Gospel for Asia Does Not File a 990 Because It is a Religious Order

Donations to Gospel for Asia are tax deductible but the organization doesn’t file 990 forms because they are a religious order. In response to my question, Gospel for Asia’s COO David Carroll answered as follows:

Also, to understand the level of commitment asked of staff and the ways in which we operate, it is helpful to recognize that we are a “religious order” and not merely a ministry. Religious orders must meet certain criteria according to the Internal Revenue Service. All potential staff members are fully briefed on these requirements, including a commitment to “live under a strict set of rules requiring moral and spiritual self-sacrifice and dedication to the goals of the organization.” (IRS Rev. Proc. 91-20, 1991-1 C.B. 524, Sec. 3). The IRS also stipulates that employees “make a long-term commitment to the organization (normally more than two years).”
In the spectra of religious orders, Gospel for Asia would likely afford the highest level of independence and freedom from leadership interference in personal decisions. As a religious order, Gospel for Asia is exempt by the IRS from having to file an annual Form 990. However, it’s worth noting that being a religious order imposes a very modest compensation scale on our ministry.

Based on the following description, I thought the group was a 501(c)3 organization required to report on IRS 990 forms.

GFA is a well-established international mission organization deeply committed to seeing lives and communities transformed through God’s Word and compassion. We are a bridge and servant of the Church to fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord by transforming lives and communities through Christ’s love among the most unreached in our generation. We are a movement dedicated to glorifying the name of Jesus Christ and to proclaiming His grace and love to those who desperately need to hear it.

On the Frequently Asked Questions page, the religious order question is addressed:

I hear GFA is a religious order. What does that mean?
GFA is officially recognized in the United States by the IRS as a protestant/evangelical religious order, much like Wycliffe, Open Doors, U.S. Center for World Mission, Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ), Operation Mobilization, Living Waters and other Christian ministries. That means GFA has the following characteristics defined by government law:

  • Members of the organization normally live together as part of a community and are held to a higher level of moral and spiritual discipline than that required of lay church members.
  • Members of the organization work or serve full-time on behalf of the religious, educational, or charitable goals of the organization.
  • Members of the organization participate regularly in activities such as public or private prayer, religious study, teaching, care of the aging, missionary work, or church reform or renewal.
The result is that the information normally contained on a 990 isn’t easily available.
One reason I wondered about the 990 form is because I am trying to get some understanding of this massive organization. The group claims it must keep the financial information private because of concerns over persecution. However, I have learned that much of the information about GFA’s work in India is reported yearly to the Indian government. The information is also available to the public (see this post for instance).
Stay tuned…

Is There a Controlling Leadership Culture at Gospel for Asia?

The day before yesterday, I published correspondence between Gospel for Asia leaders and a group of nearly 80 former Gospel for Asia staffers. The former staffers have accused Gospel for Asia leaders of five major problems. From GFA’s perspective, a board investigation turned up no wrongdoing according the GFA COO David Carroll. The five charges are:

1. GFA leadership practices and teaches a false view of spiritual authority.
2. GFA leadership prioritizes ministry over family, and teaches the same.
3. GFA leaders lie or intentionally deceive people in order to “protect” the ministry.
4. GFA practices unbiblical shunning.
5. GFA prohibits or discourages staff involvement in bible studies, small groups and local churches.

Today, I want to examine the first allegation. In their letter, GFA former employees (GFA Diaspora – GFAD) accuse GFA leaders of asserting inappropriate control over the personal lives of employees. For instance, the GFAD letter says (K.P. refers to K.P. Yohannan, the founder of the organization):

K.P. once said at a prayer meeting that it would be sin to say “I’ll pray about it” instead of “Yes sir,” were he to request you move to Burma.

The letter also claims that GFA leaders believe they will be held accountable if their directives lead to negative outcomes.

They teach that God will not hold a staff member accountable if they sin in following GFA leadership. They teach that only GFA leadership would be accountable in the event that leadership steered them wrong. This is a false teaching, very similar to the the Shepherding Movement of the 1970s. GFA leaders have also told some staff who wanted to leave that they didn’t approve them leaving, as though they would be in sin by rebelling against the God-appointed leaders of their entire lives if they leave.

Another problem, say the GFAD, is the authority claimed by K.P. Yohannan while in India.

On the field, K.P. functions as an episcopal bishop, with the title, “His Eminence (or H.E.) Most Reverend Dr. K.P. Yohannan, Metropolitan Bishop,” and wears the robe, hat, ring and some other accompanying items. Staff and leaders there commonly kneel or bow and kiss K.P.’s ring in a sign of veneration (some of us are witnesses to this and one former field leader says “everyone” does it.)

As evidence, the GFAD show this picture of K.P. Yohannan in robes with a bishop’s staff.
KPYohannanRobes
 
I asked GFA COO David Carroll about this picture and he told me that “the picture you have was taken at an ordination service a few years ago, where it is a custom to dress in formal attire. This was a rare ceremonial occasion in India, and the special clothing was worn to honor local customs (much like is done here in the West for a graduation service).” Carroll told me that he has never seen anyone kissing Yohannan’s ring and was unaware of anyone doing it. 
Regarding church structure in India, Carroll said the organization is “thoroughly evangelical.” He added that “our organization and church structure is specific and unique to the areas where we work most heavily. Additionally, K.P. Yohannan’s title is understood in the countries where we work to refer to the senior leader of the organization.” GFA’s website also addresses the reasons for a more episcopal form of governance as being helpful in the countries where they register as a church.
Regarding the charges of personal control, the GFA responses have denied the allegations. In a July email from GFA to GFAD, the spokesperson for GFA (identified as “David”) said:

This accusation is unfounded and false. Furthermore, the specific testimonies of these accusations by some of the signers of this letter differ greatly and/or lack key documented facts about the actual circumstances surrounding their testimony. Although we tried to contact every single one of you to discuss particulars and come to reconciliation, you refused to contact us back and give us that opportunity. With a clear conscience before God, we believe that GFA leadership regularly encourages staff (at morning and evening prayer meetings, new staff mentoring teachings, required readings, Sunday Bible studies, etc, etc) to have a vibrant daily walk with Christ, with the foundation of that being a few hours of daily Bible study, private prayer, and corporate prayer. The emphasis is always, if the tree is good, the fruit will be good also. In addition, GFA leadership will take the time to listen and to help staff with life issues when they are approached, but are careful not to control personal decisions, including where staff choose to worship, who they marry, where they live, etc. That said, Gospel for Asia is not a vocation or a job; it is a God-given calling. If someone chooses to serve at GFA (all of GFA not just Dallas), they also choose to follow the requests of leadership including where they will serve and what they will do, as long as they believe they are called by God to serve there. This is also true of secular companies (such as McDonald’s, IBM, Wal-Mart) or the Army, and anywhere that people are to do what is asked of them as a requirement of their job or service. We cannot call this sin, nor will we apologize for this commitment which is taught by our Lord Jesus, Himself, and is normal for many Christian as well as some secular organizations. Finally, in your original letter, you included a photo of Brother K. P. in his formal dress as the Metropolitan of the church during an ordination service. Since Believers Church operates under government approved church status as a constitutional episcopacy, it is required that he wear this uniform during the ceremony of ordination of pastors. This is done only for a few minutes; much like it is done during college graduation ceremony here in the west. We are NOT Catholic, nor are we Episcopalians, nor Anglicans, etc., etc. Rather, we are a Spirit-filled, evangelical church, born out of obedience to Christ’s Great Commission command to make disciples in all the world.

In a more formal response to GFAD, GFA again denied the substance of this claim. In the most recent statement from GFA, COO David Carroll said:

At the same time, our leadership team examined our HR policies and procedures, making improvements wherever possible, and affirmed the freedoms afforded to those called to the work of Gospel for Asia. While the board investigation concluded that there was no wrongdoing on the part of leadership, we recognize that, as humans, our leadership is not always going to be perfect.

This newest statement seems to recognize that some of the allegations may have some substance but did not admit to pervasive problems. A red flag for me in the GFA reply to the first letter is the following:

That said, Gospel for Asia is not a vocation or a job; it is a God-given calling. If someone chooses to serve at GFA (all of GFA not just Dallas), they also choose to follow the requests of leadership including where they will serve and what they will do, as long as they believe they are called by God to serve there. This is also true of secular companies (such as McDonald’s, IBM, Wal-Mart) or the Army, and anywhere that people are to do what is asked of them as a requirement of their job or service. We cannot call this sin, nor will we apologize for this commitment which is taught by our Lord Jesus, Himself, and is normal for many Christian as well as some secular organizations.

Comparing GFA to a secular job is what “David” said one cannot do (“…Gospel for Asia is not a vocation or a job…”). If an IBM employee refuses to re-locate, then that job might be in some jeopardy but the employee’s standing with God would not be. If GFA makes disagreement over personal calling a matter of disobedience to God, then there is a problem with that practice. If GFA claims to speak God’s will for individual employees, then the potential for abuse is obvious.
In GFAD’s follow up letter in September 2014, the concerns over leadership and authority continued:

However, each of us saw troubling signs. Authority was being abused, ministry was prioritized at the expense of family, the ministry’s image was protected through dishonesty, and isolation from believers in the local church was encouraged except to raise funds. Seeing these behaviors come from our respected leaders left us puzzled, as you might imagine.
One of the prevalent GFA teachings is that we should never share concerns with anyone but leadership. We were strongly discouraged from discussing issues with one another or with anyone outside GFA, which included our families and home churches, because we were warned that these people don’t understand our high calling and might pull us away. As a result, most of us did not share our concerns with anyone outside leadership until now.
At GFA, the teaching on submission to authority is strong. They say the Bible alone is authoritative, but in practice, it is the Bible as interpreted by Brother KP or other leaders. Because of this, searching the Scriptures like the Bereans did is not commended but is discouraged. To question or disagree with something on which GFA leadership has clearly spoken is generally labeled as murmuring, grumbling or rebellion. When we did voice our concerns to a leader, sometimes he listened and explained. But commonly he responded with anger because our honest questions were viewed as rebellion—and some of us were fired on the spot! If not fired, we faced ongoing suspicion and distrust from leadership that led to isolation and ostracism from staff families. Whether we resigned or were terminated, most of us did not receive an exit interview. A hint of fear remains whenever we question GFA because we have been taught that to question leadership is like the rebellion of Korah. This may be a reason our first letter was not well received.

According to GFAD, some GFA employees have reached out to make apology to individual members of the GFAD group. However, GFAD is looking for a more systemic response to their concerns. According to Carroll, the GFA board has taken their concerns seriously and made corrections where necessary. However, very little of what either side claims can be independently verified.
I have read quite a few testimonies from former workers which are not yet available publicly. These narratives do present a pattern of intrusion and an expectation that small details of life be cleared with ministry leaders. However, while they sound compelling, I have not been able to verify them as yet. Perhaps as more people come forward publicly, the picture will get clearer.
For now, interested readers can use these documents as a starting point for their research into GFA as a tool to help best steward their resources. Stay tuned for more.
I intend to cover the other four allegations and explore a few other areas of interest.

Gospel for Asia Faces Allegations of Misconduct; GFA Board Investigation Found No Wrongdoing

GFA LOGOGospel for Asia is a large missionary organization which supports direct evangelism, child sponsorships, Bible colleges, education, disaster relief and several other ministries. Their assets are substantial but, at their request, I am not going to address how much money they take in.* The 990s are not available on Guidestar and so it is very difficult to find out specific information about the financial situation.
GFA describes itself as a missionary organization and a church. What GFA calls The Believer’s Church is based in Wills Point, TX and apparently consists of the various churches planted around the world. According to the church website, the church has “over 2.4 million members scattered throughout 14 nations.”
According to the organization website, GFA was founded by K.P. Yohannan. Yohannan is the head of GFA and The Believers’ Church and uses the title Metropolitan Bishop of Believers’ Church.

Dr. K.P. Yohannan, the Metropolitan Bishop of Believers Church, was born and brought up in Niranam, Kerala. Niranam has immense historical significance in the tradition of Saint Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ who planted the first church there in AD 52.

In June of 2014, a group of 30 former employees sent a letter to Gospel for Asia with five allegations. The full letter is linked here. According to the former staff group, GFA replied with a defensive and, to my eye, threatening letter. In September 2014, a follow up letter was sent, this time with nearly 80 signatures. GFA responded again on March 26, 2015 with results of an investigation. In short, they considered the matter closed.
In summary, the five basic allegations are below.
1. GFA leadership practices and teaches a false view of spiritual authority.
2. GFA leadership prioritizes ministry over family, and teaches the same.
3. GFA leaders lie or intentionally deceive people in order to “protect” the ministry.
4. GFA practices unbiblical shunning.
5. GFA prohibits or discourages staff involvement in bible studies, small groups and local churches.
My purpose with this post is simply to report that there has been an ongoing effort by nearly 80 former employees to communicate these charges to Gospel for Asia since June 2014. According to GFA, an investigation found no wrongdoing but this response from GFA has not been sufficient for the former staffers.
I was alerted to this matter by a former donor earlier this month. Since then, two more donors have contacted me with similar concerns.
Apparently, during April, some GFA leaders have contacted individuals in the former GFA staff group (GFA Diaspora) with offers to talk about personal matters. J.D., the Diaspora’s spokesperson, said that no apology has come officially from GFA. According to the spokesperson, a more systematic response from GFA is needed to fully address the problems. Even so, the former employees do not wish to harm GFA. Speaking for the entire group, J.D. said:

It is not our intention to harm GFA or its staff in any way. From the beginning, our hope in addressing these matters has been to see repentance and change.

In response to my inquiry, GFA Chief Operating Officer, David Carroll, sent the following statement.

Gospel for Asia was disheartened to receive a letter dated June 17, 2014 from a group of former employees expressing concerns with our leadership team. We value the well-being of our staff and don’t take criticism lightly. After unsuccessfully trying to seek biblical reconciliation with every signer of the letter, our board launched a formal inquiry into the complaints outlined by the former employees. Gospel for Asia President and Board Chair K. P. Yohannan and his family members, also members of the board, recused themselves from participating in the investigation to ensure a fair and unbiased process. At the same time, our leadership team examined our HR policies and procedures, making improvements wherever possible, and affirmed the freedoms afforded to those called to the work of Gospel for Asia. While the board investigation concluded that there was no wrongdoing on the part of leadership, we recognize that, as humans, our leadership is not always going to be perfect. At the same time, our motivation has always been to reach as many people as possible in Asia with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and grow in our ability to reflect the character of Christ in our own organization. Regarding those former employees with unresolved concerns, it is our ministry’s desire to reconcile when possible and disagree in love when necessary, so that we might stand together in our commitment to spreading the Gospel throughout Asia.
— Gospel for Asia COO David Carroll, on behalf of the leadership team

As is clear from the letter, some of the concerns expressed over the past 10 months relate to GFA’s accountability to donors. In the coming days, I will report more information regarding transparency and the concerns of donors.
 
*Gospel for Asia is a charter member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. On the ECFA GFA page, this caption tells why the financial information isn’t available:

Due to international security concerns, Gospel for Asia has requested that their financial information not be posted on the Internet. To receive a copy of their audited financial statements, please contact Gospel for Asia directly.

I did contact GFA directly and received a copy of an audited financial statement.