A radio interviewer Sunday dubbed it “Branson’s Law:” The extent of misuse of mission dollars is directly proportional to the distance between the giver and the spender.
Mary Kinney Branson, author of Spending God’s Money: Extravagance and Misuse in the Name of Ministry, uses the following analogy: If a preschooler brought a jar of coins to church and desired to give it to the Lord’s work, most everyone would take care to make sure it is spent wisely. As those small gifts are combined through collective giving into multi-million-dollar budgets of denominational entities, however, it becomes easy to forget it’s made up of many small sacrifices.
Branson worked 16 years for the Southern Baptist Convention, primarily as editing and marketing director of the Home Mission Board and its successor North American Mission Board, formed in a denominational reorganization in 1997.
Not long after arriving at the HMB, Branson said, she began hearing stories about “old timers” and how rigid they were with approving expenditures. Arthur Rutledge, HMB president from 1964 to 1976, once refused to approve a U-Haul trailer rented to carry supplies to a conference in Florida, saying staffers already driving to the conference could have packed supplies in the trunks and backseats of their personal cars.
After an uninitiated new worker mistakenly listed a massage taken to relax after a hard day’s work on a line in an expense form labeled “entertainment,” Rutledge took up all the expense forms and issued new ones without an “entertainment” category.
While the environment was somewhat more relaxed when Branson arrived–not long after Larry Lewis became president in 1987–the appearance of extravagance was still strongly discouraged. Traveling staff members were told not to accept free upgrades at rental car counters, because people observing them would assume they paid full price. Lewis once refused to ride in a stretch limo sent to an airport to pick him up.
That culture changed, she said, after formation of NAMB and election of President Robert Reccord, a former mega-church pastor whose extravagant lifestyle soon earned him the nickname “Hollywood Bob.”
“Dr. Reccord came from a mega-church, and he brought with him a mega-church mindset,” Branson said Sunday on “Religious Talk,” a weekly radio program hosted by Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists.
“Dr. Lewis had been a church planter,” Branson said. “Some of the things a mega-church pastor feels entitled to do became part of our culture.”
One of the first things to go, she said, was full financial disclosure. A half-inch-thick budget that had been presented to HMB trustees was reduced at NAMB to a few pages. As a result, she said, trustees didn’t know what questions to ask.
“We are finding that in a lot of mega-churches,” Branson told Prescott. “People are standing up and saying, ‘We want the information. We want to know what the salaries are.'”
“I’ve actually received e-mails from some people asking for advice on how to receive that information from their church,” she said. Some have set up Web sites, because they feel too intimidated to ask their pastor for the information.
“We are not children,” she said. “This is our money. If we are paying for it, we have a right to know how it’s being spent.”
Branson said her book’s focus is not on individuals but on a system that promotes waste and rewards hubris.
“Most of us, if we were in a position of entitlement, and we had no checks and balances, would do the same thing,” she said. “It’s very difficult to spend that kind of money with humility.”
Branson said she left NAMB under positive circumstances and had no intention of writing a book. She probably never would have, she admitted, if–like about 100 people let go during Reccord’s administration–she had been offered a couple of thousand dollars of severance in exchange for never saying or writing anything negative about NAMB. Branson said she has long wondered about a Christian organization that would require former employees to sign such a statement.
She said she also wonders about the leadership of 41 prominent SBC leaders who signed a letter unconditionally supporting Reccord after he stepped down, despite knowing about his spending practices. After Reccord left, auditors found that two of those signers, evangelist Jay Strack and Reccord’s pastor, Johnny Hunt of Woodstock Baptist Church, were paid a total of $392,000 without written contracts through verbal agreements with Reccord, who at one time had $1 million in discretionary spending cleared by auditors.
At least one of 31 employees laid off as a result as Reccord’s lucrative contract with InovaOne, a business owned by a member of Reccord’s former church in Norfolk, Va., ended up on food stamps. When he decided to resign, Reccord reportedly took a lawyer with him to negotiate his own settlement. It was supposed to be secret, Branson said, but word leaked out it was in the neighborhood of $500,000 with additional funds for a headhunter to help him find a new job.
Branson said not everything that occurred at NAMB was bad, but much of it was not part of the agency’s primary assignment. Directors were repeatedly told to cut budgets and reduce staff, even while money was coming in, to make room for entrepreneurial ideas of leaders without input from church planters on the field.
“I do feel it’s important to bring these things to light,” she said. “I’ve heard people say ‘you could hurt the cause of Christ.’ I believe it could hurt the cause of man, but not the cause of Christ. If you look in the Bible, sin is confronted.”
Another change when she moved to NAMB, Branson said, is that on at least two occasions part of her job was to “brand” Bob Reccord. One poster displayed in NAMB’s chapel promoted a meeting with Reccord as a featured speaker that identified him only as “author” without any mention of NAMB.
Reccord contracted two outside PR firms, despite having a public relations department on staff at his service, at a cost of $12,000 a month with a goal of “getting him on CNN.”
Asked by Prescott if Reccord ever made it onto CNN, Branson quipped: “I don’t know, but maybe Spending God’s Money will get on CNN.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Order Spending God’s Money from Amazon.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.