Guest Opinion: Spending God's Money

By Christa Brown
Associated Baptist Press
December 11, 2008

(ABP) — The secrecy of Southern Baptist Convention officials about a financial scandal at their International Mission Board wasn't anything unusual. It's the sort of thing we've seen over and over again.

Southern Baptists need to begin seeing the pattern rather than merely viewing these things as isolated cases.

It's a very common pattern: Without accountability, power corrupts. Religious organizations are no exception.

Christa Brown advocates for victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

The corruption manifests itself not only in the cover-up of financial wrongdoing, but also in the cover-up of clergy sex abuse. For both types of corruption, the root of the problem is a systemic lack of accountability.

That's the root that Southern Baptists desperately need to remedy. Here are a few more illustrations showing the SBC's lack of accountability in the financial context.

— North American Mission Board: The president of the North American Mission Board, Bob Reccord, resigned after a state-convention newspaper published an extensive investigative piece about financial mismanagement.

At the time, Mary Kinney Branson was a marketing director for NAMB, and she's written a book that provides an insider's account of the extravagance and financial mismanagement there. Spending God's Money shows how a powerful religious organization goes wrong when it is unaccountable to the people who fund it and when its leaders lose touch with the higher purpose they purport to serve.

Branson provides details that implicate high Southern Baptist officials — and those details are not flattering. For example, Reccord "had a $1 million fund he could use at his discretion, no questions asked and no receipts required."

Can you imagine any other organization that would allow an official to spend such sums with so little oversight?

When Reccord resigned, 41 Southern Baptist leaders signed a letter praising him and essentially whitewashing his "undisputed misuse of funds." One of those signers was Georgia pastor Johnny Hunt, who is now the SBC president.

— Baptist Foundation of Arizona: The Baptist Foundation of Arizona was established with the pretense of serving Southern Baptist causes. During its history, it did indeed return about $1.3 million to Baptist causes. But it also "loaned" nearly $140 million to companies owned by three of the Foundation's directors. In doing so, the Baptist Foundation of Arizona cost thousands of investors their life savings to the tune of $570 million. It was called "the largest affinity fraud in history."

Also called "affinity scams," such frauds target investors who have a similar interest — in this case, advancing "the Lord's work" through Southern Baptist churches.

Consider just one example: A Baptist Foundation of Arizona subsidiary called Arizona Southern Baptist New Church Ventures "had a stated purpose of financing new Southern Baptist churches in Arizona. Yet it raised most of its money by selling investment products to individuals and invested most of those funds in ... an allegedly phony company owned by one-time BFA director Jalma Hunsinger."

Many of the investors were elderly, and they learned of the investment "opportunity" through their church. They were promised high returns and that some of their money would be used to advance the Gospel. Brochures, distributed in Arizona churches, assured investors that their money "would be as safe as if kept in a bank."

"We were deceived," said a woman who invested $35,000 from her son's Navy death benefit with the Arizona foundation. She described the foundation's presentation in her church as being like "the moneychangers in the Temple," and she complained that Baptist officials were reluctant to discuss the scandal for fear that it "gives God a bad name."

— Baptist General Convention of Texas: The "Valleygate" scandal showed the ugly side of the largest state-wide Baptist convention in the country. It involved $1.3 million in lost and mismanaged church-starting funds. According to the Texas Baptist Standard, "The investigative team faulted the BGCT Executive Board staff for poor oversight, uneven management, failure to abide by internal guidelines and misplaced trust."

Because the investigators' report indicated that some BGCT staff had "allowed the misuse to occur," it was determined that recovery of the funds would be difficult.

These are the sorts of disasters you get when an organization gives its leaders power without also insisting on accountability. Without accountability, power corrupts.


Christa Brown is Baptist director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She runs the Stop Baptist Predators website. This column is adapted from her blog.


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