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Christian Ministries and Churches: Be Careful Before You Take Government Money

Warren Cole Smith

Editor’s Note:  On April 3, Crown Financial Ministries CEO Chuck Bentley released an “Open Letter to Churches and Christian Ministries.”  He called on Christian leaders to exercise extreme caution before taking money earmarked for non-profits as part of the $2.2-trillion CARES Act.   

MinistryWatch President Warren Smith spoke with Bentley about his letter and his concerns. 

 

Warren Smith:  A lot of the articles I’ve read discuss how to get this money?  But you question whether we should even take the money. 

Chuck Bentley:  There was a lot of euphoria around the relief package.  I was invited to participate in an online event explaining how 501-c-3 organizations and churches could apply and qualify for the funding. And they had thousands of people join. So many that people had to be turned away.  More than 6,000 people.  And I thought, “Oh my goodness, we need to think this through. 

So I went to our board and asked what they thought about it Do we need to be taking taxpayer money in our time of need now?  So we analyzed it and we came up with a decision not to do it. Our board was so convinced that we shouldn’t do it.  They asked me to write a letter to other churches and ask them to pause and consider the same thing.  

WS:  Can you itemize some of the reasons you chose not to take this money?  And also, Chuck,  I want to be clear.  Just because you made the decision not to take the money, you’re not necessarily saying that it would be wrong for a church or a nonprofit ministry to take the money. Is that fair or not?  

CB:  That’s correct. There are a lot of notforprofits already that exist because of government grants.  Government participates with the private sector, especially in areas of charity and special needs families and things like that.  

So we’re not saying it’s a sin to take the grant or the loan. What we’re saying is you need to pause and ask if you really need it 

The first reason we said we don’t want to take the money is this:  we’ve never borrowed money. This is our 44th year in ministry and we’ve been through some hard times, but we teach other people to avoid borrowing.  So we wanted to walk the talk.  

Secondly, we wanted to be able to communicate to our donors and partners that we’re fully trusting God for our provision.  If we did take the loan, we would need to disclose to them that we had done so.  One of my concerns is that organizations may be taking this help and not telling their partners or donors that they are.  Of course they may be able to deem it as God’s provision. We just didn’t see it that way.  

Finally, we thought other people needed it more than us.  We weren’t in a position we felt like we had to have it.  

Finally, we know, longterm, taxpayers aren’t gonna like this. There’ll be a large segment of population that does not want to support Christ exalting ministries and churches.  So we know there’ll be a backlash coming.  

WS:  Chuck, you guys are in a unique position because, as you said, you’ve been around for 44 years and you have been teaching for that entire period to avoid debt.   

But many ministries are not in that position.   They haven’t been explicitly talking about money and money management issues for 44 years. They haven’t explicitly been saying to avoid debt.  

CB:  Yes, but I would also caution them on a number of fronts. First of all, let’s just forget that it’s a government loan in taxpayer loan right now.  If you were just going to the bank and going to borrow the money, you’d have to ask yourself why?  Why do I have to borrow?  Are my partners and supporters not engaged enough? Do they not see the need?  

What I’ve found is some of the churches standing in line for this right now haven’t done a good job of communicating with their support base. I think churches should simply say, “Look, remember us where we’re hurting right now.  Can you help us? We would prefer not to get this loan. I think they’d see a very positive response to that.  

On the flip side, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle if they have to pay it back. Now, some will not because it’ll become a grant, but if they have to pay it back, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle to raise that money.

WS:  MinistryWatch has reached out to other Christian leaders.  I’m going to go ahead and name some names here. Marvin Olasky with the World Magazine. John Stemberger, who runs the Florida Family Policy Council. Travis Wussow, with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  We talked to them as part of a story that we did on this program.   

They had many of the same concerns and cautions you have, but they said because this money was a temporary grant, it would not lead to longterm dependency.  They didn’t have the concerns that they might normally have about accepting this money.  

CB:  I think they’re correct. From a legal standpoint. I don’t think there’s going to be a gotcha, or an entrapment from the people who do go ahead and accept the funds.

What I do wonder though, Warren, is…We set aside funds for times like this. In fact, our CFO said something so meaningful to me. He said, Chuck, that’s why we have reserves. It is for such a time as this.  We need to first rely upon our reserves.  Second, we need to rely on the people who support this work, not the government. 

I like the model that Alan Mulally set when Ford Motor Company was offered a bailout during the 2009 recession.  He said, “Let’s not do it.  Long term, that created tremendous goodwill among his consumer base.  

I think the church needs to be set apart. I’m not saying you can’t do it.  I know there are extenuating circumstances and we don’t want to be judgmental or to cast guilt upon people who do take the money. But we would like to say, “Please pause, pray, get counsel, and possibly be among those who said, ‘You know, we just didn’t jump in the fray at that time.  We took a different route. We let that taxpayer money go to some other organizations and we stood down instead of overreacting.’”  

WS:  Chuck, I know that you’re not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, as the old saying goes.  So I’m going to be very careful about this question.  But I am — based on what you said — going to ask you to predict the future. Let’s fast forward a year or two or three from now and you’re going to have some ministries, in fact, probably many ministries and churches that did in fact elect to take that money.  What are going to be the consequences?

CB:  I think the winds are going to shift unfavorably towards this act. Although many people are grateful that Christian organizations were included in this act for such a time as this, to protect those jobs.  The notforprofit sector is a very large employer in this country and it is important to protect those jobs.  But it will become a political football.  People who supported it will get beat up for doing so I think there’ll be a challenge to the tax exempt charitable status of organizations who did take those funds. A number of atheistic organizations are challenging the legality of this act.  I think that’s just the opening salvo. 

 

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Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine and has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 20 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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