Stewardship, Part Two

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 part two of the 12th chapter.

When Mr. Tkach decided to pursue accreditation for the college in 1988, he wrote, “[W]e must recognize that Ambassador College now serves a greater and broader purpose for God’s work than it did in its earlier days.” So they began pouring money into the college.

In Mr. Armstrong’s day, the annual spending on the college had been about 10 percent of the overall budget. In 1989, that figure increased to 14 percent: Of the $210 million the church spent, $30 million went toward the college.

In 1990, the church spent almost $222 million ($10.6 million more than it received)—17 percent of which went toward the college. So in the same year they slashed just about every program due to the budget crisis, they upped their college budget from $30 million to $37 million—a 23 percent increase. “During 1990,” according to the Worldwide News, “the church funded approximately $15,663,000 of construction costs for needed dormitories, classrooms and offices to accommodate the consolidation [of both campuses in Big Sandy].” That same year, the Plain Truth circulation had to be cut from 6 million to less than 3 million, they had to “trim” at least 122 television stations from the budget and the Good News and the toll-free number had to be cut entirely.

Here is a simple comparison between budgets for 1987 and 1990. In 1987, Tkachism spent $180 million. The budget breakdown looked like this:

Publishing—24 percent

Local congregations, field ministry—23 percent

Broadcasting and proclaiming the gospel—18 percent

Management and general—18 percent

Ambassador College—10 percent

Member assistance—4 percent

Ambassador Foundation—3 percent

In 1990, after spending $222 million, the breakdown looked like this:

Local congregations, field ministry—26 percent

Publishing—19 percent

Ambassador College—17 percent

Management and general—17 percent

Broadcasting and proclaiming the gospel—14 percent

Member assistance—4 percent

Ambassador Foundation—3 percent

Spending on Ambassador College in 1987 amounted to $18 million. Three years later, after huge cutbacks in preaching the gospel, the college budget had more than doubled.

Ambassador College had become Tkachism’s baby.

Counting the Cost

In his book, Mr. Tkach Jr. piously compares himself and his fellows to the Apostle Paul, who “suffered the loss of all things” in order to “win Christ.” He wrote, “Our membership losses have resulted in a corresponding drop in income. … With dramatically fewer members and greatly reduced income, expenses had to be cut as well. … We were forced to lay off most of our headquarters staff, cut circulation of [and later charge for] the Plain Truth magazine, sharply reduce subsidies to [and later close] Ambassador University, end our acclaimed performing arts series at Ambassador Auditorium, and sell off many of our assets [including the auditorium]. …

“So you do the math. What do these figures tell you? If the changes in the Worldwide Church of God are some kind of con job—some cynical, conspiratorial plot hatched in secret back rooms—then we’re not very adept at pulling it off.”

Let us then, as he suggests, do the math. First, consider the golden years of Herbert W. Armstrong’s work in the Worldwide Church of God—after he set out to get the church back on track in the late 1970s and through to the mid-1980s, when the church experienced such abundant growth. During the last five years of Mr. Armstrong’s ministry, between 1981 and 1985, this is the annual revenue he had to work with:

1981: $108 million

1982: $121 million

1983: $132 million

1984: $148 million

1985: $164 million

It amounted to $673 million. Compare that with the first five years of Tkachism:

1986: $182 million

1987: $192 million

1988: $201 million

1989: $212 million

1990: $211 million

Tkachism’s five-year total amounted to $998 million. Can you believe that? They had about a billion dollars to work with their first five years!

Talk about golden years. This was when Tkach’s entourage was living large! It’s when they decided to close the Pasadena campus and pump all that money into Big Sandy. It’s when they changed the commission and slashed spending on numerous programs established to preach the gospel to the world. It’s when they reduced the Plain Truth circulation from 8.4 to 2.7 million and The World Tomorrow from 382 stations to about 100. It’s when the Good News and Mr. Armstrong’s books were retired permanently—Mystery of the Ages found to be “riddled with error.”

And it’s when they tricked members into thinking nothing had changed, except perhaps some minor things that Mr. Armstrong himself supposedly wanted to change.

Tkach Jr. wrote, “The Worldwide Church of God reached its peak attendance in 1988—two years after Mr. Armstrong’s death—with 126,800 members and 150,000 in attendance. Those figures stayed relatively stable until 1992, when a slight dip was noted.” Isn’t that amazing? It didn’t even dip until 1992. They got the power they needed to do away with Mr. Armstrong’s teachings in 1986 and the additional benefit of a membership and income on the rise, thanks to the popularity of Mr. Armstrong’s teachings.

And you wonder why they didn’t tell 150,000 church members in 1988 that Mystery of the Ages was riddled with error? I can give you about one billion reasons why.

Let’s do more math. Consider the income for Tkachism’s second five-year period, between 1991 and 1995:

1991: $197 million

1992: $191 million

1993: $176 million

1994: $165 million

1995: $103 million

It wasn’t until 1995 that the church’s income finally fell below the revenue Mr. Armstrong generated in his last year. Of course, Mr. Armstrong’s $164 million would have had more purchasing power in 1994—amounting to about $226 million. But still, Tkachism’s revenue for 1994, the year Tkach Sr. gave “The Sermon,” as his son called it, was $165 million.

Total revenue during their second five years amounted to $832 million. Where in the world did all that money go? They shut down the Pasadena campus and the toll-free number in 1990. The World Tomorrow went off the air in 1994. The concert series ended in 1995. Plain Truth circulation had plummeted. About the only thing going for the church was the college in Big Sandy—and they decided to close that in 1997. Yet Tkachism had $832 million to work with during this second five-year period.

Tkachism is obviously not the story of a few courageous leaders who counted the cost and were willing to give up everything for the sake of God’s truth. Between Mr. Armstrong’s death and the year Transformed by Truth was released in 1997, Tkachism received nearly $2 billion of income. And that’s just the revenue. The book value of all the property and equipment they inherited from Mr. Armstrong was $83 million, according to their 1987 audit. And nearly all of that was paid for.

Adjusting figures for inflation, imagine if you inherited an estate today worth $150 million and you could count on it generating another 21/2 to 3 billion dollars over the next 10 to 12 years. That’s the position the Tkaches landed in when Mr. Armstrong died. Yet look at what they have to show for it.

You do the math. How could these men do so little with so much? These men didn’t sacrifice anything—except the lives and investments tens of thousands of others made in support of Mr. Armstrong’s work.

Had it happened in the corporate world, the ceos and executives responsible for hijacking a corporation and then treacherously robbing its investors of their future would have been fired, if not prosecuted in a court of law.

But in the world of Tkachism, a giant, conspiratorial con job, hatched in the secrecy of back rooms and then carried out by cynical, self-righteous imposters, is hailed as a courageous success story of service and sacrifice for the good of mankind.

Funding the Pensions

In recent years, Tkachism has harshly criticized Mr. Armstrong for never starting an employee retirement plan. “In the past,” Tkach Jr. wrote in 2003, “the Worldwide Church of God in the United States and elsewhere made no provision for the retirement of its employees. This was a decision made by others before the current administration and was inherited by us.” Of course, Mr. Armstrong always had a generous assistance program designed to help those in need. But it was funded by tithe-payers, and tithing is now bad, the Tkaches say. So Mr. Armstrong just couldn’t do anything right!

“The results of these unfortunate policies in our past are now being remedied,” Tkach continued. “We are making plans to enroll U.S. church employees in a retirement plan funded by proceeds from the sale of the Pasadena property.”

And they’re to be commended for this new financial model? They stopped doing any kind of work in the early 1990s and wound up with perhaps $100 million worth of property and facilities just sitting there collecting dust. So they sold it all and placed the “bulk of the sale proceeds,” according to Ron Kelly, in a formal pension plan for current employees. They sold everything Mr. Armstrong and his faithful supporters built for doing God’s work and then set aside the proceeds for those who stayed through the transformation and remained loyal to Tkach. There’s nothing brilliant about that. It’s more like a payoff.

Tkach Jr. called the church’s lack of retirement funding an “unfortunate” policy that his administration inherited. To use that excuse in 1986, when his father took over, or even in 1995, when he replaced his father, is one thing. But to blame Mr. Armstrong for the lack of pension planning in 2003?

What, exactly, did the Tkaches ever do for their retirees between 1986 and 2003? Quite a few of the long-time ministers who stayed with the wcg began retiring during the mid-1990s, long before the property ever sold. Couldn’t the Tkaches have taken steps in that direction years earlier, if it was such an egregious error made by Mr. Armstrong? As we have seen, the wcg was still collecting hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the early 1990s. They had more than $2 billion in revenue to work with between Mr. Armstrong’s death and when they finally sold the property in 2004. Couldn’t they have carved out some kind of pension plan from $2 billion?

Herman Hoeh, Norman Smith, Dean Blackwell and Richard Rice—all long-time evangelists in the wcg—retired in 1996. But it’s supposedly Mr. Armstrong’s fault that the Tkaches never got around to developing a retirement program until 2004—18 years after Mr. Armstrong died?

Dr. Hoeh was one of the first four to graduate from Ambassador College. Norman Smith was ordained as an evangelist in 1957—Dean Blackwell in 1964. All these evangelists, by the way, were in their 60s at the date of their retirements—Hoeh was 67, Smith was 66, Blackwell was 64 and Rice was 60.

Before the Tkach pension plan could move forward in 2004—contingent on the sale of the property, of course—the wcg had a “discretionary assistance program” in place for its former, retirement-age employees. According to Tkach Jr., 240 retired employees qualified for assistance as of March 2003, which cost the church $350,000 per month. On average, that amounts to $1,458 per month for each retiree, or $17,500 a year—not exactly a lucrative retirement package.

Perhaps that’s why Dean Blackwell—an evangelist of 32 years—got a part-time job at a Dillard’s department store after he retired.

Mr. Armstrong’s Retirement Policy

Retirement was a rarity for wcg ministers before Mr. Armstrong died. I mean, unless you are physically incapable of working, how do you retire from serving God? Moses never retired. Neither did Peter, John or Paul. “The United States is the only nation on Earth that retires people at age 60 or 65,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in 1979. “In the United States most have come to suppose that people naturally begin to lose their mental faculties even as early as 55.” Mr. Armstrong didn’t subscribe to that line of thinking. He proved by his own work that the most productive years of life can be long after the “normal” retirement age. In fact, the work of the Worldwide Church of God really didn’t go worldwide until after Mr. Armstrong turned 60.

And had Mr. Armstrong not been brought back to life in 1977, Garner Ted’s liberals would have destroyed the church long before the Tkaches ever did. It was in August 1977, when Mr. Armstrong was 85, that his heart and breathing both stopped. He had no pulse—no blood pressure. A nurse frantically administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and massaged Mr. Armstrong’s heart. After about a minute-and-a-half, he was breathing again on his own.

Seven months after his resuscitation, Mr. Armstrong said this to a group of wcg ministers in Pasadena: “Shortly after they’d told me what had happened [heart failure], I felt that if my work in God’s hands were finished and God didn’t have any further use for me in His work, that I would rather have remained dead.”

Like the Apostle Paul, he had a “desire to depart” if God was finished working through him. But God wasn’t, as Mr. Armstrong would later explain: “It is now clearly evident that God brought me back for a vital purpose, by cpr, from death by heart failure. Had I remained dead the church of the living God would have been virtually destroyed by the liberal element that had crept in, especially in headquarters administration during my absence from Pasadena.”

And so, at 85 years of age, and in poor health, he took charge and single-handedly put the Worldwide Church of God back on track! Retirement was never an option—even if liberal ministers might have wanted him to retire. If God kept him alive, it was to work. “I never expect to ‘retire,’ though I passed the so-called ‘retirement age’ long ago,” he wrote in 1971. “I expect to stay in harness as long as I live.”

And because he did that, even after congestive heart failure, he not only removed the liberal element—he led the Worldwide Church of God into its golden age! Herbert W. Armstrong’s greatest contribution to the Worldwide Church of God was made after God brought him back to life in 1977.

At the time Mr. Armstrong’s heart had failed him, liberals had come close to destroying the church. The Plain Truth circulation had fallen to just over 1 million, the World Tomorrow program—with Garner Ted at the helm—could be seen on only 50 stations, and Ambassador College had turned into a secular institution.

While recovering in 1978, Mr. Armstrong stepped up efforts to write more for the church’s publications. He completed work on his best book to that point, The Incredible Human Potential. To get the college back on track, he had closed Big Sandy and decided to start over in Pasadena with one freshman class, making sure that it began as God’s college. On the tv program, he took over broadcasting responsibilities for the first time at age 85! In his early years, Mr. Armstrong pioneered the radio broadcast. But when it transitioned to tv in 1967, Garner Ted became the presenter. That changed abruptly when Mr. Armstrong fired his son in 1978 for trying to take over the work.

So his first year after heart failure was not easy to say the least. And the pressure only intensified in 1979 after Ted and other dissidents convinced California’s attorney general to launch an assault against Mr. Armstrong and the church. Ted couldn’t overpower his father from the inside, so he attempted to do so from the outside. But his attack again fell flat on its face in 1980.

And then the church really took off. The same year the state of California attacked, Mr. Armstrong reestablished the Good News magazine, which had turned into a cheap tabloid. He restarted it in 1979 with a circulation of 120,000.

As the church entered a new decade, Mr. Armstrong concentrated his energies on family. “The very foundation of any stable civilization is a solid family structure,” he wrote in 1979. He knew the church’s stability depended in large part upon the strength of its individual families. His two-fold plan—Youth Opportunities United (you) for teenagers and Youth Educational Service (yes) for pre-teens—was designed to bring families closer together and to support parents in educating their children in the ways of God. In 1981, at the age of 88, Mr. Armstrong started a new magazine for young people—Youth 81. Later that year, he reopened the college campus in Big Sandy. He regularly visited the church’s youth camps during the 1980s. In fact, it was while Mr. Armstrong was visiting the youth camp in Orr, Minnesota, in 1985 that he became too ill to continue with his travels, which prompted his early return to Pasadena and eventual death. His last field visit in 1985 was to a youthcamp. Then, back in Pasadena, one of his last public appearances was before the students at Ambassador College, when he handed out Mystery of the Ages.

These many youth activities established and emphasized at the end of Mr. Armstrong’s life had a tremendous impact on me personally. Besides drawing me closer to my parents, they strengthened my relationships with other like-minded peers who wanted to succeed in life and avoid the common pitfalls of youth in this evil age. I traveled all over the Northwest with my youth group for sports tournaments, dances, talent shows and other activities. After my father was transferred in 1985, I had the same experiences in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. I attended wcg youth camps in Minnesota and Texas and was accepted as an Ambassador student in Pasadena and Big Sandy. This was all during the 1980s.

It was the work Mr. Armstrong did at the very end of his life, as an elderly man, that impacted my life the most.

And like the youth programs, every other church activity enjoyed prosperous growth after God raised Mr. Armstrong back to life in 1977. By the time he finally died in 1986—at 93 years of age—the church’s annual income had about tripled. And after taking over responsibilities as full-time presenter on The World Tomorrow at age 85, the program became one of the highest-rated religious programs on television. The Plain Truth, Good News and Youth circulations all skyrocketed.

In 1985, while nearly blind, Mr. Armstrong began yet another monumental project. “With the writing of the new book Mystery of the Ages,” he wrote, “God has helped me this year to do the best work of my 93 years of life!” He did his best work during his 90s! In fact, before he died, Mr. Armstrong said he had understood more in the last 10 years of his life than he had all the previous decades put together.

That’s a tremendous level of achievement for a man who would have rather died at the age of 85. “It would be so nice if I could retire,” Mr. Armstrong told a group of ministers in 1981, “because it’s a pretty heavy load I have to carry. But I’m not thinking of myself, I’m thinking of what I’ve been called to do. And it must be done.”

Mr. Armstrong kept right on serving God even as an elderly, blind man. And in doing so, he got the Worldwide Church of God back on track, defeated the state of California in a nationally known lawsuit, became one of the most popular religious personalities on television, nearly quadrupled the church’s growth in every major category, raised up and promoted numerous youth programs, traveled the world to meet with presidents and prime ministers and wrote a 363-page book.

“For Many People”

Herbert W. Armstrong prepared his last will and testament on Jan. 12, 1986—four days before he died. Knowing he was near death, his first directive was that Herman Hoeh officiate the funeral “without pomp and undue ceremony.”

In his second directive, he bequeathed all his property of “every kind and nature” to the Worldwide Church of God. Think about that. He had been pastor general of that church for more than 50 years. And though it started pitifully small, at the time of his death, the church’s annual income was $164 million. As founder and pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong could have amassed a personal fortune by the time he died. As it was, the house he died in belonged to the church. The plane he traveled in belonged to the church. The cars he commuted in belonged to the church. And what he actually did own at the time of his death—even though he had three living children—he left to the church.

Had he been in it for the extravagant opulence that Tkach Jr. accused him of, can you imagine what kind of retirement package he could have set up for himself after 30 or 40 years as pastor general? Yet, he served God and tirelessly worked right up until the day he died. And at his death, every material possession he owned went right back to the church.

In his will, he explained that he chose not to leave his descendants anything—not because of any ill will toward them—but because he believed they had “adequate means of their own” and because leaving what he had to the church would ensure that it “be put to more permanent and beneficial use for many people.”

That about sums up Herbert W. Armstrong’s legacy.

Even on his deathbed, his final wish was for everything he owned to go toward the work so that “many people” might benefit.

Mr. Armstrong put God’s Family and God’s work first. And as difficult as that might be to grasp, looking at it humanly, isn’t that what we should expect from a man of God? Jesus Christ, after all, said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” That’s what Jesus taught—and lived.

Wouldn’t you expect Jesus Christ to put God’s Family and God’s work first? “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work,” Christ said. It wasn’t an option for Him—He had to work. He never considered retirement. He kept right on working until the day mankind murdered Him for putting God first.

Putting God and His work first is the basic theme of the Bible.

Herbert W. Armstrong put this principle—this law—into action. He gave and gave and gave and gave. Then he died—exhausted from the heavy load God had laid on his shoulders. But God brought him back to life—and though he would have rather died or at least retired, he kept right on giving for another 81/2years! His lifelong work of service and sacrifice for the good of others proved, as our Savior promised it would, that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

God blessed everything Herbert W. Armstrong did.

Yet it didn’t take long for Tkachism to ruin it all.

History Repeated Itself

“I want you, brethren, to think about and understand what happened to God’s Church in the 1970s lest history repeat itself! I want you to see the ‘fruits’ of rebelling against God’s way and God’s government.” Mr. Armstrong issued that warning to the wcg less than seven months before he died.

He told us exactly what would happen if we didn’t learn the lesson of the 1970s. He wrote, “The ‘fruits’ of the rebel leaders and ‘liberals’ of the 1970s should now be clear to all. After some 35 years of steady growth in all facets of the work of God’s Church, the rate of growth began to slow, then ceased entirely in some areas, and, finally, even decreases began to be experienced in the number of radio and television stations, Plain Truth circulation, number of prospective members, number of co-workers, amount of income for the work, etc.—all under the ‘leadership’ of the liberal element. These are well-documented facts that cannot be denied.”

Facts are stubborn, but so is Tkachism. Even though the lessons had been thoroughly documented, they refused to heed them and decided to go their own way after Mr. Armstrong died.

And history ended up repeating itself.