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Shell Games and Secrecy

When The Kansas City Star published an investigative story a few weeks ago about the secretive financial oversight of one of the Baptist mega-churches in the area, it was as if a bomb went off in the community.

The news story reported that several hundred members had left the First Family Church of Overland Park, Kan., in the last few years because of the church’s refusal to provide members with financial reports of the church income and expenses and the enforced secrecy surrounding the salaries and benefits of the pastor and those family members who are paid staff members.

Accountability issues also involved the broken promises of how funds raised to fund one capital campaign were apparently used to pay for another campaign, while other funds raised for particular projects were either mysteriously delayed or never spent for their stated purpose. Additionally, false explanations were given to the church about how a land deal was consummated according to court records. The members have left over their inability to get answers to their questions about these matters.

Pastor Jerry Johnston exercises tight control over financial disclosure policies by hiding behind the claim that all church financial records are accountable to a board of trustees. According to the story, a lawyer listed in church corporation papers as a board member acknowledged he hadn’t been to a board meeting in years, didn’t know he was a board member and hadn’t attended the church in years.

Former members of a building committee for a recent project left the church out of frustration in obtaining financial reports in order to apply for loan approval to fund the project. They were repeatedly denied the reports and in the end, Johnston covered the loan himself. It is unknown whether he utilized the financial resources of others or underwrote the loan himself. The details are unknown to the members of the church. Within weeks, the entire building committee resigned. It should be noted that Johnston disagreed with the facts of the new story on this point. “Respectfully, I disagree,” he said about these accusations.

Members are not given access for the salaries or benefits given to the pastor and staff. Complaints criticize the exorbitant life styles of the pastor and his family listing expensive cars, homes, clothing and the use of an exclusive and high-priced American Express card. Johnston has recently hired a public relations specialist from Dallas to handle all responses to the news stories.

The pastor responded defensively with the warning a few weeks before the story broke that the congregation should expect adversaries to attack them and their ministry. “Whenever God’s work is being built, Satan sends opponents, and he energizes opponents,” Johnston said. “Beware of Satan as he speaks through different people.”

Johnston was apparently referring to the upcoming news story implying that the reporter, a member of another large church in the area, had an ulterior motive to hurt the credibility of the church and its pastor in order to benefit her own church.

The news story also highlighted the duplicity of claims the pastor has a doctoral degree. Johnston uses “Dr. Jerry Johnston” publicly and in all church publications and media, but in fact he does not have such a degree other than the honorary doctorate received when invited by Jerry Falwell to preach the baccalaureate service at Liberty University in 1998.

Johnston was a high school dropout from the Christian high school he attended in Kansas City in the 1970s. He later passed the general equivalency degree but has not earned college or graduate degrees beyond that. He claims he will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from the Midwestern Baptist College (SBC), the undergraduate program of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.

While the letters to the editor in The Kansas City Star have been numerous and polarized, it’s clear the issue of trust and integrity are central to the story. Many have defended Johnston and the FirstFamilyChurch as being the victim of a scathing news story that was unfair in light of all the good the church has done in the community while others have voiced their opposition to the strange need for absolute control of such matters.

The news report on First Family’s secretive control of their finances has created a community-wide conversation on the issues of trust, disclosure and integrity. In a follow-up article on this issue, a number of local pastors and congregations were asked about their practices regarding financial accountability.

The majority of responses were openly counter to the practices of Johnston at First Family. Nodell Dennis, director of missions for the Blue River-Kansas City Baptist Association said, “The first thing I tell pastors is ‘Don’t touch the money.'” By that he meant the church should hold itself responsible for creating a system of accountability where the funds are appropriately protected and spent according to a budget system that’s open to all members for approval and regular review. Such an open system would create a safe barrier between the minister and the money.

The open accountability of a church’s financial reports are a form of sacred trust. Some call it a “covenant” between church members and God that is mutually shared between all members, including the pastor and other ministers.

Dan Busby, vice-president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, says the best way to engender trust in a congregation is to be open about its money. “If there isn’t that basic appropriate transparency, then people in and out of the congregation will tend to believe that something is being hidden, whether it is or not,” he said.

Churches cannot be healthy where secrets abound and refusing to answer the hard questions has the appearance of being its own answer.

Keith D. Herron is senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.