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Contributions Falling Off : Evangelists Caught In Cost Squeeze

July 11, 1986|GEORGE ESPER | Associated Press Writer

LYNCHBURG, Va. — After three decades on the air, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are still going strong but finding that tougher competition for the religious dollar and other economic and political factors are forcing changes for television evangelists.

Between them, Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, and Robertson, who's considering a run for the presidency, have laid off more than 250 employees and slashed their budgets by a total of $34 million because revenues have fallen short of estimates.

TV preacher Oral Roberts has given his law school to Robertson, has closed his dental school and is delaying construction of a $14-million religious center partly because of financial problems. His $150-million City of Faith Hospital in Tulsa lies half empty.

"There's only so many letters and pleas for emergency help to go the extra mile that people will go along with," said Peter S. Hawkins, associate professor at Yale Divinity School. Hawkins said he feared the televangelists are turning Christianity into a spectator sport.

Robertson said his surveys indicated contributions were off because younger people who are buying homes and bearing children have less to give; perennial large contributors from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana are giving less because they've been hurt by falling oil prices, and a building boom of "superchurches" serving enormous congregations in cities like Phoenix, Tulsa, Houston and Orlando, Fla., is draining away dollars.

Rob Nordin, a spokesman for Oral Roberts, said television ministries probably overextended themselves when they had excess funds.

"What we've seen in the last decade has been a proliferation of television ministries," Nordin said. "As a result of that, I think we've seen that the pie has been cut into more pieces and some of the pieces that used to be quite large are not nearly as large as they were."

Talk of a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, said Robertson, has spotlighted his Christian Broadcasting Network's annual budget of $200 million.

"People hear of these large sums which are not the net income," said Robertson, president of the network and host of "The 700 Club" program. "They're total budget figures and they sort of scare people."

In the case of Oral Roberts, some of his employees have expressed resentment over his life style while they have gone without pay raises for three years and some were laid off two years ago.

The Tulsa Tribune reported that Roberts drives a Mercedes, lives in a $500,000 home in Tulsa owned by Oral Roberts University, owns a home of equal value in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and uses for entertainment a $2.4 million home in Beverly Hills owned by his organization. Roberts' headquarters confirmed the existence of the car and the houses but said it could not put a price tag on them.

Falwell believes there's a general softening nationally in contributions to conservative religious and political causes.

"We're in a state of apathy in this country," he said in an interview here. "It's a very real spiritual apathy, and I think most of the churches are feeling this."

Falwell said he had no political ambitions. But Robertson, son of the late U.S. Sen. A. Willis Robertson, is testing the waters with the 21 million evangelicals who are registered voters, 80%-85% of them Republicans.

Jeffrey Hadden, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and the author of "Prime Time Preachers," estimates that at present, even with all of the hoopla, no more than 20% to 25% of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are active politically.

"You have another 75% of that group of people potentially," he said, "but I'm not sure whether it can happen."

Falwell blames the softening in contributions partly on a national perception that conservatives are in charge.

"That perception," he said, "is hurtful when people feel there's no cause to support anymore. The only true part is that Ronald Reagan is doing well. The House of Representatives is clearly not a conservative House. The Senate is a razor-thin majority on any issue."

Despite the cutbacks, Falwell says Christian broadcasting is not in disarray.

"We are stronger on television and radio than we've ever been and our income is up," he said. "We had anticipated growth this year equal to last year's and it hasn't been there."

He said revenues were growing by 3% or 4% while spending was up about 15% to 18%, "so we had to quickly make the adjustment."

Falwell cut 225 employees and about $5 million from the $25 million annual payroll for his program, "The Old Time Gospel Hour," and the church-run Liberty University. His annual budget is $100 million.

"We're cutting out a lot of projects that we would have done this year, and in essence we're cutting about $10 million total in the next 12 months, which will bring us back to stability," he said.

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