Home      Eagle 11/6/85

Converts sold their houses for The Bible Speaks

This is the last of a three ­part series.

By Daniel T. Keating

The Berkshire Eagle, November 6, 1985


LENOX - Big gifts have fueled the growth of The Bible Speaks. Many of them came from people selling their homes and handing over almost everything to the church.


The Eagle in the course of a six ­month investigation has interviewed 12 families who did exactly that, giving from $15,000 to more than $40,000 each during the mid to late 1970s. All but one of that group have since left The Bible Speaks, and some believe the financial dealings were improper.


One man, Clifton "Kip" Yataw of Port Clyde, Maine, sold his 40-acre farm in 1976 and after paying off the mortgage gave the remaining $15,000 to The Bible Speaks. Yataw moved with his wife and three children to the 86 acre campus on Kemble Street that became the ministry's head­quarters in 1976.


Although he had neither sought nor received any guarantees that he would not have to pay rent in Lenox, he said he was surprised when, shortly after settling, he was asked to pay $120 per week for one crowded room.


"When you come in contact with someone Christian, you trust them; you don't ask for contracts," said Yataw.


Frank and Pat Manchester of Johnson, Vt., sold their home and gave $20,000 to The Bible Speaks in 1977. They said they had heard a sermon by founder and President Carl H. Stevens Jr. on Thanksgiving 1975. On the basis of what they heard, the couple be­lieved they would not have to pay rent to live on The Bible Speaks campus. The sermon, entitled "The Heavenly Vision God Has Given Us," said older people could live on campus for the rest of their lives af­ter selling their homes, the Manchesters said.


Pat Manchester said Stevens of­fered her family an apartment while they were visiting the campus in June 1976. He later called them in Rhode Island, according to Frank Manchester. During that conversa­tion, he inferred from Stevens that they would be able to live on cam­pus without paying rent after they gave the money from the sale of their house. They did not ask for a contract.


Charged rent

They moved to the campus in 1977 and were asked to began paying rent 1 1/2  years later, they said. They left The Bible Speaks in 1980.


Those stories are typical of those presented to The Eagle. Sentiments ranged from complete acceptance - saying the money was given for God so they do not regret it – to bitterness. Generally, people who have had financial trouble since leaving The Bible Speaks regret their gifts more.


Some who had given the proceeds from selling their homes in that period received part of their money back this year from The Bible Speaks.


A former fund-raiser for The Bible Speaks said the problems suffered by the Manchesters and other families were caused by poor planning on the church's part, not malicious intent.


When the church was preparing to move to Lenox in 1976, he said, it raised some $300,000 mainly through large gifts, to help buy the former Lenox School for Boys.  It took out a mortgage loan of about $1 million.  People who gave large gifts were promised free room and board on campus for 10 years, he said.  But the church had underestimated its expenses, he said, and the tremendous heating oil bills the first winter put the ministry in financial torouble.  As a result, it was decided that free rent was out of the question, and it began charging.


No Recourse

Since The Bible Speaks had required donors to sign notes saying that the large payments were gifts, disenchanted donors could not enforce any agreement made or implied concerning room and board.


The former fund-raiser said sub­sequent promises were usually kept. But, he added, the church did sometimes try to move people out of apartments on campus if other people were interested in moving in and had money to donate. He said the people occupying the apart­ments - who had already given large sums - would be encouraged to join a missionary team or a branch ministry away from Lenox to make room for the new donors.


In response, The Bible Speaks stresses the willingness with which the money was given.


"It is all voluntary," said Pastor John E. Leonard, head of the Stevens School of The Bible at The Bible Speaks. "That's the hardest thing for the world to understand."


Leonard's comment came during a March interview with The Eagle about the college. Requests for an interview with Stevens in connection with this series of articles were not granted.


"People hear stories of people who've sold their homes and given the money to The Bible Speaks," Leonard said. "It's all totally volun­tary, but they assume people wouldn't do that unless they were coerced or hypnotized. But they did it in the Bible, so I don't know why they wouldn't do it now."


When interviewed recently about these donations, he said The Bible Speaks no longer accepts such gifts.


Not standard practice

That type of gift-giving is uncom­mon. In 13 years as an executive in Christian ministries, the Rev. Ed­ward J. Hales of Portland, Maine, said he has never seen the practice of giving homes in other evangelical groups.


Hales is a board member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a 5-year-old group designed to promote fairness and openness in the financial dealings of tax-exempt, non-profit organiza­tions. Based In Washington, D.C., it has more than 300 members across the country.


A member on the council's stan­dards committee, he said the topic of people regularly selling their houses to contribute to a church has never come before the committee. Although he could not speak for the board, he said he personally does not believe it is economically or spiritually correct to accept a gift of essentially everything someone owns. It creates "room for exploita­tion," he said, "potential for abuse."


Two years ago, The Bible Speaks operated on a budget of $2.2 million. Its financial statement for the year ending July 31, 1984 - the only year for which such a statement is avail­able - lists $594,834 in gifts to the ministry over and above the $350,497 received in church offerings. It also raises funds through tuition, room and board, and sales in the book­store and cafeteria.


Burn mortgage

In addition, the ministry received some very large gifts this spring. In March, The Bible Speaks still owed about $500,000 on its mortgage of just under $1 million. That mort­gage was paid off and burned June 29.  Leonard recently said the minis­try received a gift to cover that amount and other gifts to assist with a $650,000 building program now under way. He declined to re­veal the source of the contributions.


Another sign that The Bible Speaks received a lot of funds this spring was the return of money to some of those who had sold their houses for the church. Most of them had been named in the Christian Research Institute's report as having been exploited for their money. The former members did not re­ceive the full amount of their gift, but those interviewed said they were pleased to get anything back.  Other families that were not re­paid, however, say they would like to see their money again.


Kenneth and Nonie Goodwin of Rialto, Calif., gave $38,000 toward the purchase of 36 acres In Lake Elsinore, Calif., where a branch min­istry was founded in 1978. The property was never purchased, and the down payment was forfeited by The Bible Speaks. Kenneth Goodwin said they met in March 1979 with Pastor Ed Mosher, who assured them that Stevens had said they would get their money back.


"If Stevens still wants to keep good on his word and pay us back the $38,000, we're not that hard to find," said Goodwin in a telephone interview.


A widow's gifts

Jeannie Monahan, a widow from Brockton, told The Eagle that she gave gifts of $10,000, $25,000 an $5,000, which included money from the sale of her home and property and the proceeds of her husband's life insurance policy. She said she gave additional money in regular offerings but could not estimate how much.


Monahan's daughter, however suggests her mother's contribution were even larger. She estimates that after her father's death, her mother had some $80,000. She moved to Lenox, where she said she was promised she would be take care of permanently. When she left The Bible Speaks and returned to Brockton four years later in 1998 she had no money.


"It ruined my mother's life," said the daughter, also named Jeannie Monahan, "and it greatly impacted my sister's and my life. I defy my mother to say it didn't."


The 56-year-old widow was less concerned about the financial dealings than her daughter. "The money isn't important to me. The people are important to me," she said.  Although she said she did not regret her gifts, Monahan said she felt pressured to give.  "I was a babe in the woods," she commented.


Monahan was one of the ex-members to get money back this spring.  She received $20,000, delivered by two of Stevens' sons, Paul and Carl, and his son-in-law, Shaun J.Redgate.


The Bible Speaks called in Coopers & Lybrand, one of the nation’s eight largest accounting firms, to audit its books in 1981.  But the firm left with the job incomplete because much of the ministry’s income was in cash, which is difficult to document, according to past and present Bible Speaks administrators.


Thomas Foley of Pinatore & Burkhart, the accounting firm that is now auditing the books, said the church has improved its documentation of its cash transactions.  The West Springfield firm did not validate the books for the year ending July 31, 1984, but Foley said the statement for the latest fiscal year should be verifiable.


Converts ‘at any cost’

Some exmembers interviewed for thse articles amintain that the zeal within the church and the lack of accountability lead to a belief, as one former fund-raiser put it, that “anything for the ministry is OK.”  The man, who asked not to be indentified, saying he was harassed after bein quoted in a report critical of The Bible Speaks, said the idea was “to win people to Jesus Christ at any cost.”


The former fund-raiser said that, when they were raising money for the move to Lenox, he picked up the first large donation of $10,000 from Jeannie Monahan.  He said he was excited about collecting what he viewed as the first step toward moving but was shocked when Stevens used the money as a down payment on an airplane.


“I mentally snapped,” he said.  “I knew it wasn’t above board, but it would allow Carl Stevens to go to more people.  I would justify it with the reults.  From then on, I justified it all.”