Follow the money!

Jamaica Observer/March 13, 2005
By Vivienne Green-Evans

Afraid that they may be accused of harassing God's people, some employees within the state's tax offices have been unwilling, over the years, to insist that the island's churches obey the law by filing annual returns and making statutory deductions.

"We have never really targeted the church," said a senior spokesperson from the Tax Administration Services Department, who asked not to be identified. "I guess it's from a moral point of view. You don't want to seem to be harassing the church."

The Income Tax Act is one avenue through which the government may be privy to financial information from most churches. Those registered as companies and are seeking tax exemption under section 12(h) of the Act are required to submit financial statements to the Taxpayer Audit Assessment Department by the end of each year.

Like any other employee, pastors and all church workers who receive an income are required to pay income tax. Failure to file statutory deductions can attract a penalty, but the revenue department tends to handle churches with kid gloves.

"They are not all compliant," admitted Vinette Keane, the commissioner of the Taxpayer Audit and Assessment Department. "But we are working with them to become fully compliant, to have the necessary statutory deductions going."

But with growing concern about the lack of transparency and financial accountability in some places of worship, some church members who say they have been burnt in the past are now insisting on more openess from church leaders.

"They should be made accountable for God's money," said Joan Shaw, a former member of Overcomers Christian International (OCI).

She left that Kingston-based church after becoming disillusioned when grand plans to build a $50-million centre failed to get off the ground.

These days, Shaw said, she gives what used to be her tithes and offering to OCI to needy children in Denham Town, a tough inner-city community.

OCI is among a growing set of mainly charismatic Pentecostals, each exercising complete autonomy over their operations and finances. Their leaders usually have the final say over whether or not they will open up their accounting records for their members' scrutiny.

But the more established denominations like the Baptists and Catholics have age-old systems where member churches are required to submit an annual budget to the central governing body for assessment and approval.

Problems of financial mismanagement are almost non-existent in these churches, boasts Rev Harris Cunningham. He is the general secretary for the Jamaica Council of Churches - an umbrella group of 10 'traditional' churches in Jamaica. The JCC includes the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist Methodist, United Church, Moravian, Ethiopian Orthodox, African Methodist Episcopal and Quakers.

"Most of our churches operate from a budget, and with a finance committee, both at the local level and national level. We've never had an instance of mismanagement in our churches," Cunningham said.

But according to a Sunday Observer source, a former Anglican, some church leaders have managed to get around the system.

"You would have some money put down for the church building fund (and) you collect money into that," he explained. "But you realise that to put up a building, or expand it, will cost more than anticipated, or there are some other things that you feel you would rather use the money to do. So you change the name from Church Building Fund to Church Development Fund and that way it would include anything."

The source added:

"You can use that same money if your child needs to go to university. I've seen this personally in the Anglican church. When you lack integrity you will do anything. I was a member of the church committee at the time and that's the reason I resigned."

Local church members tend to close ranks and refuse to speak out when they have concerns about how church finances are handled and the issue has not had widespread media coverage here. But in the US, there have been many church-related scandals over the years, involving big names such as Jim and Tammy Baker, Robert Tilton, and Oral Roberts.

Last Sunday, NBC's Dateline aired a one-hour follow-up to their December 2002 investigative story on popular faith healer and televangelist Benny Hinn.

The current affairs TV programme painted a picture of Hinn's lavish lifestyle, one which often finds him in the presidential suites of hotels in exotic countries. Some of these hotel stays did not appear to have any link to official crusade business, Dateline said. The cost: between US$1,000 and US$3,700 per night.

In the 2002 report, Dateline had accused Hinn of giving false information to his partners about the construction of an orphanage in Mexico. Hinn later refuted those claims on his programme This is Your Day by showing television footage of the orphanage being built and declaring that his financial statements are audited.

The smooth-talking televangelist has a growing following in Jamaica but local church leaders, most of whom had not seen the Dateline episodes, were reluctant to comment on Hinn's approach to televangelism.

"He has one of the top ministries in the world and with that comes its privileges," said Errol Rattray, a local evangelist. "As Christians we need to live responsibly, but for Benny Hinn who has to fly across the world, I wouldn't have a problem with that." But Tony Williamson, the chairman of Covenant City Church Board of Elders, disagreed.

"Televangelists need to raise money, but I'm of the Billy Graham school. He is moderate. He lives an open and accountable life, and we are going to try to live that way," Williamson said.

Williamson said his church meets at The Priory every Sunday and has both an accountant and an auditing firm on retainer. Their financial statements are made available to members at their annual general meetings.

But there are still many churchgoers who are concerned about the lack of rigour in tracking just how much money comes into the island's places of worship. And how it goes out.

"There doesn't seem to be any immediate pressing need to do those things and there is a lack of integrity in many of us who conduct church business," said one Portmore pastor who asked not to be named.

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