Chapter 12: Stewardship
“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.”1 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.”2 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.3 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.”4
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.”5 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 1979.6
“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.”7
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).”8 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.9 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?”10 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.11
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 ….”12 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.
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 12.13
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!14
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.”15
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 1985.16 The church’s income also grew, finishing 11.2 percent above 1985—at just over $182 million.17
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.”18 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.19 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.”20 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.”21 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.”22 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.”23
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 88,45524 and the income increased another 5.5 percent to a record-high $192 million.25
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.26
The thing is, in 1988 the church’s revenue topped out at $201 million.27 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.”28
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,29 even though the church’s worldwide membership had grown to 91,68530 and its revenue was 23 percent higher than it was three years earlier, during Mr. Armstrong’s last full year at the helm.
Tkachism began 1989 by selling off the church’s airplane, the Gulfstream iii, for $12.5 million.31 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 727.32
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.”33 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.34
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.35 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 5 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.36
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.37
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.”38 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.”39
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.”40 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.”41
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.”42
By the end of the year, the total “dip” for 1989 actually amounted to another all-time high: $211,777,000.43 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.”44 Impeccable logic!
In March, the Worldwide News reported that the number of stations airing The World Tomorrow had fallen to 123.45 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 382.46
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!”47 The year before, it was over 6 million.48
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.”49 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.50 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.”51 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.52 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 199053 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?
As noted previously, Mr. Tkach altered the course for Ambassador College within months of Mr. Armstrong’s death, beginning with the decision in April 1986 to keep the Big Sandy campus open. In 1987, Mr. Tkach wrote, “Ambassador College is perhaps the most visible and high-profile representation to the general public of what God’s church teaches and believes in.”54 Mr. Armstrong, while he placed a high value on the example Ambassador set for the church and the world, continually stressed that the college’s primary purpose was to help support the work of the church.
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.”55 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.56
In 1990, the church spent almost $222 million ($10.6 million more than it received)57—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 million58—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].”59 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 budget60; 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:
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 percent61
In 1990, after spending $222 million, the breakdown looked like this:
Local congregations, field ministry—26 percent
Ambassador College—17 percent
Management and general—17 percent
Broadcasting and proclaiming the gospel—14 percent
Member assistance—4 percent
Ambassador Foundation—3 percent62
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.”63 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 backrooms—then we’re not very adept at pulling it off.64
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 million65
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 million66
Tkachism’s five-year total amounted to $998 million. Can you believe that? They had about a billion dollars to work with in 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 changed.
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.”67 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 million68
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.69 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 $2.5 to 3 billion 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? Couldn’t they at least come out of it with a moderately successful college? Or a magazine that was at least popular within Christian communities?
Apparently not. In doing the math, we see that everything Tkachism did to “manage” the Worldwide Church of God has turned out to be a miserable failure. Living through it, we heard all about their five-year plans, their big ideas, the amount of money they “saved.” But in the end, everything collapsed. And now they want us to view their repeated failures as validation for how courageous and sincere they were in pursuit of the truth, no matter the cost? 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 backrooms 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.”70 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.”71
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.72 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 longtime 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 longtime 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, and Dean Blackwell in 1964. All these evangelists, by the way, were in their 60s at the time 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 Dillards 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.”73 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.”74
Like the Apostle Paul, he had a “desire to depart”75 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.76
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 1971.77 “I expect to stay in harness as long as I live.”78
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 1979.79 He knew the church’s stability depended in large part upon the strength of its individual families. His twofold plan—Youth Opportunities United (you) for teenagers and Youth Educational Services (yes) for preteens—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 youth camp. 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 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!”80 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.81
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.”82
With Mr. Armstrong, God’s work always came first. “I don’t dare slacken my efforts,” he wrote in 1968. “Most men retire when 16 years younger than I [he was 76 at the time]. This work must go on!”83
As early as 1957, he wrote, “When a man decides he already has achieved success, and retires—quits—he never lives long.”84 Had Mr. Armstrong ever given up and retired, he would have died long before his 93rd birthday—just like three of those ministers who retired in their 60s have since died.
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 January 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.”85
In his second directive, he bequeathed all his property of “every kind and nature” to the Worldwide Church of God.86 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.”87
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.”88 That’s what Jesus taught—and lived. On one occasion, referred to in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was preaching to a packed gathering inside a home. A messenger interrupted Him to say that His mother and siblings were outside and wanted to speak with Him. Jesus then turned and looked over the crowded room in response and asked, “Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!”89
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.90 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.
There is a reason Christ called this the first and great commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”91
God’s love is unselfish, outgoing concern for others. It is giving—first to God, then to all of mankind secondarily.
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 8½ years! 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.92
God blessed everything Herbert W. Armstrong did.
But 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.”93 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.94
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.