Gospel for Asia (GFA), an international Christian ministry already under fire, hoarded as much as $259 million during some months rather than spending those donated funds on church-planting, missionary work, or charitable relief for the poor, according to an Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) report made public in early December.
The ECFA report raises further doubts about whether all GFA violations of ECFA standards can be reasonably explained as inadvertent missteps. The ECFA booted GFA from its membership roster on Oct. 2.
Former GFA board member Gayle Erwin, who released the report, resigned his board position the day after the ECFA revoked GFA’s membership. Erwin refused a request to be interviewed for this article.
The report, which was written in September, states that the ministry claimed in June that its field partners—affiliated ministry groups closely associated with GFA—possessed $7 million in cash reserves. In fact, according to the report, the field partners possessed $186 million in reserves in various accounts at that time. The report says that GFA’s partners had $259 million in reserves during the month of March 2014.
“ECFA staff questioned the appropriateness of the high levels of cash being held,” the ECFA report says. “The source of the balances was primarily from donor-restricted gifts to GFA, often raised in response to gift solicitations that communicated urgent field needs.”
An officer of GFA said this week the ministry accepts all of the ECFA’s findings. “We own what we have done wrong,” said David Carroll, GFA’s chief operating officer. “We are sorry and sad we have breached the confidence of our donors.”
The ECFA touts seven financial accountability standards as essential for Christian ministry, including demonstrating “truthfulness in communications,” exercising “stewardship” of “giver expectations and intent,” and maintaining appropriate management and controls over the handling of donated funds. ECFA officials say GFA failed to fulfill five of the standards, while the ministry’s actions raised 17 areas of concern in the eyes of ECFA auditors.
Carroll said GFA’s mistakes stem from inadequate management practices: “While it is a painful, humbling time, we do look forward and are working literally day and night as diligently as we can to get those things shored up.”
Carroll added that he knows of no deliberate wrongdoing committed by anyone at GFA: “I just hope we have the grace from God to go forward that not only is worthy of Him but that [matches] the way we operated for many years.” He pointed out that the ministry grew rapidly in recent decades and failed to update and upgrade its procedures in a way required by its expanding scope.
Carroll offered statistics, including that GFA’s field partners in India and elsewhere in southern Asia support some 14,000 national missionaries at a cost of approximately $30 million a year. He added that the ministry provides for 78,000 children through GFA’s “Bridge of Hope” program, which requires another $33 million a year, and constructs some 1,200 new churches a year at a cost of another $15 million annually.
According to Carroll, the discrepancy between the $7 million figure initially provided and the correct $186 million figure arose after a GFA field partner misinterpreted the initial inquiry and believed it pertained to one specific account rather than the totality of money in all field partner accounts. “I don’t know if we did not communicate effectively, or what,” Carroll said.
GFA’s foremost field partner is Believers Church, which began as a church-planting organization in 1978 and has operated essentially as a sister entity throughout the history of GFA. Believers Church owns a 2,000-acre rubber plantation and other property in India and runs an engineering college and a hospital. K.P. Yohannan founded both ministries and continues to head both.
David Harriman, an independent consultant on charitable giving and international grant-making who also worked full time for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Frontiers ministry, said GFA consistently misrepresented itself. “GFA has made promises relative to a very wide range of missional products, all of which are complex and costly to administer at the field level, at least with any level of integrity,” he said. “The marketing of this mission does not, in my opinion, comport with the reality that is Believers Church.”
Harriman said GFA leads donors to believe they are giving pigs, goats, or rabbits to poor families, but donations may have gone to support the GFA-affiliated cathedral, schools, hospital, college, or broadcast stations.
Harriman praised those who have helped bring GFA’s issues to light, including Erwin and blogger Warren Throckmorton, but was sad to hear that problems existed, especially since the discrediting of GFA, long respected in many quarters, could have a ripple effect on Christian giving around the world. “There’s enough doubt in the charitable marketplace about what charities do anyway,” Harriman added.
To rebuild trust, Carroll said GFA will work with a new accounting firm recommended by the ECFA and has engaged a non-profit specialist who is a frequent presenter at ECFA events. Carroll declined to name those entities at this time but said he anticipates “a very thorough audit and review. … We have created a strict and accountable plan for working with field partners in the future and for working with our own board.”
He hopes GFA will in time be reinstated as a member of the ECFA.
— by William McCleery