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CUT leaders admit group living beyond its means

Bozeman Chronicle/March 17, 1998
By Karin Ronnow

LIVINGSTON -- The Church Universal and Triumphant 's tumble from its utopian glory days to its present troubled times has many followers scratching their heads.

They are anxious about the future, but they are also wondering where all their money, in many cases their life savings, has gone.

Church leaders now admit that for many years, the group was living beyond its means.

Granted, it cost a lot of money to operate a 12,000 acre ranch, house and feed the staff, stock the fallout shelters, publish literature and hold conferences to explain the teaching and recruit followers, coddle the guru and feed and house her family.

But as a result of such extravagance, the organization has become a skeleton of its former self, financially and spiritually, said ex member Peter Arnone, who joined the group in 1970 and left 20 years later. And the ''re engineering'' led by church President Gilbert Cleirbaut is driven by business oriented theories that may help the organization stay alive, but is pushing members out the door.

''The church never had enough money ... . But now it is an organization driven by money,'' he said. ''A church is not a business. Sure, it needs certain business principles, but the reorganization is injecting so much (corporate) psychobabble that the reason so many people joined this so called 'God inspired' movement'' is disappearing.

''My motivation for coming into the church, as it was for many others, is to know, love, serve and understand God. If this is what people want, so be it. But this is not the church I joined.''

For years the money poured in. It came from tithes. Ten percent of all members' income was expected. Literature said giving these ''love offerings'' would help the group grow.

Money also came from ''secret donations,'' which were supposed to return to members in spiritual benefits multiplied.

And money came from real estate the group bought and sold as it moved from Colorado to California to its current headquarters in Montana near Yellowstone National Park.

But the money was being spent as fast as it came through the door to circulate church related teachings, but also, former members said, to pay for the leaders' opulent lifestyles. The way the guru and her family lived, compared to that of her ''chelas,'' or followers, was like ''night and day,'' Arnone said.

Staff housing in California often had 10 people stacked up in a one bedroom apartment while the spiritual head of the church, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, indulged in her taste for nice things, like fine clothes, jewels, elegant household details, a second home and travel, he said.

''She was the head of the organization, she deserved nice things,'' Arnone said. ''The church has an explanation for everything. They said, 'She meets dignitaries from all over the world and needs to make an elegant presentation.' But she lived an ostentatious lifestyle compared to the way her staff was living.''

The tax exempt church went through millions of dollars. By the late 1990s, the organization could not even give Cleirbaut a figure for an annual budget. The Belgian born management consultant insisted on better bookkeeping.

''For the first time in the last eight years, we are living within our limits,'' Cleirbaut said. ''We were spending another $120,000 a month extra besides the money we were earning. That is over. I cannot run an organization that does not live within its limits.''


Now, Cleirbaut said, the church's finances are an open book.

According to the first, and so far the only, annual report, in 1996:

€ Money in: Revenues dropped 2 percent, from $8.3 million to $8.2 million, due to a decrease in sales from $1.9 million to $1.8 million and a decrease in contributions from $4.8 million to $4.5 million. Revenues included member contributions, donations and tithes; cash from the sale of publications; conference tuition and fees; and income from property rentals.

€ Money out: Expenses were up 10 percent, from $8 million to $8.9 million. The increase was attributed to staff salaries and benefits (workers now have a health care plan) rising from $1.9 million to $2.3 million; increased cost of furniture and equipment; and administrative costs that increased 10 percent, from $4.2 to $4.7 million.

The new, leaner church still needs money, but the annual budget has dropped to $7.6 million, Cleirbaut said.

One of the places he trimmed was the staff. Jobs were cut and free room and board were eliminated. For those who stayed, there was a salary increase and health care package.

Compared to the 1970s, when staff members made about $15 per month, base pay is now $1,250 per month, Cleirbaut said.

The salary increase ''evolved from the completely spartan plan,'' said Murray Steinman, vice president of communications for the church.

Historically, ''many of the staff members never got paid enough,'' Arnone recalled. Any family or medical crisis often required ''time off'' to go and find another job and make extra money.

That complicated things on the ranch, Cleirbaut said. Staff members were holding down one, two, sometimes three outside jobs in order to make enough money. As a result, members were either too tired or not available to help with church projects when called upon.

''All of them were working outside and if you needed them, no one was there,'' he said. ''Why do you need these people? Why are they here? They are consuming food, housing, things like that. What benefit are they doing? None. Because they are all working outside.

''Let's give the people that are working here what they need. The people that are not working here, let them go on with their lives.''

He said once the church made it clear that leaving staff for ''the outside'' would not have spiritual consequences, hundreds of staff members moved on.


Many of those who left the ranch made the transition by getting involved in a Church Universal and Triumphant teaching center or study group elsewhere. Cleirbaut said building that external structure away from the ranch headquarters is part of the cost of reorganizing.

''We have to start spending money to create a structure for a global organization,'' Cleirbaut said.

The money is going to come from several places, he said.

First, the church is putting more energy into selling the teachings, he said. ''I personally believe we are sitting on a gold mine,'' Cleirbaut said. ''Our teachings are a gold mine.''

Second, the group is selling off its property. Lots in the once members only subdivisions are on the market, and the church is working out a deal with the U.S. Forest Service to buy the majority of the Royal Teton Ranch.

''The assets that we have in the land over here cannot be used in a day to day basis,'' Cleirbaut said.

The sale of the ranch prompts members most of whom sold virtually everything they had to help the church buy the new holy land to question what the group's leaders will do with the $15 million from the sale.

Cleirbaut said he is cognizant of members' investments.

''What I don't want to do is say, hallelujah, now we have money and we're going to spend it,'' Cleirbaut said. ''I am a very conservative spender. I really want to put money in our reserves. I'd like to put $6 million in there.

''We can't forget that the money that we have on this asset is not our money. It's money from the field, from our people. We have to give back to them what they give to us.''

And new members are being recruited in Russia, Europe and South America, which also helps with the cash flow.

The church has always targeted people who made money, Arnone said. Wealthy members were favored, admitted to inner circles. ''They had more than an average personal relationship with Elizabeth,'' he said.

But not everyone believes that Cleirbaut's approach to revamping the Church Universal and Triumphant will create an organization with the staying power needed to thrive into the next century.

''The church is clearly sealing their fate. People are not looking for a corporate God,'' Arnone said. ''The heart and soul of this group was the community spirit. And now, for a lot of people, that is gone.''

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