Chattanooga-based 'John Ankerberg Show' suspended by financial group over claims about misused donor funds

Whistleblower alleges program defrauded donors and directed their money to pay for private jet trips

Staff Photo / John Ankerberg is pictured in 2015 in his Chattanooga studio, where he films a TV show attempting to prove the existence of God.

An influential certification body has suspended the membership of "The John Ankerberg Show" following a whistleblower allegation that it defrauded donors and directed their money to pay for private jet trips.

Like many Christian ministries, "The John Ankerberg Show" cites its certification by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability as evidence it can be trusted with donor money.

The council suspended the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute's membership April 28, pending a review of its compliance with several certification standards, the council's vice president of member accountability, Jake Lapp, said by email Wednesday.

The specific standards being reviewed govern, among other things, whether a ministry responsibly uses resources, complies with the law and is truthful with donors.

The suspension, first reported by the online publication Ministry Watch, comes after the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute's former director of donor relations alleged its popular Chattanooga-based television ministry misled donors about how it would use their money.

(READ MORE: Whistleblower says Chattanooga-based 'John Ankerberg Show' directs donations for audio Bibles to ministry expenses, private jet)

The multimillion dollar, decades-running show has long solicited donations for foreign-language audio Bibles that it said would help win people in far-off places to Christ.

The whistleblower, Andrew Jaeger, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, only a small fraction of the money went to that cause — a basic claim the ministry has not disputed. Donations, Jaeger said, were mostly diverted to other, sometimes luxurious purposes, including private jet rides to places like Hilton Head, South Carolina, that went unreported to the IRS.

Darlene Ankerberg, the CEO of the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute and the wife of show host John Ankerberg, told Ministry Watch that donors understood much of their money was going to the ministry, and that the omission on its tax form was an error the institute would fix.

The ministry has not responded to several detailed questions the Times Free Press sent last week, though its attorney, James Catanzaro, did acknowledge the use of private aircraft, adding that the flights were funded through the gifts of a donor.

The private flights totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Jaeger has told the Times Free Press the claim that a specific donor furnished funds for this purpose is a "complete lie." When the newspaper asked Catanzaro who provided the private jet funds, he said the ministry respects the privacy of its donors and would not share that information.

In April, the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, which produces the television show, sued Jaeger for keeping and disseminating private information it said he promised to return when he left the organization last fall. A Hamilton County Circuit Court judge has for now prohibited Jaeger from making further disclosures.

As of Thursday afternoon, "The John Ankerberg Show" advertised on its website the logos of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Charity Navigator, which gives the ministry a four-out-of-four star rating.

"Why can you trust us with your donation?" the show's website asks. "The ECFA and Charity Navigator organizations are both third-party groups that verify the giving practices of nonprofits and ministries. When you give to 'The John Ankerberg Show,' you can trust that your money will be spent wisely.'"

During a suspension, an organization is temporarily not able to promote themselves as an Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability member, Lapp said by email Thursday, adding that the council does give suspended ministries a reasonable amount of time to remove the seal.

"In the meantime," he wrote, "the ministry's profile has been removed from ECFA's website."

Charity Navigator did not by press time respond to a request for comment.

Founded decades ago by the famous preacher Billy Graham and others, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability says it accredits organizations based on several standards of responsible financial stewardship drawn from Scripture. The idea is, in part, to bolster the trust of donors.

The specific standards for which the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute is under review are 2, 4, 7.1, and 7.2, Lapp said.

Standard 2 concerns proper governance by a board of directors.

Three of the ministry's eight board members are Ankerbergs, and the family constitutes the nonprofit's entire executive staff, according to its website.

Standard 4 says member organizations must provide reasonable assurance that their resources are used in a responsible manner and in conformity with the law.

Standards 7.1 and 7.2 concern how donations are solicited. The standard prohibits omissions or exaggerations of fact that would give donors a false impression of where their money was going.

Catanzaro, the Ankerberg Theological Research Institute's attorney, did not respond to an email sent Thursday morning seeking further comment.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at or 423-757-6431.