Troubles of prominent TV evangelists ripple through industry

In the aftermath of scandals and power plays, television evangelism appears to be in the throes of deep recession. Financial problems are not universal. Some ministries continue to report record fund-raising success.

But the fallout from scandal has reached as far afield as Robert Schuller's ``Hour of Power'' ministry, which laid off 40 of the program's 250 employees last month and is purchasing air time on fewer stations.

The Rev. Mr. Schuller's mainline Protestant, positive-thinking ministry has little in common - either in style or message - with the emotional, Pentecostal evangelism of Jimmy Swaggart or Jim and Tammy Bakker. Yet Schuller blames the scandals, in part, for a deep falloff in contributions.

``I think there has been a very wide ripple effect,'' says Jeffrey Hadden, a University of Virginia professor and leading observer of the television evangelism industry. ``The question now is whether it's in a deep recession or a depression.''

Last year was rough enough. Early on, Oral Roberts became the butt of cartoonists and stand-up comics with his claim that God would ``call me home'' if fund-raising targets were not met. Then Jim Bakker confessed to an adulterous affair in 1980. The following scrutiny exposed a host of marital problems, lavish personal excesses, and misspent church funds.

The fallout caused some difficulties for other ministries as they struggled to maintain their own credibility. Still, many of them managed to increase their incomes during 1987, according to Arthur Borden, president of the Ecumenical Council for Financial Accountability.

This year, however, the disclosure that Jimmy Swaggart patronized a prostitute dealt a stronger blow, says Dr. Hadden, co-author of a new book on televangelism. ``People are just not sure that there's anybody out there who's straight,'' he says.

The finances of television ministries are notoriously murky to outsiders. To shore up the field's credibility, the 1,300-member National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) is about to require financial accountability of all its nonprofit members - including fully disclosed, outside audits of finances.

Of the best-known evangelists, only Billy Graham currently submits his finances to public audit.

Jimmy Swaggart's operation, with the nation's largest audience, is in deep trouble. He has been defrocked by the Assemblies of God, the NRB expelled him, and the Christian Broadcasting Network has barred his programs. Construction at his Louisiana headquarters has stopped.

PTL's court-appointed guardians are sorting through a torrent of proposals to pay off creditors by selling most or all of its 2,200-acre complex. The ministry itself and its television studios may survive intact. No possibility for the return of the Bakkers themselves has yet emerged.

Pat Robertson has returned from his presidential campaign to a troubled Christian Broadcasting Network. In spite of layoffs and retrenchment, CBN's problems are not nearly as severe as those of Swaggart and PTL.

Jerry Falwell, according to Hadden, is holding steady at his relatively small fundamentalist empire, ``but it's not easy.''

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