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POWERFUL VOICE: Ron Luce, founder of Teen Mania, speaks at a rally in Times Square.
Richard B. Levine/Newscom
POWERFUL VOICE: Ron Luce, founder of Teen Mania, speaks at a rally in Times Square.

Management mania

Religion | Christian youth organization struggles to survive financial turmoil

Issue: "Coat of many dollars," May 3, 2014

Ron and Katie Luce founded Teen Mania Ministries in 1986 with a goal to “raise up young people who would change the world.” By the numbers, they’ve been successful: Three million attendees at its weekend Acquire the Fire events, more than 70,000 taking summer mission trips called Global Expeditions, and thousands of teens who traveled to the organization’s 472-acre campus near Tyler, Texas, for year-long programs.

On Feb. 3 this year, Ron Luce called the management team into his newly renovated conference room with its four flat screen televisions, leather chairs, and a glass-top conference table. Luce then dropped a bombshell: Teen Mania would abandon the 472 acres and move to a still-undetermined site in Dallas. Luce framed the decision as one that would allow the ministry to have a global reach, and unveiled a press release that did not use the words “default” or “foreclosure”—appropriate terms for what was happening.

That was the first time Teen Mania communications director Cindy Mallette heard about the move. She later found out that Teen Mania had stopped paying its mortgage in November so as to meet payroll, and had then gone into default. After Mallette, who was fielding a flood of inquiries, prodded Luce to acknowledge a foreclosure was occurring, the ministry fired her on Feb. 13. She now states that Luce was hiding “the full nature of the situation” in the hope that funders would “donate to this new vision.”

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Since February I’ve reviewed financial documents and interviewed current and former Teen Mania employees, a former board member, and Ron Luce, with the goal of learning how a once-flourishing ministry landed in foreclosure. I found many people who defend Teen Mania but not Luce, whom they accuse of mismanagement and unethical behavior. Luce himself admitted in a Feb. 11 taped conference call with supporters, “Evidence that my leadership is lacking seems to be everywhere.” 

TEEN MANIA’s impressive list of endorsers includes Franklin Graham, Josh McDowell, and former President George W. Bush, who named Luce in 2002 to the White House Advisory Commission on Drug-Free Communities. The four-man Teen Mania President’s Council is made up of televangelist James Robison, Pentecostal pastor Jack Hayford, best-selling author John Maxwell, and Paul Nelson, a former president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).

Luce used his charismatic personality to gain support: “He’s a phenomenal communicator, great visionary, and I think he passionately loves Jesus,” said David Hasz, who spent 17 years at the ministry. That passion is reflected in all the programs, and has led to controversy: Teen Mania endured intense criticism in 2011 after a one-hour MSNBC documentary showed its teens eating worms and crawling through mud. Luce, saying the show was deceptive, quickly hired Mallette as the organization’s first communications director.

Teen Mania’s financial woes have been building for more than a decade. Daniel Williams, a Teen Mania board member from 1995 to 2012, cited three primary reasons: the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 recession, and an organizational structure that “worked really well when it was small, but it got too big to manage.”

The ministry hasn’t suffered from a lack of revenue: Teen Mania has brought in almost $300 million since 2001. Jacob Morales, a former volunteer who went on four Global Expeditions trips, left Chase Manhattan to become Luce’s executive assistant in 2007 and 2008. Acting as liaison between Luce’s office and the accounting department, Morales saw “reckless spending. … Letters are going out saying, ‘Help, help, we’re going under,’ yet we’re dropping $100,000 for a guy who is going to speak for 50 minutes.” 

That payment, Morales said, went to Dallas minister T.D. Jakes to get him to speak at a New York City BattleCry event on Feb. 8, 2008. (Jennifer Saunier, then Teen Mania’s sales director, confirmed that figure; Jakes’ organization did not respond to a request for comment.) Morales says Teen Mania chartered a $21,000 private jet and spent more than $4,000 on a two-night stay at the Ritz Carlton for Jakes, whom Luce wanted as a Teen Mania partner. Morales says he had discretion over $10,000 in cash to buy imported flowers, chocolates, rare bread, candy, iPods, and other gifts for the Jakes family to find in their hotel suite, green room, and two Cadillac Escalade limousines.

Saunier, Teen Mania’s development director in 2011 and 2012, says she would solicit donations for specific projects, but “was never comfortable that we were doing the right things with those funds.” She raised her concerns to superiors and nothing changed. Luce ran in a December 2012 marathon “to raise awareness and support for reaching America’s 26 million teens with the gospel of Christ.” The effort generated about $250,000 in donations, but within months Luce spent $68,000 on campus carpeting projects, $45,000 to install a coffee shop, and $25,000 to build the new conference room. At least one employee resigned in protest.

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