Jun 092014
 

moneyFinding out any internal information, especially financial information, can be remarkably difficult when it comes to cults, or just churches in general due to the special unconstitutional privileges granted to them by the government.

But every so often we catch a glimpse of a COG cult’s income and financial picture, as we did with PCG recently. But its rare, since as we’ve discussed before, religions are unfairly tax-exempt and don’t have to file forms describing their income like other nonprofits do.

However, despite this gap, we have collected enough information over the years to make a fair estimate of what the combined income is among the most significant COG groups, for the purpose of highlighting how much the sheep are being fleeced and how ineffective the cults are at growth and promotion despite their stockpiles of cash.

From what we know based on past data, we can surmise the following income estimates for various COG cults:

UCG – $20 million (what it inched toward between 1995-2005)
PCG – $19.5 million (2012)
LCG – $14.3 million (2010)
COGWA – $3.8 million (2011)
RCG – ~$2 million (it has to be making at least this much just to function, though no public data exists)

The total hovers around $60 million among these groups. This doesn’t factor in recent membership loss, and income doesn’t indicate wealth, especially since cults like PCG are in considerable debt and RCG pretty much has to be as well after the Wadsworth construction project.

Some notes:

  • WCG at its height was reported to have been generating $200 million in annual income. The top five make around a fourth of that.
  • Membership size doesn’t necessarily seem proportional to annual income, as PCG reportedly makes more than LCG and COGWA combined.
  • It’s long been known that only about 30-40 percent of COG group incomes are spent on media projects and “preaching the gospel” – roughly between $18 million and $24 million of these group’s total income being spent on spreading Armstrongism.
  • That leaves between $36 million and $42 million being spent on organizational overhead like property and staff salaries each year.
  • While this is a massive income fall from WCG’s heyday to a modern day significant remainder of that church, there’s still a lot of money being generated by a relatively few number of people to pay even fewer. COG members are being squeezed hard.
  • It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that COG cults lie about their income, so these numbers could be purposely skewed.
Apr 142014
 

UCG’s Victor Kubik just took a trip to Africa. Lots of other COG groups are scrambling to send ministers out to African congregations based on fears that smaller upstart cults might be poaching their members. Bob Thiel has bragged about gaining 20 congregations in East Africa.

Wade Cox’s fruity little group brags about how much headway it’s made in African nations. UCG makes Africa one of the focal points of its “charitable” work and is rumored as the focal point of a new split. Lots of other COG groups have maintained some presence in the region for years.

The COG has lots of African congregations, but how many of them are significant in terms of committed membership, financial gain or global influence?

For cults that proclaim a global gospel, as offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God, maintaining a presence in Africa — specifically the non-Muslim countries — is important, seeing as how their presence is virtually non-existent in Asia and the Middle East and extremely sparse in Europe. Without Africa, Church of God of the Americas would perhaps be a more accurate description.

For decades, the COG has fallen into the vortex of attempting to reach citizens of African countries similarly to how centuries of Christian missionaries tried to convert them away from heathenism, without much in the way of what could be called success. The COG sends supplies and ministers and literature to the region and efforts in countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Zambia and Uganda are frequent subjects of church propaganda films.

But African takes on Christianity have tended skew away from western values and have a life and culture all their own. And that’s among those who have taken Christian messages seriously. In countries infected with rampant fraud and corruption, playing along with foreign churches can be a great way to receive financial aid. For all of these reasons and more, it’s difficult to gauge how successful COG excursions into Africa are when it comes to retaining serious, baptized members. If we’re setting the bar for success at levels of American growth, which barely exists, it could be comfortably declared that the COG’s African missions aren’t all they’re made out to be.

Sure, there are some cohesive, longstanding COG congregations where a member visiting from abroad might feel somewhat at home sitting in services, not just in South Africa either, where the other white people live. But a lot of the rural congregations rest on the outskirts of COG normalcy.

It shouldn’t shock anyone that most COG ministers to African congregations are white Americans, most of which don’t speak the native languages or understand the cultures and usually only make the trip to visit and check in with their congregations a couple times a year. While it’s true that COG pastors don’t like letting new people into their fraternity, the fact is that congregations need pastors and elders, some sort of regular interface between laymembers and the corporate leadership, someone to advocate for and understand their needs. That the number of African ordained is so small compared to the supposed number of adherents, it indicates a disconnect between the deemed fervency of the members in these countries compared to the average American COG member.

And we’ve all the seen the COG FOT videos where African members are profiled and interviewed and there’s always that one guy with like six wives who attends services and wears his suit but “has a ways to go” down the road to true conversion, according to the narrator. Guys like that one guy are probably pretty common in Africa, to be honest. There are lots of cultural norms in various African countries that run counter to COG values and it’s not easily combated. While some African countries are more westernized than others, tribalism and various cultural traditions often run deep.

Despite the rarity of ordained African members and the various cultural clashes, COG groups still tend to throw money at these oft-subsidized congregations, which might be the only reason they still exist. UCG got sick of this in Latin America and cut the reins, yet it still hangs onto several Africa congregations that couldn’t really be described as self-sufficient.

One of the reasons for the prolonged efforts in Africa is that as various nations become more developed and more tuned into the pulse of world culture, there are increasing opportunities to make religious inroads where they may not have existed before. In addition to Africa’s great untapped natural resources, it’s human resources are just as valuable a trove in the eyes of western expansionists and have been since the days of rampant colonialism. So it’s not really a shock the COG continues to concentrate so hard on keeping their African bonds tightened.

But the next time you hear a COG group bragging about the success of African missions, remember that like most cult claims, it’s likely grounded in exaggeration, omission and hyperbole. The COG’s very existence is rooted in a very American religious fundamentalist phenomenon, so it shouldn’t be surprising it doesn’t carry the same water abroad.

Mar 012014
 

Long ago we postulated, based on personal experiences, that COG groups were at times likely overcharging for “discounted” church events in cases where members have to make bookings through ministers. A few months ago, PCG proved this hypothesis as true when a conscientious member blew the whistle on what he termed “the perfect money laundering plan” among various of the cult’s international congregations. Since then, some have shared their similar stories and suspicions and some rigorous debate has broken out about the extent of this fraud throughout the COG.

We pretty much have to rely on information from members to learn about how often and in what cults this scam has taken place. But we recently launched our own direct probe into the matter and have prepared some initial findings.

The scam basically looks like this:

  1. There’s a big COG event necessitating that members book in advance, be it for a meal, dance, FOT site, conference or whatever.
  2. The COG group strikes a bulk/group discount deal with the venue involved, negotiating for reduced per-person prices and perhaps other benefits too. Since COG groups usually hold off-season events, this is usually a given.
  3. COG members, instead of booking directly with the venue, are required, or at least encouraged, to book through church employees.
  4. The event prices charged by the COG are greater than it would be if the member had booked directly through the venue.
  5. The COG group pays the member’s booking to the venue after receiving the money and secretly keeps the remainder resulting from the overcharge.

It is a clever scheme, and at the very least, we have strong evidence PCG has engaged in it. This is unfortunately a difficult scam to uncover, because in the case of Alex Foster, the member who flashed light into PCG’s dark corners, his discovery was based on a clerical error. Essentially, we only know about it because PCG screwed up. So it takes some alert members with their minds and eyes wide open to discover what’s going on, because unfortunately, too many COG members absolutely trust their pastors, even though they should be far more skeptical.

So what about other COG groups? We have some anecdotal suspicions about this going on in UCG and elsewhere, but we haven’t known for certain. Without the kind of document-driven smoking gun, anything we produce would be hearsay. However, there are some indicators to look for when investigating the presence of this scam within COG cults:

  1. Is there a COG event being held at a large venue that is not the standard church meeting hall?
  2. Does the event cost individual members money to attend?
  3. Has the church announced a group or bulk-discounted price for the event?
  4. Are members asked to make their reservations, buy their tickets or whatever through a church intermediary instead of contacting the venue directly?
  5. Do members have the ability to go around the church intermediary and book directly through the venue (meaning the venue is alright with people doing that)?
  6. Is the direct booking price less than the church’s intermediary price?

Taking this issue on an case-by-case, cult-by-cult basis, if a specific church event manages to check all of those boxes, the opportunity for corruption is there and the likelihood that members are being overcharged for that additional money to fall through the cracks, at least to us, seems very high.

When debating COG members about this, they often insist to us that item four — members being asked, able or required to book through church employees — absolutely not does not happen. However, we’ve found evidence this does occasionally happen and we have the screenshots to prove it. Members are frequently assessed event fees and are required to register through online, church-run web forms where payments can be made directly to the church, including for hotel rooms, sporting events, dances, shows, etc.

Silenced made a sample list of COG groups — those hosting big gala church events — and examined events from the recent past, measuring them against our checklist to see if there was at the very least an opportunity for groups to covertly overcharge members.

COG Cult
Event?Winter Family Weekend 2013Kansas City Family WeekendWinter Family Weekend 2013
Cost?YesYesYes
Discount?YesYesNo
Intermediary?Yes, UCG could be paid and registered with directly.Yes, LCG could be paid and registered with directly.Yes, COGWA could be paid and registered with directly.
Venue?Yes, you could book directly through the venue.Yes, you could book directly through the venue.Yes, you could book directly through the venue.
Price?$114.69/night for UCG
$189/night normal rate
$79/night for LCG
$115/night normally
$63/night for COGWA
$122/night normally

COGWA just straight up says they're charging you event fees.

Please note the normal venue prices listed are based on 2014 prices for those dates and do not necessarily reflect the 2013 prices from when the events actually took place. Unfortunately, it’s all we could find.

So it’s clear the opportunity for fraud has been present in recent years, counter to COG member claims. What’s very difficult for us to do is prove those opportunities have been seized upon by church employees to defraud members. Based on the pricing structures for these events, it doesn’t seem like any fraud took place within this sample group. However, the setup is there. Ministers are directly handling registration, event fees and managing the group discounts. If they wanted to, they could pull something without raising suspicions. Documented proof is really something only members can provide. But this hopefully sheds some further light on subject. We would further urge members to obtain a healthy skepticism and keep their eyes open.

The question members really should be asking, is why they should be paying for these events at all? Members already pay 20-30 percent of their income in tithes and offerings. The COG groups don’t generally own property beyond their home offices, do not pay taxes and recent numbers put the largest ones only spending 30-40 percent of cult income on “preaching the gospel.” Members aren’t getting much bang for their buck. One would think an annual bit of hoopla using the money members have already funneled into the church would be reasonable. Guess not. A good indicator of a scam is something you’re required to keep paying into without getting much, if anything, in return. The COG groups fit that description very well.

Jan 262013
 

A puppy could form a better religious body than the COGSince the UCG/COGWA split, and especially within the last month or so, there have been confused whispers among members. The source of their confusion is the reasons behind the split. Because there is so little understanding on both sides of the schism and abounding distortion and disinformation, members – especially the young adults – are confused as to why UCG and COGWA can’t “reconcile” among themselves, a message both sides had been drumming into their members.

In the minds of many members, this phantom reconciliation needs to happen among themselves instead of the senior leadership. The vagueness with which both cults have explained the terms of the 2010 schism have left the youth in both churches discussing the futile idea of reunification, not merely between UCG and COGWA, but all COG groups.

The very notion indicates a sad misunderstanding not only of the current inter-COG political landscape, but also Armstrongism’s history, and in fact, the history of religion in general.

Starting at a macro level, religion is trapped in an entropic bubble. It doesn’t combine and coalesce, it doesn’t unify and become stronger. It splits, becomes more disjointed, muddled and confused with the passage of time. Even Armstrongism itself was an ideological and organizational schism from the Church of God (Seventh Day) which itself split off from other, larger movements.

In the case of the Armstrongist, this obvious phenomenon doesn’t apply to the COGs, which they errantly believe is a pure, uninterrupted descendant of the church started in Acts. This is Exhibit K in how cults use disinformation to promote control and shield members from simple truths. But in the context of the shattered COG landscape, it leaves members blind as to the actual reasons behind the destruction of WCG and the continued disintegration of its children.

The real reason behind COG splits, simply put, is that senior ministerial leaders without marketable skills are compelled to start their own splinter groups when losing their jobs just to avoid the unemployment line. There’s some stuff in there about ego and power too, but it’s political spats leading to resignations and terminations that have precipitated nearly every COG schism of the past 20 years. In UCG and COGWA’s case, Dennis Luker’s ascent to power led to a radical change in how to spend money and guide its media strategy, and any dissenters were tossed out the door whether through actual firings or pressures to resign. UCG lost 75 percent of its paid, full-time ministry, men who don’t know how to make money doing anything other than sucking tithes from financially-struggling sheep. Picking out about 5,000 loyalists to follow them out the door wasn’t only a good career move that increased their power in a new church, it was a necessary life raft to keep them from drowning in the sea of the real world, where Armstrongite ministers haven’t had to live for decades.

Members have been told, mysteriously in the case of the UCG/COGWA split, that it’s all about doctrinal issues. This lie has been used many times before in other COG schisms, but never so transparently as it was on the COGWA side of the recent split. COGWA’s older, rapidly-aging membership terrified of change was told by departing ministers that UCG was preparing for a WCG-esque radical doctrinal transformation, one that hasn’t been forthcoming in the past three years. While there are strategies being formed to somehow appeal more broadly to the greater Christian population to keep from bleeding members and money to death, UCG can’t simply jettison the fundamental tenants of Armstrongism at this point, a move that would be organizational suicide. In reality, COGWA’s senior leadership should wish for their lie to actually be true, since the resulting exodus would fill their barren warchest. Yet, this lie has kept members bickering among each other about the reasons why UCG and COGWA, two nearly identical organizations in virtually every way, can’t get back together.

And for some, there are no logical reasons, which has led to the formation of a fledgling movement to rebuild the COG from its scattered remnant. The schism has wrecked families and destroyed friendships. But in this case, unlike many other COG splits, there has been a persistent glut of members on both sides who have chosen to continue intermingling, despite the newly-formed chasm between their churches. It’s from this continued unofficial unity between a certain percentage of UCG and COGWA members that its youth believes reuniting the broken church is possible.

We are here to inform our well-meaning counterparts still in the church that this will never, ever happen. There are a number of reasons why, and we will list the most important ones.

First, it’s not really up to you. The kids may like to play together, but your parents hate each other. The feud is between ministers and senior cult leaders, not everyday, tithe-paying butts in seats. There have been recent calls to hold a reunified Winter Family Weekend in 2013 to start the process of healing. But no matter how many joint Bible studies and cross-church activities you try to hold among yourselves, it’s not going to heal the fissures between your leaders.

Secondly, you do have some power in this situation, but you refuse to use it. If you want your leaders to listen, withhold your tithes. But the very idea of doing this is so vile and unheard of to the average COG member, this will never happen. They seem to forget that church members have withheld tithes many times in COG history, the WCG split and recent UCG/COGWA schism being predominant examples. There’s confusion among youth who don’t understand the difference between withholding a tithe until a later date and not tithing at all. They’ve been brainwashed into believing that not forwarding a monthly tithe check to the Home Office is a horrific sin against God. Such is the resounding success of the COG’s systemic, cultural and institutional indoctrination. But the reality is, the members do have the power. The moment they withhold their money, these men would suddenly be all ears and scramble to find a solution. If you want reunification, you have to be willing to take an action on your own. But we’re confident that because this would work, you would never, ever try it.

Thirdly, just because some people on both sides, primarily youth, still like to play basketball and drink together, it doesn’t mean the older members are going to follow your ecumenical movement. Years and years of schisms have made them jaded to the idea of getting back together with the mother church. Many older members believe the end-time is now, that the work was already done under Herbert W. Armstrong and all that’s left to do is wait for the end. The youth in both churches might pray for the Kingdom of God, but there’s not an overwhelming sense of apocalyptic urgency as exists among the first and second generations. And honestly, the smaller the church gets, the more special they seem. Most of these older members who have rushed for the exits in a schism have done so because they believe they’re clinging to the truth. Therefore, those left behind in their former affiliation don’t have the same truth. So getting back together is a worthless gesture for the bitter, older COG veterans.

Fourthly, in the case of a huge COG-wide reunification, which would essentially be the reformation of WCG, it’s simply not organizationally feasible. There are too many roosters in the hen house. Every man currently leading a COG group isn’t going to take a demotion and a paycut just to work with a sworn rival. Meredith isn’t going to work with Thiel, who isn’t going to work with Pack, who isn’t going to work with Luker, who won’t work with Flurry, who won’t with anyone. These men spend so much time bashing each other and fellow COG splinters, there is no conceivable way they’re ever going to preside over a reunified COG. They believe themselves to be ordained prophets, and the petty political disagreements that led to their ousters have festered into true animosity over the decades. Your reunified COG would have to jettison nearly every existing cult leader and rebuild the ministry from the ground up. And that is just never going to happen, because again, that would take initiative on the parts of members, who have been brainwashed into believing everything is in the hands of God, even the monumental failure the COG has become. So they’ll never do anything even remotely useful to achieve their goals.

Fifthly, there just aren’t enough of you to make this work. The COG is aging fast and your leaders seem to have the longevity of Fidel Castro. Young adults and teens have always fallen away and seem to be doing so at greater rates these days. It’s led to a desperate scramble by COG groups to somehow appeal to the youth. They bend over backwards to hold Winter Family Weekends and Families for God weekends and as many dances and proms and basketball games and teen and young adult Bible studies and everything possible to keep you engaged, in the church and without time for much else. But regardless of how many Vertical Thought issues they might print, the youth bloc just isn’t strong enough to enact this change and is shrinking all the time. And if the younger COG generation has to wait around for the previous generations and current leadership to die off before take the reigns, you will find yourself presiding over a unified COG roughly the size of UCG’s current membership if not smaller. This might be called a Pyrrhic victory.

Anyway, we’re sure none of this will breach the defenses the average COG member has build around their brains, especially the youthful idealist. But we thought it merited some form of comment. We recognize what you’re trying to do. But it’s telling of the overall lack of recognition of the COG’s real problems, which will take more than prayer, goodwill and joint sporting events to fix. It would take a vast purge of the poisons that have driven people from the church in the first place.

Nov 092012
 

Banned! is reporting that UCG’s Melvin Rhodes has resigned for “unchristian behavior” aka a past affair, likely with a laymember who is now in COGWA.

Dennis Luker is trying to jump on the grenade. It’s also been speculated that COGWA’s Jim Franks might be leaking dirt on his fellow COG ministers to bring down his rivals, especially as legal sparks continue to fly between UCG and its newest splinter.

The allegations, whatever they are specifically, against Rhodes aren’t surprising. Lots of COG ministers have skeletons in their closets and Rhodes’ are just the most recent to surface. There are more ministers currently engaged in hypocritical and unethical behavior. Some of these allegations have been privately brought to our attention before, but we don’t publish every allegation that gets sent our way, especially those that lack substantive evidence. But after awhile, when receiving enough of them, a pattern starts to emerge. Rhodes is not alone in this type of behavior, whether we’re talking past or present. This might just be the beginning of revelations spilling out if various COGWA ministers have started emptying the COG’s vault of secrets.

May 252012
 

Last week on HBO’s Real Time, Bill Maher weighed in with his thoughts on Liberty University.  We’ve mentioned previously some of our thoughts on Mitt Romney’s recent commencement speech at Liberty, but in this instance Maher’s take on Liberty could equally apply to other COG institutions such as UCG’s Ambassador Bible Center,  PCG’s Hebert W. Armstrong College, LCG’s online Living University, COGWA’s Foundation Institute and of course WCG’s now long defunct Ambassador College.