Generous and Faithful: A Conversation with MinistryWatch’s Warren Cole Smith
Editor’s Note: Warren Cole Smith recently appeared on Pilgrim Radio Network’s program “His People” to discuss the goals and activities of MinistryWatch.com. Here’s that conversation, with program host Bill Feltner. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. You can listen to the entire interview here.
Bill Feltner: Warren, how did God lead you to this new position at ministry watch?
Warren Smith: I got my start as a journalist. At WORLD, I did a lot of the investigative reporting. Then I moved to The Colson Center for four years. But as much as I loved The Colson Center and the people there, I really missed investigative journalism. When the folks at MinistryWatch called me, I jumped at the opportunity.
MinistryWatch has around for more than 20 years. They’ve done a fantastic job of gathering the financial information of about 500 of the largest ministries in this country, and maintaining and curating that database. I believe that database is a unique resource, the family jewels of MinistryWatch.
What I will bring to the equation is the investigative reporting.
BF: I wanted to ask you just a little bit more about investigative journalism. Could define investigative journalism and its role in the Christian world, in the Christian context?
WS: I tend to categorize stories into one of three baskets.
First is the basic blocking-and-tackling of everyday journalism. An event happened, a car wreck occurred, a baseball game was played. You’re letting people know what happened and what the results were.
Second is what I call enterprise journalism. You’re not necessarily digging for dirt, but you’re trying to understand and explain something that goes beyond what happened today or what happened yesterday.
Then there’s investigative journalism. Investigative journalism explores the broken places in the world and attempts to determine what went wrong and why. Investigative journalism explores what people, especially people in power, want to keep hidden. The best investigative journalism provides transparency and accountability.
So, for example, in the church or within ministries, I tend not to report on a story where there is a biblical process of accountability and restoration taking place within that church or ministry. But where that process has broken down or where there are victims who are not being heard, that’s where investigative journalism, especially from a Christian perspective, can play a vital role.
BF: Still, people might feel uncomfortable to see ministries or people they like or support being investigated or put in an unfavorable light. What do you say to those people who see this as airing the church’s dirty laundry before the world?
WS: That’s an important question. If an organization is following a biblical process, where there is accountability and transparency, I would agree that we should let that process play out. But those conditions do not always exist. Many of the largest churches in this country today are not a part of a denomination. There is no external accountability. Often there’s not transparency regarding financial and other matters of the church.
As a result, we’ve seen horrible tragedies. The Catholic church has seen a massive clergy sex scandal, but it’s not just the Catholic church. Those of us who are Protestants shouldn’t be smug or self-righteous about that. We’ve also seen all manner of horrible sexual abuse take place in evangelical circles.
I was at a conference in Dallas just a couple of weeks ago where the Southern Baptist Church was dealing with some of the sexual abuse issues that have taken place in that church. I commend the Southern Baptist Church for doing that, in an open, public forum. They did that by giving the victims a voice. I was there, I was reporting on it. And, in fact, you can read some of the interviews I did at that conference at the MinistryWatch website.
But sometimes journalism is sometimes necessary to create the kind of transparency and accountability within the church. I think people who care about what used to be called “the peace and purity of the church of Jesus Christ” should be embracing this kind of transparency and accountability.
Also, the evangelical church is facing a huge crisis of credibility today. We need to be honest with ourselves and with the world about our failings. This honesty is what we need to restore the credibility of the church in the minds of many people in the culture today.
BF: You were quoted as saying you want to set a new standard for investigative journalism. What does that mean?
WS: First of all, I want to make clear that other organizations are doing great work. WORLD Magazine has an investigative unit called The Caleb Team. I think they’re doing great work. I also look at Christianity Today and see good work they do in the investigative and enterprise journalism arena.
Some secular organizations will occasionally do great work as well. The Houston Chronicle, for example, broke the story about clergy sexual abuse in the Baptist church in Texas. That was important work and good work.
But despite all of the good work that these organizations are doing, it’s just not enough. I’m reminded of Jesus’ saying the fields are white unto harvest, and we should pray that the Lord of the harvest will bring many workers to the work. In some ways that’s what MinistryWatch is. We don’t compete with these organizations. We provide additional eyes and ears, hands and feet, in this important work of preserving the peace and the purity of the church for the glory of God and caring for donors and victims in that process.
BF: What else does MinistryWatch do?
WS: We don’t just focus on the bad guys, so to speak. We also highlight ministries worth celebrating. We call those ministries “Shining Light” ministries.
The Bible says that we’re to let our light so shine before men that they will see our good works and glorify our father who’s in heaven.” So we on a regular basis, weekly, we’re going to profile a ministry that’s doing great work for the kingdom of God.
In addition to that, we’ll do a weekly summary of the news from the worlds of charity and philanthropy.
BF: What kind of responsibility does a fellow ministry leader have? How can they bring correction and should they be included in an investigative piece, perhaps to point out this person knew what was going on but they remained quiet?
WS: I think in some ways, Bill, you have to take those on a case by case basis. You have to look at the systems of structure and accountability that are supposed to be working to determine of they are.
But here’s an example of a case in which I think it is fair to hold fellow ministry leaders accountability. Several years ago, I did extensive investigative reporting on Mark Driscoll, who was the pastor of a large and influential church called Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Mark Driscoll supposedly had an accountability group made up of pastors and ministry leaders from around the country. This structure is becoming common with large megachurches. James MacDonald in Chicago, and Steven Furtick in Charlotte all claim similar groups.
First of all, I think that is a flawed structure. I see little or no basis in Scripture for this kind of structure. But let’s set that issue aside and assume the structure can work. That also means that if there’s a breakdown, it is very fair to ask the members of these accountability boards where they were and what they did when the pastors they are supposed to be overseeing get involved in questionable activities. I think it’s perfectly fair to ask: where was the oversight board? Why weren’t you engaged or involved?
That’s also why I would commend organizations, for example, like the Southern Baptist Convention, which is asking some of those same kinds of tough questions of themselves now that some of the sexual abuse accusations are coming to light within that church. They are saying to themselves, “We need to do a better job. We need to be holding our brother pastors more accountable than we have been in the past.” I commend them for doing so.
BF: How much due diligence should donors do first before giving to a ministry? Some might say, “Well, I’m giving to the Lord. Once I give the money, it’s up to God to look after things.”
WS: The Parable of the Talents has something to say about that, and a key lesson there is that we have to be good stewards. Stewardship matters.
God entrusts us with money, but it’s His money. It’s not our money. I think the answer to your question is different when we look at things that way. If we want to be faithful stewards of the money that God has entrusted to us, we need to be doing our due diligence. I like to say that Christians are to be generous and faithful in the way we give money away.