A television ministry with the most-watched Christian apologetics program has been ejected from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) for insufficient oversight and dishonest fundraising.
The Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, which produces The John Ankerberg Show, failed to meet three ECFA standards, according to an ECFA investigation. The apologetics ministry reportedly did not have an independent board, did not have adequate internal controls, and did not truthfully represent the intended use of the funds it raised.
“In securing charitable gifts, all representations of fact … must be current, complete, and accurate,” the ECFA standards say.
According to MinistryWatch, The John Ankerberg Show raised about $20 million for audio Bibles but kept 80 percent. John and Darlene Ankerberg said the money went to producing and distributing the TV program, which cost about $2 million in 2022, according to tax records. No mention of this was made during the on-air fundraising appeals.
The Ankerbergs insist they were not dishonest, though.
“Being 100 percent donor-supported, we invest 80 percent into our ministry,” CEO Darlene Ankerberg told CT. “We have made it clear to all donors that their support is for our overall mission. We believe donors support our mission of spreading the Word of God.”
A former director of donor relations reported the apologetics ministry to the ECFA and MinistryWatch. Andrew Jaeger, who worked for the Ankerberg organization from 2019 to 2022, said he found that donors had no idea how their money was being used and that a “full disclosure” of the TV ministry’s financials would “most certainly be met with disapproval, if not contempt.”
Jaeger claims the ministry is guilty of “blatant tax fraud and tax evasion.”
He toldTheChattanooga Times Free Press the Ankerberg show was misleading well-meaning Christians, many of whom were older adults. In one fundraising segment, John Ankerberg asked viewers to give $500 for one audio Bible device, which they were told would bring 90 people to Christ. Viewers were not told that Faith Comes By Hearing, the ministry partner that produced the devices, only asked $75 per device. There was no information given about the intended use of the other $425. The audio Bible fundraiser was, in fact, the TV ministry’s largest revenue stream, according to Jaeger.
“This was a huge cash cow,” he told the Chattanooga newspaper.
Darlene Ankerberg told CT that Jaeger was with the organization “for less than three years and had a limited knowledge of overall operations.”
Publicly available tax records do not show how much the Ankerbergs raised for audio Bibles. But they do show the ministry brought in a total of $8.5 million in 2022, almost all of it in donations. The John Ankerberg Show spent a little more than $2 million on television production and another $1.9 million on salaries, including John Ankerberg’s $258,000 annual compensation and Darlene Ankerberg’s $89,500. A little more than $1.3 million was given to “missionary outreach,” according to the form filed with the IRS.
The ministry ended the year putting more than $600,000 in the bank.
The John Ankerberg Show has not always been so profitable. In 2003, the apologetics program raised about $1 million, but spent $170,000 more than it received. By 2013, however, the Ankerbergs had increased incoming donations by nearly 300 percent. Tax records show the ministry ended that year with a $1.2 million surplus.
That was the year the show started asking for donations for audio Bibles. After 2013, according to a ministry history, The John Ankerberg Show raised enough money that it was able to purchase additional property in Chattanooga and expand into a remodeled “Global Communication Center” without incurring any debt.
“We invest in the capacity to extend our ministry outreach. Our outreaches include The John Ankerberg Show and our partnerships with other ministries, one of which is Faith Comes By Hearing,” Darlene Ankerberg told CT. “Our top priority is to be good stewards with the resources that have been entrusted to our ministry.”
The ministry will nonetheless take “several clarifying steps” in response to the ECFA findings, Darlene Ankerberg said. New people will be added to the board, which currently includes three family members. New financial controls will be put in place. And the statement given to donors about the use of funds will be updated.
“There is value in evaluating operations. We are doing so,” Darlene Ankerberg said. “We will continue to be transparent about how donations are used to present and spread the gospel around the world.”
The Ankerberg Theological Research Institute is also suing Jaeger, claiming breach of contract, illegal possession of confidential property, and tortious interference with business relations. According to court records, the suit was filed after the ministry learned Jaeger had contacted MinistryWatch and told donors they should stop giving to The John Ankerberg Show and ask for their money back.
The Ankerbergs are no strangers to televangelism scandals. In the late 1980s, John Ankerberg played a key role in removing Jim Bakker from ministry. He met with Assemblies of God leaders and relayed information about as-yet unexposed sexual scandals, in addition to the allegations against Bakker that were then attracting national attention. Ankerberg, a Southern Baptist, said he’d learned about the additional allegations from “concerned individuals” at the National Religious Broadcasters meeting in Washington, DC. Bakker’s ministerial credentials were subsequently revoked.
For the most part, however, the Ankerbergs have operated “under the radar,” as TheChattanooga Times Free Press reported in 2015. Since its founding, the apologetics-oriented programming has grown to an estimated potential audience of 4.5 billion viewers. The John Ankerberg Show also produces a podcast that is downloaded 24,000 times per month.
In 2023, John Ankerberg was elected to the board of the National Religious Broadcasters. The ministry’s membership in the ECFA was terminated the following month.
Michael Martin, president and CEO of the ECFA, would not comment on the investigation into the finances of The John Ankerberg Show. He said, however, that ejecting a ministry from membership is “a sign of the importance that ECFA really does place on the integrity and the value of the seal.”
He said that problems with fundraising can “many times … be traced to a breakdown in responsible governance” and remain hidden for years, despite regular audits.
“It would be a recommendation of ours that all ministries consider having a whistleblower policy in place,” Martin told CT. “That is a healthy part of accountability.”