Fleecing the flock
- Larry Burkett Co-CEO of Crown Financial Ministries
- 1999 11 Nov
Almost without exception, the real clincher in a "Christian" marketing scheme is the ability to sell your friends and "help" them as well (just as you've been helped). At that point, objectivity disappears and the plan or product becomes incidental to the profit motive.
One of the best marketing methods within Christian circles is assumed credibility, in which a sales group assumes someone else's credibility. Allow me to use a personal example. One thing I realized from the earliest stages of our ministry was that a lot of wrong had been done to many Christians under the guise of "Christian finances." Many groups had sprung up claiming to be teaching and counseling on biblical principles of finances, but they were really sales companies in disguise. They did teach some good concepts, but their intent was to sell a product or service, and the teaching was usually a gimmick to gather a group. As a result, many pastors were justifiably cautious about any financial ministry.
From the beginning, Christian Financial Concepts determined to operate as a ministry and sell no products or services or endorse any other group's products or services for a fee (kickback). Many times when funds were short it was truly tempting to compromise. As the ministry grew, we got offers from dozens of sales groups that would virtually underwrite the ministry if we would just send them people who needed products. I believed then, as now, that to do so would be to use God's Word for gain and would be deceptive.
"But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction" (1 Timothy 6:9). Because of this stand, we earned the trust of those we taught and counseled and have been able to cross denominational and doctrinal boundaries to share God's principles. Most pastors who are familiar with the ministry know they can trust what we teach and say, even though they may not always agree with the exact interpretation.
Over the years, various groups have sprung up who teach biblical finances in the local church and sell products as well. They usually will imply that CFC endorses them, and one group even said that we asked them to call the pastor (we did not). Often what happens is that one of our staff may use a product or service offered by a group. Then that group assumes a blanket endorsement. That is deceptive and wrong. Very few groups can meet our standards for recommendation and we never accept a fee or commission. Any staff member who endorses a group without approval is subject to dismissal. This is not to tout CFC; we have made errors and will again, I'm sure. But I want to demonstrate that when a sales group wants to assume someone else's credibility, watch out; it is usually because they can't assume their own.
There is a saying: If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, maybe its a duck. In Christianity, that would seem to hold true. If nonbelievers know the words and hang out in churches a lot, quite often they will go undetected. By the same principle, if businesses hire mostly Christians, have them tell everybody they're ministries and use mostly Christian terms, then others will think they are "ministries."
Please don't misunderstand this. Any business can and should be used to minister. Business is an excellent tool through which to share Christ. But a business sells a product and makes a profit (hopefully). A ministry serves a function that cannot be done at a profit. For instance, you cannot provide counsel to families in financial trouble profitably.
One of the keys to detecting a business being disguised as a ministry is to see how the funds are generated. If it's through the sale of products and services (including Christian products and services), it's a business and should be evaluated with a very critical eye. If this group uses "buzz words" to gain an entry, beware. The following are some of the buzz words.
- "I would like to come by and share our ministry." This is a common phrase of buzz words. If the business offers a legitimate product or service, then it ought to stand on its own merit. It should not require a spiritual endorsement to get in the door. My concern would be that if someone would mislead about one part of the business what else might he or she mislead about?
- "Pastor, we have something that will help your people." When a group orients its sales pitch to pastors, be on guard. If it's a product for pastors or a program for the local church, then pastors are the group to call on. But if it's a product, diet plan, insurance, wills/trusts, or gold mines, and it is directed toward pastors, then be aware that the group is trying to ride in on his credibility.
Unfortunately, since many pastors are not well paid, they also fall into the finder's-fee trap. Often the group will offer the pastor a fee for anyone he recommends who buys the products. There are many pastors who have lost their personal credibility by recommending a company to their people. Integrity is won over a long time and can be lost all too quickly.
- "You can help other Christians." Without a doubt this is the real clincher in fleecing the flock. If a company can convince its salespeople that the end result of their efforts is to help others, then the methods can be justified. It's the old "the end justifies the means" syndrome. In other words, you're not really hurting them by deceiving them; after all, it's for their own good. The real test of motives is whether the salesperson is willing to forgo all profit to "help" others.
I personally know many honest, ethical, Christian salespeople who refuse to profit when dealing with pastors or Christians encountered through their church. It's not that selling to Christian contacts is necessarily wrong. Its just that they believe the temptation to compromise is too strong. "For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing" (James 3 :16). With certainty, God knows what our needs are, including our business needs. He will provide for those who need the products, without having to "use" the Christian community.
Matthew 21:12 describes the event when Christ ran the moneychangers out of the temple. Why did He do that when obviously they were meeting a need of the people who were coming to the temple to worship? The law gave the Jews the right to sell an animal designated for sacrifice if they had a long journey, then use the money to buy another animal for sacrifice. The moneychangers served this need and most of the people seemed satisfied. So why did He get so upset when both sides benefited? Because Christ knew that the motive of the moneychangers was to "fleece the flock." They bought low and sold high with the endorsement of the temple priests and religious leaders. If the people wanted their sacrifices blessed, they had to use "blessed" animals. Obviously, it didn't start out that way. It probably started with a moneychanger who showed a priest how he could help a lot of people and make a little profit for himself. Later it became how he could make a lot of profit and help the people a little. Why do you suppose this event was reported in the Scriptures? One reason may well be that Jesus wanted His disciples to understand exactly how He felt about fleecing the flock. If we, as Christians, are to do business with each other, we must follow fundamental biblical principles to avoid the fleecing trap.
The first principle: Don't develop a sales program exclusively for the "church." Obviously, Christian teaching materials would be created for a Christian market, but other products are not. Most programs aimed almost exclusively at the Christian market are really secular products with some Christian terms sprinkled in.
Recently, a Christian called to ask for an opinion about a ministry (for-profit company) that offered (wanted to sell) him a "Christian" will and trust. Since we function under secular law in our country, I was interested to see what a Christian will and trust was. It turned out to be a fairly standard will and trust with several Christian words sprinkled throughout. It seemed to be a fairly good document with a pretty good testimony, at about twice the price of a standard will and trust. Its real benefit was that the client could get his or her money back if four friends would sign up, and a profit could be made if more than four signed up. "In their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep" (2 Peter 2:3).
The second principle: Don't practice deception. If you have a product to sell that you honestly believe will benefit other Christians, let it be known, but don't promote it as a ministry or as a spiritual happening. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. In other words, let people know what the company is and what the product is. If there is a referral or finder's fee paid to another person for a lead, let that be known too. If you're afraid of losing a sale because of total honesty, then the program is dishonest.
To read other articles by Larry Burkett, click here.