Stewardship, Part One

Trumpet

Stewardship, Part One

In his book Raising the Ruins, now available in bookstores, Trumpet executive editor Stephen Flurry exposes the reality of what happened to the Worldwide Church of God. Here is the twelfth chapter.
From the October 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

“You shall know them by their fruits.” —Jesus Christ

Joseph Tkach Jr. introduced the final chapter of his book, “The Enigma of Herbert W. Armstrong,” with an “advisory” addressed to former and current members of the Worldwide Church of God. He said, “This chapter is not written to attack or belittle Herbert Armstrong in any way.” He then proceeded to attack Mr. Armstrong and to imply that all the allegations of critics were true.

The “enigma” chapter is where he quotes Mr. Armstrong as supposedly saying, “I am Elijah.” It’s where he made the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” comment and then followed up by saying “there weren’t many who would challenge” Mr. Armstrong. He said, “As the Worldwide Church of God has been dramatically changed and as we have faced the emotional upheaval of finding out much of what we believed was wrong, we have also had to face allegations about Herbert W. Armstrong and his son.”

Allegations? Garner Ted was suspended from the church more than once during the 1970s for his sexual improprieties and later disfellowshiped for attempting to overthrow his father. But why would Tkach Jr. lump Herbert Armstrong in with his son throughout the “enigma” chapter? To assign guilt by association—that’s why. According to Tkach, because of these allegations about Mr. Armstrong and his son, “I felt the need to apologize and ask forgiveness about our past unbiblical teaching and behavior.” It wasn’t just Garner Ted’s behavior he felt he needed to apologize for—Herbert Armstrong’s too.

And all this is not meant to be an attack against Mr. Armstrong in any way? “God has not asked us to be the judge of Mr. Armstrong,” Tkach said right before leveling the same judgmental charge against Mr. Armstrong that Garner Ted did in 1979.

“We neither have nor promote an extravagant lifestyle,” Tkach wrote. “We have divested ourselves, and continue to, of those things that are opulent and do not befit a church.”

And so the Tkaches sold off all the festival sites used by church brethren. They sold the campsites Mr. Armstrong built for teenagers. They shut down the college campuses Mr. Armstrong raised up for the work and for the young people. They sold the property and all the buildings used for preaching the gospel to the world. They sold the airplane Mr. Armstrong used to visit the brethren and world leaders. They auctioned off equipment, paintings, sculptures and personal gifts world leaders had given to Mr. Armstrong. They sold literature, libraries, instruments, pianos, chandeliers, candelabra and furniture.

And now Tkach Jr. points to their financial demise as proof of how sincere their intent was to transform the church. “At any time in the past several years we could have called a halt to the changes, turned back the clock, confessed that we were wrong, and tried to woo back disaffected members (along with their pocketbooks).” They counted the cost, he says, and were willing to abolish Mr. Armstrong’s ministry and work, even when they knew it would result in steep financial losses.

The facts, figures and time frame, however, paint a completely different picture.

A Shocking Difference in Priorities

As we have already seen in this volume, Tkachism’s intent to change major doctrines began just as soon as Mr. Armstrong died—even before. Together with the deceitful way they introduced changes, they also acted swiftly to slash several successful programs Mr. Armstrong had started.

For example, in September 1986, Tkach Sr. capped Plain Truth circulation at 7 million. So within eight months of Mr. Armstrong’s death, Mr. Tkach decided to slash the magazine’s reach by more than 16 percent. Mr. Tkach explained, “We could very easily have a worldwide Plain Truth circulation of 15 million by this time next year. But would that be wise stewardship?” He wrote, “Now maybe there are some in God’s church who think I should just let the Plain Truth magazine circulation increase as fast as we can possibly make it do so, and then trust God to send us the money to back that up. Maybe some think we should just go on more and more television stations, any time a new opportunity comes available.”

How radically different that line of thinking was from his predecessor’s. Eight months before he died, Mr. Armstrong said “the way is now open to increase the Plain Truth circulation past 8 million and upward to 20 or more million subscribers ….” Yet he was realistic and wise in his stewardship. He said the church “could not afford to take advantage of these doors” unless the income increased—which is precisely what happened after he died.

But Tkach made it clear from the very beginning that they weren’t about to put additional income toward the church’s first commission. Spending money on the work of the church—a work it had been doing for decades—in their view, was a huge waste.

Downsize

Three months after he put a ceiling on Plain Truth circulation, in December 1986, Mr. Tkach decided to reduce the Good News and Youth magazines to six issues per year, instead of 10. The church’s newspaper, the Worldwide News, would continue to be published every two weeks, but at eight pages per issue, as opposed to 12.

Mr. Tkach offered this odd explanation for the reduction in the church’s periodic literature: “I have been quite concerned for some time that many of God’s people simply are not reading the Good News as they should and as a result are missing a wealth of the spiritual, Christian-living instruction about the application of God’s law of love in their lives that they vitally need!”

Four years later, Mr. Tkach discontinued the Good News altogether, making it even easier for members to keep up with their reading.

But back to 1986. Tkach cut Good News and Youth production by 40 percent, Worldwide News content by one third, and Plain Truth circulation by 16 percent—all in his first year. “God’s Word is filled with principles about living within our means,” he wrote, “of counting the cost and of careful consideration of a matter in prayer before making a decision.”

Yet even as Tkach was slashing programs, the residual impact of Mr. Armstrong’s work was still making its mark on Pasadena. For example, nearly 2 million people telephoned the wcg in 1986, which was a 78 percent increase over 1985. The church’s income also grew, finishing 11.2 percent above 1985—at just over $182 million.

In 1987, this same dual theme played out—cutting programs even as revenues increased. In May, Larry Salyer told ministers that “Mr. Tkach continues to review and evaluate the procedures and techniques we use in doing God’s work. … Under his leadership and with the improved communication and cooperation of the operation managers, the work is moving forward on many fronts.” Mr. Salyer went on to explain how they were working on a five-year plan that would facilitate “greater efficiency and productivity” in the work.

Yet that same month, Plain Truth circulation slipped to 6.9 million. The following month, in June, they stopped printing the circulation figure in the table of contents. In its place, it said, “Over 20,000,000 readers in seven languages.” By the end of the year, even that line disappeared.

They also made a number of “design changes” in the Plain Truth over the last half of 1987. These changes, supposedly intended to give the magazine a “more modern, up-to-date appearance,” also happened to “cut costs significantly.” In other words, they downgraded the quality.

At the end of 1987, Mr. Tkach wrote, “I have often said that we should strive to work smarter, not just harder. As faithful stewards, we should always be on the lookout for a better way—a wiser, more efficient or more productive way—to get any job done.” We heard a lot about five-year plans, working smarter and being wise stewards during the late 1980s—all of it implying that Mr. Armstrong mismanaged the church’s revenue.

Mr. Tkach, we were told, was an expert when it came to management and working with employees. One wcg minister even remarked, “Mr. Tkach is a manager. Mr. Armstrong was not a manager. Mr. Armstrong was an entrepreneur—traveled all the time. He didn’t like big meetings. Mr. Tkach thrives on them, meeting after meeting after meeting, day after day.”

Due to his management skills, Mr. Tkach supposedly saved tons of money during those years. In actual fact, the membership and revenue increased during those years, mainly due to the fruit from Mr. Armstrong’s labor. By the end of 1987, church membership had climbed to 88,455 and the income increased another 5.5 percent to a record-high $192 million.

The following year, at a regional directors’ conference in Pasadena in June 1988, Mr. Tkach told the leading ministers in the church that he was “trimming the fat” in the work in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

The thing is, in 1988 the church’s revenue topped out at $201 million. It was the first time ever to exceed $200 million and represented 4.8 percent growth over 1987. According to the church’s treasurer, Leroy Neff, during 1988 they had “almost eliminated all long-term debt” and were on course to “pay as you go.”

Yet, by the end of 1988, Mr. Armstrong’s three major books—Mystery of the Ages, The Incredible Human Potential and The United States and Britain in Prophecy—had all disappeared from circulation. The Plain Truth circulation had been pared down to about 6.5 million, even though the church’s worldwide membership had grown to 91,685 and its revenue was 23 percent higher than it was three years earlier, during Mr. Armstrong’s last full year at the helm.

The Entourage

Tkachism began 1989 by selling off the church’s airplane, the Gulfstream iii, for $12.5 million. The year before, Tkach chartered a Boeing 727 for a trip to Australasia in order to see if it would be feasible to fly in a less-expensive aircraft. He wrote, “As I have often explained, we are continually looking for ways to make the various operations of the work more streamlined and efficient. It appears that there may be a significant financial advantage to selling the g-iii and buying a used, but well-maintained Boeing 727.”

Later in 1988, unsuccessful in locating a 727 he liked, Mr. Tkach settled for the British-made bac 1-11. It was only $3.4 million, a price tag he said would immediately “benefit” God’s work. He wrote, “Also, the bac 1-11 has room for all our necessary tv equipment and personnel, as well as any additional necessary personnel. The g-iii, as many of you know, was extremely limited in seating and storage capacity.” But for an administration determined to “trim the fat,” it seems like the smaller, more fuel-efficient g-iii would have better suited their needs—especially since it was already paid for.

In looking at the size of Mr. Tkach’s entourage, however, it’s no wonder they needed to “save” money by purchasing a used, gas-guzzling commercial airliner with about four times the cabin space as the g-iii. For the Australasian trip, when they chartered the 727, Mr. Tkach’s traveling party included:

Joseph Locke, his personal assistant; James Peoples, operation manager of the computer information systems, purchasing and travel departments, and his wife, Linda; Ellen Escat, the pastor general’s administrative assistant; Michael Rasmussen, executive office aide, and his wife, Juli; Julie Stocker, an administrative assistant in Communications & Public Affairs; and Ross Jutsum, director of the music department in Pasadena, his wife, Tammara, and daughters, Heidi and Lisa.

Also traveling on the 727 were Mr. Tkach’s Gulfstream iii crew: Captain Ken Hopke, co-captain Lawrence Dietrich, maintenance chief Dean Mohr and steward Jay Brothers.

The church’s television crew included Mr. Halford and his wife, Patricia; cameraman Gary Werings and his wife, Gloria; and Steve Bergstrom, cameraman and remote operations engineer.

Counting Mr. Tkach, that’s 21 people, for a 21-day tour through Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Sri Lanka—to visit church areas. After their first stop in Melbourne, the entourage picked up another four adults and two children to accompany them for the next leg of the trip. Might as well—there was plenty of room on the airliner.

Compare that with Mr. Armstrong’s six-day trip to Japan in March of 1985. He took Ellis La Ravia and Aaron Dean, their wives and his personal nurse, as well as the two pilots. Mr. Armstrong was 92 years old at the time—and blind. He had been pastor general of the church for more than 50 years. And on one of the last international trips of his ministry, he took seven people with him, counting the pilots.

It is also interesting to note that during the trip, Mr. Armstrong completed Chapter Five of Mystery of the Ages, as well as a letter to the church membership. He met with the president of an advertising agency working on behalf of the church in Asia. He met with the church’s regional director over Australia and Asia. He had a private meeting with the Japanese foreign minister and later hosted a banquet for 200 government officials, diplomats and Japanese business people. The night after the banquet, Mr. Armstrong addressed the managers at Japan Life, whose chairman had visited Ambassador College earlier that year. Before ending the trip, Mr. Armstrong discussed with a number of Japanese government officials the prospect of supporting a project in China.

Compare that with Mr. Tkach’s first trip aboard the used bac 1-11—a three-day trip to Washington, d.c., in early December 1988. He attended two services on the Sabbath of December 3, giving the announcements at both the north and south churches in Washington. The two sermons were given by evangelists who accompanied Mr. Tkach on the trip. On Sunday, Mr. Tkach attended the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony and toured some of the sites in d.c. with his entourage. Traveling with Mr. Tkach over the weekend were the five-man flight crew, including a steward and a chef, Michael Rasmussen, David Albert and his wife, Richard Ames and his wife, Dibar Apartian and his wife, Leroy Neff and his wife and Wayne Shilkret.

It seems like plenty of “fat” could have been trimmed from that weekend trip.

Eight days after returning from Washington, d.c., Mr. Tkach took the bac 1-11 on a 13-day trip to the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Besides visiting church congregations, Mr. Tkach and his entourage toured war memorials, museums, shopping districts and a floating village. Traveling with Mr. Tkach were the five-man flight crew, the three-man tv crew and Michael Rasmussen, Ellen Escat and Esther Apperson.

In July of 1989, for a 13-day trip through England, Belgium, Italy and Greece, Mr. Tkach took Michael Feazell, Joseph Locke, Michael Rasmussen, Julie Stocker, Mr. and Mrs. Apartian, Mr. and Mrs. Hulme, the three-man television crew and the five-man flight crew—17 in all.

To spend that much money for his traveling entourage—for hotel reservations, limousine rentals, food and incidentals—even as he repeatedly stressed trimming the fat and working more efficiently, didn’t seem to faze Mr. Tkach. The way he saw it, he saved the work millions by trading the g-iii for the bac 1-11.

The 1989 Income “Dip”

Three months before the European trip, Mr. Tkach excitedly told the brethren about the church’s new five-year plan, which had been completed in April 1989. After highlighting key points from the plan in a Worldwide News article, Tkach wrote, “Our current income dip would be even more difficult for us if we hadn’t already been putting into effect cost-saving measures planned last year.” Who knows what would have happened to the work without Tkachism’s financial model.

He told members that if the dip continued, “severe cutbacks” would have to be made, perhaps in television. He said that if stations in their area stopped carrying The World Tomorrow, their pastor could arrange for video cassettes to be mailed to the congregation for a local viewing.

“We must avoid waste,” he wrote. Then finally, “At this point normal reserves have disappeared to take up the slack, and we have now begun to dip into the reserves from the sale of the g-iii aircraft.” They sold the g-iii in January and by April they were already dipping into proceeds from the sale!

That’s how bad the “crisis” was in 1989.

In May, Mr. Tkach wrote, “With an annual budget of $160 million, a shortfall of even a few percent is significant.” Then later, “I was disappointed to learn of some few who had simply become complacent and careless about tithing, not seeming to realize that one who is careless about tithing is robbing God.”

I’m not sure why he would have used the 1985 budget figure. Income the year before Mr. Tkach addressed the “shortfall” was actually $201 million. At any rate, he kept pounding away at the budget “crisis” throughout 1989.

Later in May, Tkach wrote, “I know we’d all rather see growth than cutbacks. But as I’ve said many times, God does expect us to live within our means, and we will certainly do that.” It was beginning to sound like a broken record.

Later that year, in September, Mr. Tkach admonished the brethren to brace themselves for additional cuts. “If God wanted us to step out in faith in order to grow as fast as possible, there would never be a need to count the cost, or to worry about being prepared to handle the growth,” he wrote. “The church has done that occasionally in the past, but we have always ended up having to slash severely because the budget simply could not keep up. Like anyone, we should be able to learn from our past experience.”

It was yet another way to put down Mr. Armstrong and his supposedly poor managerial practices.

“I wish we could have a 10 or 12 million Plain Truth circulation right now!” Tkach exclaimed. “But I have to realize that we just can’t afford it now. I am instead having to face the fact that we may need to trim the circulation slightly to afford what God has given us.”

By the end of the year, the total “dip” for 1989 actually amounted to another all-time high: $211,777,000. True, that only represented a 5.2 percent increase over 1988. But as Mr. Tkach himself admitted, with a budget as large as the wcg’s, “even a few percent is significant.”

That same year, Larry Salyer told the church that Mystery of the Ages was “among the most expensive pieces of literature” the church had produced. Years later, Tkach Jr. said the book was a financial drain and implied that their income was not sufficient to sustain the project. Yet they announced the book’s removal right as the church had reached its financial peak!

More Massive Cuts

The 1989 budget “crisis” triggered many more cutbacks in programs Mr. Armstrong established. In January 1990, Mr. Tkach announced the decision to remove the toll-free number from the television program, which would save the work $3.2 million per year. Besides the cost savings, Mr. Tkach said the work would benefit from the decision in other ways too: “The small amount of extra effort that it takes to write instead of to call means that the seed (in this case, the Plain Truth subscription) will be falling on more fertile ground. This would mean a somewhat smaller Plain Truth circulation, but a higher-quality one.” Impeccable logic!

In March, the Worldwide News reported that the number of stations airing The World Tomorrow had fallen to 123. Just one year earlier, according to the article, the program had aired on 232 stations. At the time Mr. Armstrong died, the number of stations totaled 382.

In July, Mr. Tkach told the membership, “Plain Truth circulation, which we have had to trim from last year’s level to stay within budget, stands at a strong 5 million!” The year before, it was over 6 million.

In September, Mr. Tkach announced that it was time for The World Tomorrow and the Plain Truth to take on a more religious tone. He had come to see that with the old “more secular tone,” the church may have been fishing in waters “where the fish have stopped biting.” And since the Plain Truth would now be more religious, he explained, they no longer needed the Good News magazine! “The new Plain Truth,” he explained, “will replace both the current Plain Truth and the Good News (which will no longer be needed with the new Plain Truth format). … This revised approach will enable us to maximize effectiveness with less expense in the publishing, editorial and mailing areas of the work.”

Since Mr. Armstrong believed his God-given commission was twofold, he established the Good News in 1939 in support of the church’s secondary mission—to “feed the flock” spiritual meat. While the Plain Truth was primarily used to preach the gospel of the Kingdom to the world as a witness (the church’s first mission), the Good News was intended more for church members and co-workers, although later in his ministry, Mr. Armstrong made it available to anyone who wanted to study God’s Word in greater depth.

But when the Tkaches changed the commission after Mr. Armstrong died, they lost interest in the whole concept of proclaiming a message to the world. So they made the Plain Truth more like the Good News and then nixed the Good News altogether, describing the move as a better, more efficient way to do the work.

By the end of 1990, Mr. Tkach reported, “We have reduced the circulation of the Plain Truth by changing its format to a more clearly religious, gospel-oriented approach.” The worldwide circulation had dwindled to 2.7 million.

Thus, 1990 began with a Plain Truth circulation around 6 million and the Good News at 1.1 million. By the end of that year, the Plain Truth had been cut by more than half and the Good News eliminated altogether.

Yet, despite this staggering series of cuts, the church had a worldwide membership of 97,000 in 1990 and finished the year with virtually the same amount of revenue as it did the year before: $211,243,000. That amounted to 29 percent more than Mr. Armstrong’s best year—and at a time when they were making a staggering series of cuts.

One wonders, where did all that money go?