states, “With over 2,400 supporting members, ECFA’s determinations regarding compliance with its standards are not influenced by the annual membership fee of individual organizations. Rather, review criteria have been objectively identified and are uniformly applied to all member organizations.”
While some questioned the value of the ECFA seal amid controversial departures, and some dropped membership due to cost-cutting (World reported this was the case for a few Christian colleges), overall its membership trajectory is up. Martin says it’s as relevant and needed as ever “in a culture that is desperate to know where to turn and who to trust.”
A graduate of Oral Roberts University and Regent Law School, Martin is pushing to keep the organization providing relevant guidance for whatever financial stewardship issues could arise next. Right now, that means offering resources around the novel coronavirus.
“At some level it’s impacting all of our members,” he told CT. “This is one of those times where … I would hope that ECFA would help organizations to reinforce accountability, good stewardship, and through that process, confidence that as a nation we’d come back together and recover from this.”