On Giving to Bob Weiner and Weiner Ministries

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

Last week, two friends from To An Unknown God asked me if I knew anything about Bob Weiner or his organization Weiner Ministries. Mr. Weiner has recently been in Berkeley and spoke at several local churches, where his charismatic and energetic presentation was followed by a request for donations to Weiner Ministries. He told his audience that $50 would pay to educate one individual in a foreign country to enter full-time ministry. My friends wanted to know: Should students donate to Weiner Ministries?

It is worth noting in passing that Mr. Weiner originally made a name for himself during the 1970s and early 1980s when he was heading a college fellowship called Maranatha Campus Ministries, an organization that attracted a great deal of controversy in its time. That ministry eventually folded.

Weiner Ministries is a different entity, and I will focus my analysis of it on one question: Should a college student give money to this organization?

As I have suggested elsewhere, a good starting point for answering such a question is the organization’s Form 990, an information return that all tax-exempt entities (except churches) are required to file with the IRS. The Form 990 discloses important information that helps the IRS and donors answer questions about where the organization got its money and what it did with it. By law, the Form 990 is available to the public, and Guidestar posts on its website Forms 990 for every tax-exempt organization. The Form 990 is an invaluable tool that provides the information that nonprofit watchdog groups use to evaluate charities.

A perusal of Weiner Ministries’ 2008 Form 990 (its most recent filing) reveals some interesting facts:

  • The organization received $637,000 in donations during 2008.
  • Of that amount, $69,576 went to ministry outreach (in the form of “financial support to individuals and organizations”).
  • Mr. Weiner received total compensation of $244,048 (including a $147,454 base salary, plus benefits, deferred compensation, and $80,000 in expense allowances).
  • Mr. Weiner’s wife received another $15,454.

Some quick math shows that of every dollar received by Weiner Ministries, about 11 cents went to support others, and 41 cents went to directly to the Weiners. (It appears the remainder went to overhead, including the expenses of other staff and the costs of putting on various conferences and seminars, at which Mr. Weiner spoke.)Weiner Ministries’ finances during 2005 and 2006 exhibit the same pattern: In 2005, Weiner Ministries received $678,763 in donations. Of that, Mr. Weiner took $177,910 for his base salary, $10,465 in benefits, and $80,000 in expenses, a total of $268,375. Mrs. Weiner took $7,000 for a base salary, and $7,159 in benefits, for a total of $14,159. In 2006, Weiner Ministries received $792,745 in donations. Mr. Weiner got $204,330, $11,717, and $80,000, for total compensation of $296,047, and Mrs. Weiner got total compensation of $19,881. The Weiners’ total combined income of approximately $260,000 places them in the top 1.5% of American households.

I hope that these facts, by themselves, are enough to convince discerning college students that Weiner Ministries is not where they should be giving their money, at least not without asking a lot more questions.Another concern is that Weiner Ministries is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. While membership in the ECFA does not guarantee that an organization stewards its money well, it’s a red flag when a Christian organization is not a member.

Nevertheless, I will offer a few more thoughts to anticipate possible objections. A student considering giving to Mr. Weiner might ask: “Even if Mr. Weiner receives compensation of $244,048, isn’t the work he’s doing still worthy of my support?”

This is the wrong question. The question should not be: Is Weiner Ministries doing some good? Instead, we should ask: Is giving to Weiner Ministries the best use of my money? Or could I instead donate to another organization that would do more with my money? For the reasons explained below, I believe that if the answer to the latter question is “yes,” then it is morally wrong to give to Weiner Ministries or any other organization that obviously diverts its income to pay its leaders high salaries instead of devoting the maximum possible amount to its mission.Of course, there are many other important questions to consider when deciding where to give money, including: Does this organization do work that is valuable? Does it do that work well? It is not my purpose to consider such questions in this space, but I do not deny their importance.

Of course, it is always possible to split hairs — it may never be possible to find the best use of our money. Much time could be wasted researching how organizations spend donations, and that time could be better spent doing other things (e.g., directly serving our neighbors). True. Nevertheless, such an argument does not defeat the narrow proposition that I embrace:

If a casual examination reveals that an organization spends a relatively small amount of its income on its stated mission and instead provides its leaders with salaries that place them among the wealthiest Americans, then it is morally wrong to donate to that organization.Organizations that are substantially larger, e.g., those with revenues of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, might have better arguments that they must pay a lot to attract talented executives. Although, if they are Christians, the motivations of such leaders
could be questioned
, it is less clear that such organizations should be censured. But when a relatively small organization devotes a huge percentage of its budget to paying its leader a distended salary, something is probably very wrong.
Instead, the same amount of money should be donated to another organization doing similar work that better stewards its resources.

As a corollary to this proposition, I believe that Christians have a moral obligation to conduct that casual examination. Why do I embrace this proposition and its corollary?

Jesus tells two parables to illustrate the concept of stewardship: Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27. In both of those stories, a master entrusts his servants with money, goes away, and then comes back and asks them for an accounting. In each case, the master rewards those servants who have used well the money entrusted to them, earning more money. These two parables are often taught in churches, typically with the admonition that we must use our gifts to serve God. Although this teaching is surely faithful to Jesus’ intent, it misses out on the original, more direct application: We are to be careful what we do with “our” money, which is not really ours at all — it is God’s.

If we knowingly give that money to an organization that misuses it (e.g., by overpaying its leaders), or if we do nothing to investigate the organizations to which we give, we are not using that money well.

Perhaps an analogy will help make this point even clearer:

To save for retirement, you plan to put $5,000 into one of two investment alternatives. Option A is to put it in a mutual fund that will take 50% of the income on your investment every year to pay commissions to its executives. Option B is to put it in a mutual fund that will take only a 10% commission. Both mutual funds invest in the same stocks and bonds. Which option would you choose?

Of course, you would choose Option B. It would be mad to choose Option A. So, why would you choose Option A when you are investing in Christian ministries?

As an alternative to donating to Weiner Ministries, I suggest that students who want to support the training of indigenous missionaries consider supporting Advancing Native Missions, an organization that received one of Ministry Watch’sShining Light Awards” last year. Advancing Native Missions received contributions of $7.3 million during 2009 but paid its president total compensation of only $52,411. Additionally, I suggest students consider sending a letter to Weiner Ministries urging Mr. Weiner to put more of the organization’s revenues towards its mission of training ministers and less to paying Mr. Weiner.

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