The Rev. Debra Haffner's Religious Institute loses more than $400,000 to fiscal agent; launches emergency fundraising appeal.
The Religious Institute, led by the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, lost approximately $424,000. In an email to close supporters Feb. 23, Haffner wrote, “The worst and unimaginable has happened—the fiscal agent for the Religious Institute has misused all of the Religious Institute’s monies and the Religious Institute now has a net worth of $14,000.”
The fiscal agent was Christian Community in Fort Wayne, Ind. On its website, Christian Community described itself as “a small and rather entrepreneurial nonprofit organization” dedicated to helping congregations of many faiths “extend ministries of love, service, justice, and healing to persons in need.” (Christian Community’s website was shut down sometime Feb. 28 or early Feb. 29.)
Christian Community was responsible for processing all of the donations to the Religious Institute and managing its financial obligations. Christian Community and its president, the Rev. Steve Clapp, an ordained United Methodist and Church of the Brethren minister, primarily worked with liberal religious groups.
In addition to the Religious Institute’s losses, Haffner and her husband personally lost $100,000, which they had loaned Clapp for one of his projects. Haffner said Christian Community was the fiscal agent for other small groups, too. It is unclear whether any of those groups also lost funds.
Haffner said Clapp told her that he had used the Religious Institute’s funds to cover other projects while waiting for a donor gift that never materialized. Haffner said Clapp indicated that a donor, whom he had expected to make a $1.8 million gift, had instead only given $100,000.
After Clapp contacted her, Haffner immediately suspended her own pay and gave four staff members notices of termination in one to three weeks, pending the Institute’s ability to raise new operating funds.
A check of IRS records shows that Christian Community’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status was revoked as of May 15, 2011 for failure to file an annual form describing its mission, programs, and finances.
In a written statement to UU World Mar. 2, Clapp expressed “deep sorrow” over what had happened. “Christian Community as an organization—and I—cherish the long partnership which we had with Debra Haffner and the Religious Institute. Debra's efforts on behalf of sexuality education and reproductive justice have had enormous impact, and her work is truly valuable not only to the religious community but to the whole country. I am heartsick over the financial problems that have brought about the end of Christian Community. And I have especially deep sorrow over the impact of this on Debra and on the Religious Institute. I urge people and congregations to generously support the important work of the Religious Institute.”
Haffner spelled out the crisis on her blog, Sexuality and Religion: What’s the Connection? on March 1. “I am in the fight of my life,” she wrote. “I have been betrayed.”
After describing the extent of the loss, Haffner wrote, “The shock and the betrayal are beyond words. It appears that we are the victims of what may turn out to be a religious Bernie Madoff. All authorities—local police in several jurisdictions, state attorney generals [sic] offices in several states, U.S. Attorneys, and the FBI have been contacted and are beginning to take their next steps. We have filed reports, given statements and documents, and I've been asked to let them take their next steps.”
She expressed gratitude for the Institute’s staff members as well as for an outpouring of support that began immediately from friends, donors, and members and staff of The Unitarian Church in Westport, Conn., where she is a longtime member and an affiliated community minister.
“The staff of the Religious Institute . . . have been AMAZING,” she wrote. “We pray, we cry, we hold each other, we feed each other, and we work incessantly. I have never felt so loved. And I have never known how strong I can really be. We are in the wilderness, but we WILL survive.”
The Westport congregation has stepped in to be the fiscal agent for the Institute temporarily. The Institute will become its own agent as soon as it can apply for and receive 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit, Haffner said. (Legally, the Religious Institute had been a subsidiary of Christian Community and did not have independent status.)
Haffner has launched an emergency fundraising campaign to keep the Institute going. She told UU World that the Institute needs $300,000 to create a “bare bones” budget that would carry it through June. The Institute’s annual budget this year was $565,000.
Haffner said $27,000 had been raised as of Mar. 2, mostly from individuals. “We’re also starting to receive commitments from foundations,” she said, adding that it was undetermined whether Religious Institute staff, which had been given termination notices, would be able to continue now that funds are coming in.
“Already we’ve received donations from $1.45 from a seven-year-old, to one of $10,000 from a friend,” Haffner said Feb. 29. “Every donation will make a difference. We believe in loaves and fishes. We’re determined to continue the critical ministry of the Religious Institute.”
Haffner cofounded the Religious Institute in 2001 after being chief executive officer of SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, for 12 years. She is the author of several guides for congregations on sexuality, three books for parents on raising sexually healthy children and teens, and more than 70 articles in professional journals and popular media.
In recent years Haffner and the Institute have achieved increasing visibility on issues related to sexuality and religion. When the Roman Catholic bishops and Republican presidential candidates raised a firestorm of objections this winter to President Obama’s decision to continue mandating contraception coverage as part of employer-provided health insurance, the White House contacted the Religious Institute, which quickly got 24 mainstream religious leaders to sign on to a statement that demonstrated broad religious support for contraception. She was also quoted in a front-page article in The New York Times.
She has faced off against Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly twice—in 2007 about the need for sexuality education for young children and again last month over the contraception issue.
Despite the funding crisis, the work goes on. The day that Haffner learned that the Religious Institute’s funds were gone she appeared on the Geraldo ABC Radio show to defend contraception. The same week she wrote an article for the Albany, N.Y., Times Union; provided technical assistance to a congregation where a staff member was arrested for child sexual abuse; and created a plan for an international meeting on maternal health and family planning.
She has worked extensively with the Unitarian Universalist Association. A member of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee, Haffner helped the UUA become the first major denomination to require candidates for ordination to demonstrate they are prepared to address sexuality issues in ministry. She has worked with the Liberal Religious Educators Association about how to better address sexuality education issues.
She helped create a mandatory sexual harassment training for all UUA staff and created an online self-assessment tool for congregations to help them become sexually healthy and responsible faith communities. She worked directly with more than 75 UU congregations in the past year.
The Religious Institute was apparently the only UU-related organization that used Christian Community as its fiscal agent.
Christian Community’s website did indicate that it was preparing to conduct an evaluation of the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program, which was developed by the UUA and the United Church of Christ.
However, Judith Frediani, the UUA’s director of curriculum, said that the evaluation, initiated by Christian Community and not the UUA, did not materialize, apparently because the Christian Community could not get funding for it from outside sources. She said the UUA has never had a contract with Christian Community and that it had not contributed or planned to contribute any funds to it.
The Religious Institute has had a close relationship with Clapp, whose interests closely paralleled those of the Institute. Christian Community’s website promoted resources and programs about teen sexuality, welcoming LGBT people, and reproductive rights. It also provided resources on stewardship and church vitality. Clapp has written or coauthored many books and articles on church leadership, youth ministry, and sexuality education for teens.
Last week, Clapp resigned as chair of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, whose members include the UUA, the United Church of Christ, and many other liberal religious organizations.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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