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TV-Radio Preachers Vote to Put Financial Houses in Order

February 04, 1988|MARK FRANKEL | Frankel is a free-lance writer based in Washington and a contributing editor to Channels magazine

WASHINGTON — Members of the nation's most influential association of religious broadcasters overwhelmingly voted here Wednesday to adopt new rules intended to stem some of the kinds of financial abuses alleged in the continuing Jim Bakker-PTL Club scandal.

National Religious Broadcasters--whose 1,350-member radio and TV station owners and programmers are responsible for about 75% of religious broadcasting in the United States--adopted new mandatory financial-disclosure guidelines requiring on-air pastors to make public church expenditures and fund-raising methods.

Although association officials and members meeting at their 45th annual convention acknowledged the importance of the PTL scandal in prompting Wednesday's 324-6 vote, the group's move to put its financial house in order actually began more than a year ago, months before the country ever heard of Jessica Hahn and Bakker's brief motel room encounter with her.

"It's real tough to swim against the tide, and right now the tide seems to be let's clean up our act and show the world that we can police ourselves," said Rich Schwartz, general manager of radio station WNDZ-AM in Chicago. "We will not put something on the air that we cannot look our audience in the eye and say we trust these people."

Ben Armstrong, executive director of the religious broadcasters' association, said the new rules will "show the public we have open books and open policies rather than closed books and closed policies."

The new accountability guidelines are called the "EFICOM rules"--a reference to the association's Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission that was formed after a December, 1986, meeting of the NRB's leadership. The commission, established "to foster high standards of ethics and integrity in raising and disbursing funds for Christian ministries," is intended to award electronic churches a kind of seal of approval of financial accountability.

Every organization and ministry belonging to NRB will be required to comply with the rules, which, say association officials, are likely to have a far-reaching effect upon how televangelists conduct the earthly affairs of their electronic congregations.

Among the rules' provisions are:

--All broadcast ministries with annual donation income of more than $500,000 are required to submit a yearly audited financial statement prepared by an independent accountant according to generally accepted accounting principles.

--Board members are not permitted to vote on decisions setting their salaries. In addition, the governing body will "avoid business transactions in which the board members, staff or their families have a financial interest."

--Money solicited from the audience will be used only for the stated purpose at the time of solicitation. And the televangelist must disclose how any surplus money is spent. Members will be required to make their staff salaries and perks known to the commission, but those figures will not be made public.

--In a measure designed to prevent family abuse of the larger ministries collecting more than $100,000, the rules require that boards of directors have at least five persons; members of the same family cannot constitute a majority of the board.

Earlier in the week, association president Robert Cook commented: "A group as large as we have become must learn to regulate itself or we shall be regulated by others."

Religious broadcasting has been badly shaken in the last year. The 1987 downfall of PTL leaders Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, sparked by public disclosure of Jim Bakker's sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn and his subsequent payments of hush money, came only months after Rev. Oral Robert raised millions of dollars after threatening that God would take his life if he failed.

Both events produced a long, loud and angry public reaction. Many broadcast ministries were faced with declining collections and defections by disappointed and disillusioned followers.

The official theme of the five-day convention that ended Wednesday was "Accountable to God and Man: 45 Years of Service and Integrity." The mood among the 10,000 conventioneers and exhibitors that association officials said crowded the Sheraton Washington Hotel was more restrained and introspective than in past years, some observers said.

"Accountability," both financial and moral, appeared to be on the minds of many people.

Although the Bakkers did not attend, they managed to make their presence felt indirectly even in disgrace and exile by the intense media scrutiny focused on the convention proceedings.

"It's impossible to listen to religious broadcasting on radio or TV without being aware of the impact the broadcasters feel as a result of the PTL scandal, and scandal is what it is," said Col. Ernest Miller, national representative of the Salvation Army. "They (the televangelists) are telling us their collections are down. There is a dramatic change in the perception of the public relative to religious broadcasting."

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