The Painful Truth About The Worldwide Church of God
This article is from the New Times LA newspaper, published 2/4/1997
http ://www.newt imesla .com/issues/1997-12-04/index.html
It is reproduced here under the fair use law in the interest of preserving part of the history of the Worldwide Church of God.

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Honey, I Shrunk the Church  Page 2
Feature Photo
Photo by Steven Dewall

Worldwide's Ambassador Auditorium has hosted performers from Ray Charles to Pavarotti; now the tapes of those shows are in jeopardy. (Inset) Founder Herbert Armstrong as a young man.

"I've come to the conclusion that the church under this group exists to perpetuate itself and to make money," says David Covington. Formerly one of Worldwide's top field ministers, he spent 25 years in the organization before resigning last year. Up to three-quarters of Worldwide's former 125,000 members have departed. The church's operating budget, which was $211 million as recently as 1990, has shrunk to $38 million. The church has had to lay off all but about 200 of its 1,200-plus headquarters staff, shut down Ambassador University, its sprawling Texas liberal arts school, and has drastically scaled back its half-century-old Plain Truth magazine. The new regime has even auctioned off the sterling silver Armstrong once used at lavish dinner parties for heads of state and other luminaries.

Ironically, Tkach (pronounced Ta-KOSH) has been hailed as a hero by evangelicals who, until recently, derided Worldwide as a cult. He has jettisoned many of Armstrong's judgmental pronouncements, including his dismissals of Roman Catholicism as "the harlot of Satan" and Protestant religions as "her evil daughters."

Since taking over as Pastor General in 1995 -- upon the death of his father, Joseph W. Tkach, Sr., Armstrong's handpicked successor -- the bearded younger Tkach also has tossed many of the founder's prophetic interpretations into the garbage bin. At the same time, he and other church leaders have soft-pedaled Armstrong's increasingly well-known personal failings, critics say, for fear of driving away remaining members who still hold the late prophet in high esteem.

Once only whispered among the church's elite, details of Armstrong's controversial and contradictory lifestyle have become widely disseminated as more of his followers, including numerous formerly high-ranking church officials, have exited the organization. The revelations include his alleged 10-year incestuous relationship with one of his daughters during the church's formative early days and his lengthy tolerance for the sexual escapades of his flamboyant evangelist son -- and onetime heir apparent -- Garner Ted Armstrong.

Worldwide Church of God
The official site.

The Painful Truth
A rather damning anti-WCG Web site run by an ex-member and containing "the truth they think you can't handle." You can also download a copy of Bruce Renehan's book, "Daughter of Babylon, The True History of the Worldwide Church of God."

"They still prop this man up and say good things about him, even though they've thrown out all that he taught," says ex-member Ed Mentell Sr., who operates a dissident website called The Painful Truth. "Their whole basis for existing as a church is based on [Herbert Armstrong]," he says. "If you take [him] away, they all fall, and they know it."

The doctrinal reversals over which Tkach has presided, including acceptance of the Trinity and observance of Christmas and Easter, have been aimed at steering the church toward the mainstream. As a result, the energetic leader has become the darling of conservative religious talk shows. And his book, Transformed By Truth, which purports to tell "the inside story" of the church's rejection of Armstrong's theology, is a smash hit in some theological circles.

Herbert Armstrong had taught that Christ would return and give members of the church instant and exclusive immortality so that they could help rule the universe.

Radio host and nationally prominent Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy compares the changes to those of the Protestant Reformation. John R. Holland, head of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (founded by the legendary Aimee Semple McPherson) calls the transformation "one of the great miracles" of the century. In a milestone, the National Association of Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in May to welcome Worldwide into the fold after an examination of its new teachings.

All of this has infuriated longtime Armstrong loyalists, many of whom sacrificed years and huge portions of their incomes to Worldwide under his strict tithing requirements. Cracks one ex-member: "If anything, [Tkach] should have called his book, Honey, I Shrunk the Church."

For many current and former Worldwide members, the headquarters -- with its splendid Ambassador Auditorium and other buildings set among lush gardens and gurgling fountains -- is hallowed ground.

It was there that Armstrong said God had led him in the 1940s, when the preacher came to Los Angeles from Oregon searching for a permanent home for his fledgling ministry. Generations of church offspring were sent there to attend now-defunct Ambassador College. From sound studios on the campus, Herbert and, later, his famous son, delivered The World Tomorrow radio and television broadcasts, giving the church impact -- and an image -- far in excess of its size. "It's more than simply a piece of real estate," says David Hulme, one of Armstrong's former lieutenants and co-founder of the United Church of God. "It's a symbol of a religious heritage and a way of life."

Real estate sources say the campus, which faces upscale Orange Grove Boulevard and is within view of the Norton Simon Museum, could sell for between $100 million and $150 million. Among those rumored to have expressed interest are the DreamWorks studios, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a major area university interested in its possible use as a satellite campus. Meanwhile, sources say the church is close to selling the former Ambassador University, 100 miles east of Dallas near the East Texas community of Big Sandy, for about $30 million. "It's practically a fire sale," says a source familiar with the negotiations, "but then you've got to remember, it is in the middle of nowhere." The prospective buyer, a politically ultra-conservative investor group, intends to open a military college on the site that it says will compete with The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute.

Worldwide's leaders have said that they have little choice but to dispose of the properties, since the church can no longer afford to maintain them. Upkeep of the headquarters alone is reputedly $8 million a year. But the leadership has been vague about how such a potentially huge windfall might be spent, while conducting its financial affairs in secrecy. And that has raised the ire of Armstrong loyalists, who, under the founder's regime, shelled out up to 30 percent of their personal incomes to pay for everything the church owns.

Under Tkach Jr., the church's finances have become so precarious that rumors have circulated even among its employees that unless it is able to sell one of the properties soon, Worldwide faces bankruptcy. "Reading their monthly financial reports is a little like reading the medical chart updates for a terminally ill hospital patient," says ex-member and Worldwide critic John Trechak. "It isn't pretty."

Despite Tkach's early pledge to promote openness and loosen the dictatorial grip for which Armstrong was famous, the leaders have resisted calls for financial disclosure. Among other things, they've refused to reveal their own salaries and perquisites. A former high-ranking church official says that Tkach's compensation package exceeds $300,000, including a hefty raise he reportedly was given even as plans were being drawn up to lay off staffers. His chief aides include Greg R. Albrecht, the church's second-in-command and its public relations director, treasurer Bernard Schnippert, and J. Michael Feazell, an assistant to the Pastor General. Tkach and Albrecht declined numerous requests for interviews. After calls to Schnippert and Feazell went unreturned, Albrecht, the public relations chief, told New Times that neither they nor any other church officials would make themselves available for comment.

Not until January of this year did the Tkach team and its outside accountants complete a legally required audit of church finances for 1995. The leadership then declined to publish it, with Schnippert declaring in a message to the faithful that the audit was "so late as to be almost irrelevant to our current financial picture."

The leaders also refused to publish the church's bylaws until a smuggled copy turned up on the Internet last year. Afterward, the church printed the document in its monthly newsletter. The bylaws confirmed what doubters had long suspected -- that Tkach, as head of the church, wields virtually absolute financial authority. Not only does the title of Pastor General denote his eminence in spiritual matters, but as chairman of the church's board of directors, he possesses the extraordinary power to appoint or remove other board members "at any time, with or without cause or notice."

More troubling to some, however, is an obscure document drawn up in June, 1987, the year after the church patriarch's death, and during the administration of Tkach's father. The document, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, amends the terms under which church assets may be distributed in the event that Worldwide ceases to exist. Should that occur, once outstanding debts are paid, the amendment gives the Pastor General exclusive ability to control the assets and to assign them to an entity of his choice.

"That's why [the leadership] has been careful to retain a hierarchical as opposed to a congregational structure," says Covington, the ex-Worldwide minister. "They know that if it all comes apart, they can divvy up the goodies to benefit themselves and not have to worry about the little people in the congregations."

The leadership has also raised eyebrows by organizing Plain Truth Ministries, Inc. as a corporate entity distinct from Worldwide. Tkach is its president. The ubiquitous Plain Truth magazine, long distributed for free as an extension of Armstrong theology, now is sold by subscription and contains ads for books, videos, and even diet plans. (Indicative of the softer fare is a recent article: "Up Close and Personal with Pat Boone.")

"They're clearly interested in [the magazine] as a revenue-generating tool to coincide with the shift toward evangelical acceptance," says Phillip Arnn, head of Texas-based Watchman Fellowship, a counter-cult group. "My hunch is that Joe Jr. has determined that's where the market is."

The first hint to the public that trouble was brewing at Worldwide came in January, 1995, with the stunning announcement that the acclaimed concert series at Ambassador Auditorium would be discontinued.

The 1,200-seat hall was built as a kind of personal shrine to Armstrong. At its opening in 1974, he had compared it, with characteristic modesty, to the Parthenon. Praised for its stellar acoustics, the glimmering edifice soaring above an enormous reflecting pool had for two decades showcased the world's most distinguished musical artists, from Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.

Its pinkish lobby walls were said to have used up Turkey's entire export quota of rose onyx for a year. A backstage elevator had been installed ahead of schedule so that tenor Luciano Pavarotti wouldn't have to climb the stairs from the dressing room to the stage. An electric eye was put in the same elevator so that Mstislav Rostropovich wouldn't worry that his cello would be smashed by the closing door. It was, quite simply, "a fabulous hall, the best that money can buy," Yugoslav pianist Ivo Pogorelich once declared.

And then, suddenly, there was no money to underwrite its performances.

The church, through its performing arts foundation, had subsidized half the overhead -- $2.5 million a year. Rocked by defections as a result of changes that had already begun to take place under Tkach Sr., it could no longer afford to pick up the tab.

(At times, the arts and the church were a difficult mix. Artists were discouraged from doing anything that might offend delicate moral sensibilities, as well as from playing certain kinds of sacred music. A production of Tosca once had to proceed with all Catholic artifacts removed from the scenery. Armstrong had even decreed that there was to be no box office on the grounds, making it necessary to buy tickets in a nearby office building.)

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