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Adventist Today Attributes 3ABN's 2003 Donation Plummet to their Corporate Jets

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The following article came from the January/February 2004 issue of Adventist Today, and is no longer available on their website. We post it here because of its bearing on the claims of Danny Shelton's lawsuit over, and because we have still received no hint that Danny intends to back down from that lawsuit.

Three Angels Broadcasting Network: A High-Flying Organization

By Edwin A. Schwisow

Did the three angels of Revelation 14 have a stiff tailwind as they shouted their apocalyptic warnings from the skies?

The Bible doesn't spell out the weather report, but it does say the angels showed up in full voice—energetic, hardly out of breath—when they delivered their messages.

The same can't quite be said this year for their high-flying Illinois namesake, satellite television network Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN).

For the first time in its nearly two-decade history, donations to the independent Adventist programming and broadcasting ministry slipped last year, as 3ABN continues its quest to reach every nation, kindred, tongue and people on earth. And according to 3ABN president Danny Shelton, the reasons for the decline are by no means understood at headquarters. Some 3ABN supporters, however, believe that the answer may be written prominently on the inside fuselage walls of two executive jet aircraft (one now for sale, one leased) that 3ABN's founders have been using for more than a year for corporate travel.


3ABN's around-the-clock five-satellite ministry has grown from its start in the mid-1980s to a ministry receiving annual donations of about $15 million a year. Led by the country-voiced, sweet-singing Shelton and his demure, soft-spoken wife, Linda, 3ABN's story makes inspiring reading. Danny Shelton, who points to his high school diploma as the epitome of his formal education, is a poster boy for sanctified ambition. Some 3ABN supporters speak of him as "inspired" and almost messianic, and until last year, 3ABN's rate of ascent was measured in increments of angelic warp speed.

The Sheltons have established a new style in Adventist media, stripped of the aristocratic cool of a George Vandeman, the cerebral rumble of an H.M.S. Richards, or the austere reclusiveness of a William Fagal. The Sheltons present themselves, instead, as a simple, God-fearing family, dedicated to proclaiming Adventist Christianity around the world, 24 hours a day. And many who know the Sheltons personally say that what you see on television is what you get in person—authenticity, plainspokenness, dedication.

But 3ABN's growth from a mom-and-pop media outlet in North Frankfort, Ill., to a multimillion-dollar corporation is not happening without growing pains.

What once was seen as Danny Shelton's precocious, hands-on style is now interpreted by critics as heavy-handed control of 3ABN's small, compliant board. And the Sheltons' use of the executive jets reinforces a view that success has tainted the self-sacrificing spirit of 3ABN's first couple. Always a man who takes pride in keeping in touch with his supporters, Shelton knows he's not pleasing everyone these days—he admitted as much in a lengthy Dec. 29 telephone interview with Adventist Today. But he still believes he has been faithful to the vision God has given him and that 3ABN is operating in an impressively thrifty, efficient way.

"We had an Associated Press reporter here this month, and you could tell she was very skeptical about 3ABN. She stayed here several days, and we gave her access to everything, opened our books to her, gave her the information she wanted. By the end, her attitude had turned around completely, and we believe her story will be very positive."

The story of 3ABN is a positive one of outstanding growth—an old, old story the Sheltons tell often and well. Shelton, a builder and carpenter, saw the need to create a television network to spread the end-time gospel. By most accounts, he's delivered what he promised—simple, conservative, direct Bible preaching and music that calls audiences to conversion. Last year, 3ABN added around-the-clock Spanish-language programming and a 24-hour-a-day radio presence on satellite.

Shelton characterizes 3ABN programming as "more hard-hitting" than denominationally produced fare, and says 3ABN's status as an independent nonprofit insulates the church from criticism of being too critical of other Christian denominations—most notably Roman Catholicism. And he says he would welcome the advent of additional networks, of Adventist-oriented satellite programming—say, networks to meet the minds of intellectuals and liberals, Muslims and Hindus, New Age pagans, or secular American agnostics. The network, he says, reaches the world—but through programming designed primarily for an already Christianized viewership. But, he claims, there's plenty of room for other Adventist entrepreneurs to devise television ministries for other demographics.

By some counts, 3ABN is now the second-largest religious broadcasting television network in the world. And records show that thousands have found their way into Adventism by watching 3ABN telecasts. Many Adventist pastors point to viewers of 3ABN who have appeared at their church doors, eager and informed for baptism.

Economic Downturn

Given 3ABN's resilience, success, and impressive economic expansion during each of its first eighteen years, why the plateau or downturn in 2003? Danny Shelton says he has no easy answers and refuses to chalk it up to a slow economy or donor dissatisfaction. He says he needs time and outside help to sort things through.

"I've asked the Lord to show me if, perhaps, something I, Danny Shelton, am doing is the reason we're down this year. Frankly, I don't know the reasons, yet," he says.

But he's not meditating on these things to the detriment of his other duties. He continues to work hard to sign more agreements with cable outlets to carry 3ABN programming. Recent successes in placing 3ABN on cable in the southeastern United States have brought more than a million new potential viewers—a success that by all counts should add hundreds of new names to the 3ABN donor base.

High Flying

But observers are increasingly asking if Danny and Linda's use of corporate jets (one, a Mitsubishi Diamond, owned by 3ABN and now for sale; and another leased plane, a Cessna Citation) may contain elements of the answer to 3ABN's financial concerns.

At press time, Shelton still rejected that possibility: 3ABN receives about 1,500 letters a month from viewers, he says, and there is no indication from these letters that the planes have become an issue among donors. 3ABN's supporters understand that the Sheltons need to circulate, reach out, meet the people, he says. They want to see him and Linda, speak to them personally, share. He believes supporters understand that by using an executive plane, 3ABN can reach many more people much more effectively.

But others suggest that in using the planes, the Sheltons may be erasing the very credibility their visits are intended to stoke. Kermit Netteburg, now with the North American Division as assistant for communication and a man Shelton acknowledges as an acquaintance, noted last August that 3ABN's use of the plane seems to coincide directly with the decline of as much as a million dollars in annual donations.

But Netteburg also claims to empathize with 3ABN's decision to use the planes: "What we sometimes forget is that 3ABN is now a very big organization," Netteburg said. "To run a corporation this large takes resources. One thing I can tell you is that at a recent meeting, the Sheltons arrived on time, rested and ready to work, and were the only ones who were able to be home that night, to sleep in their own beds, ready for work the next day."

What the weary, and perhaps envious, Netteburg sees as an advantage, however, may be seen by others as self-indulgence—a trait not lightly tolerated in a denomination whose top executives do not now enjoy, and in fact never have enjoyed, regular use of jet-powered executive aircraft. A Shelton acquaintance who has been featured prominently on 3ABN in recent years, Adventist missionary pilot David L. Gates, echoes those thoughts. Son of a foreign missionary and subject of a recent biography published by the denomination's Pacific Press, the bone-thin Gates lives an austere life as a missionary to South America.

"Danny and I were talking, a while back, and he told me I needed a jet like his for the work I do," Gates remembers. "And my response was, 'Danny, I ask many people working with me to make tremendous sacrifices. And if I flew in a plane like yours, I would have no credibility among these people. Yes, in a practical sense I could use a jet. But as a leader, I have to stay close to the people, live as they live, travel as they travel. That's the only kind of leadership I know.' "

Gates's asceticism hardly represents the entire philosophical bandwidth of 3ABN supporters. But it captures an essential trait of Adventism that bears emphasizing—that Adventists by and large are hypercritical of the appearance of ostentation and privilege among those they see as called by God to service. Are the Sheltons losing touch with the mindset of their self-sacrificing donors?

The downturn in 3ABN donations was tacitly acknowledged in May 2003 in a general letter in which the usually positive Sheltons admitted that things just weren't going as well as they should, at least with 3ABN's Spanish-language programming venture. They said that donations had, indeed, reached a plateau and that developing the Spanish-language component was impossible unless funding took a turn for the better.

Meanwhile, in South America, an Adventist-affiliated group known as "A.D.Venir" (pronounced Ah Day VehnEER)—led by David Gates himself—was placing a competing Spanish-language programming service on satellite, at a cost of $1.5 million.

The times are indeed changing, as 3ABN struggles to find a management style that remains true to its self-proclaimed principles of thrift and accountability. It now directs an international empire that reaches most of the globe with multilingual signals on five satellites, from studios in America, Russia and the Philippines. In the process, the planes may be costing 3ABN a lot more than fuel, insurance and airport fees.

Signs of the Times

About 3,000 Adventist businessmen and their families gathered last August to celebrate the annual divisionwide convention of Adventist-laymen's Services and Industries (ASI), of which 3ABN is a prominent member. The network commanded a well-lit corner booth on the ASI exhibit floor—clearly, the most often-visited booth among the hundreds of exhibitors.

Shelton himself, in casual attire, showed up sporadically at the booth, but he seemed preoccupied with other matters. His staff told visitors that because of overwhelming responsibilities—3ABN was taping or televising live several convention plenary sessions—Shelton's availability to talk personally with them would be limited.

As I circulated among the scores of booths on the exhibit floor, several prominent exhibitors, of their own accord, volunteered their disappointment with 3ABN's decision to acquire and operate the planes. They knew me for my 26 years with Adventist media in the North Pacific Union, much of it during the halcyon years of 3ABN's growth. I had helped organize large broadcasting conventions in the Northwest, bringing together media-minded pastors, technicians, laymen and church executives—including former General Conference president Robert Folkenberg.

During those conventions, we'd given 3ABN supporters unlimited time to explain how local groups could sponsor low-power television stations to rebroadcast the 3ABN signal. Even today, 3ABN acknowledges that the Pacific Northwest has the highest concentration of facilities rebroadcasting their signal of any union territory in North America.

I was—and am—considered supportive of the vision of 3ABN and well-informed on media matters, and it was entirely natural for men such as retired pastor/evangelist Don Gray of Vancouver, Wash., to tell me quietly, "The plane is hurting Danny, I'm afraid. He should just get rid of it." Several other ASI members made similar comments—not as a condemnation of 3ABN, but in the sorrowful, hushed tones of a relative lamenting a loved one who continues to refuse medical treatment for a dread disease.

When, sometime later, I asked Shelton himself about the possibility that his traveling arrangements were hurting the 3ABN cause, he dismissed it out of hand—as he apparently does with others who raise the issue. He is determined, he said, to weather any turbulence—in fact, he says there is no turbulence—regarding the planes.

He explained to me that the planes make it possible for him and Linda to meet more people, more often. That's what the Adventist people want and expect, he said. And in the post-911 era, traveling by common carrier simply takes too much time and limits him and his wife to too few visits to too few churches and rallies across the land.

Indeed, since acquiring the aircraft, 3ABN's weekend rallies have increased markedly in frequency—a fact that ordinarily would stimulate donations to the cause. But the opposite has occurred.

The network is wrestling to remain in contact with the down-home values and concerns of its donors—that much is clear. But now, as it emerges as a worldwide corporation, the bonds of credibility seem strained. And the plane is not the only problem.

It doesn't help that word is out that the Sheltons' salaries exceed those of even the highest-paid administrative ministers in the Adventist Church (a charge Danny Shelton categorically denies, citing figures that show he personally earned less than $50,000 last year and that he declined to accept any retirement benefits.)

But 3ABN's audited statements for calendar years 2001 and 2002 show that the decrease in salary must be quite recent, as Shelton is quoted on those documents as earning more than $60,000 a year.

All told, the temperature is rising in the cockpit. And Danny Shelton's voluntary forfeiture of part of his salary suggests he's feeling at least some of the heat. But, is lopping off $700 or $800 from his monthly paycheck going to be enough to fight the perception that the Sheltons have succumbed to the siren call of creature comforts and opulence?

What of the Future?

No one questions the genius of Danny Shelton and the on-screen appeal of his wife and family members. No one disputes that the Sheltons have accomplished what no other Adventist dared attempt.

But in my recent conversation with Shelton, one 60-second aside he volunteered in the course of our two-hour interview seemed to reveal more about the issue than all of the other minutes combined. Speaking of the many times 3ABN has been criticized, he offered: "It is actually at the times when we are under greatest attack that we receive the most donations. Those who have attacked us have actually helped us grow."

It was a challenge—and perhaps in writing this article with its references to the couple's high-flying ways, I have already fallen into the negative column of the Sheltons' esteem. But I hope not. I write as a friend and well-wisher, representing what must surely be scores of voices in Adventism who fear writing that letter, or letters, to 3ABN.

Why? Do they fear losing Danny's friendship or further invitations to promote their own ministries via 3ABN? I don't know, and Danny assured me in our interview that his supporters are fearless in criticizing 3ABN. So, what gives? What may well be happening is that Shelton has not yet fully grasped that times are changing rapidly for 3ABN. For most of his media career, Danny Shelton has thrived on controversy—as the blue-eyed David defending against heavy-browed Goliaths such as the General Conference, competing ministries, and local county leaders who recently challenged 3ABN's nonprofit credentials.

But today, 3ABN is neither small nor, apparently, invulnerable. And in what some donors see as another sign of the times, 3ABN has let out the word that it now receives more donated money than any other Adventist media ministry, including the venerable Voice of Prophecy and It Is Written programs.

While technically correct, the information reinforces a view that 3ABN's little David may be drinking too eagerly from the brook of its own success, paying less attention to selecting the thrifty, smooth stones that have contributed to its rise to prominence.

The plane, the salary, the strong personal control, the bit about being biggest—all form the borders of what could develop into a less-than-flattering jigsaw portrait of a modern 3ABN Goliath.

The Sheltons are by no means unaware of at least some of these issues. They're trying to respond to the challenge, but 2003 may well go down as the year they prescribed the wrong medication for, essentially, the right problems.

They understand that 3ABN's bigness is gnawing at the critical essence of its appeal—the hominess, the access, the Mr. Rogerliness. And they also sense that controversy and attacks by others are not quite the allies they were when 3ABN was a babe in arms.

What Danny seems one moment to accept—and the next to deny—is that 3ABN is not what it used to be. It's bigger, it's stronger, its influence is worldwide. And with that power comes a new image—an impersonality far more vulnerable to criticism, where rumors can take on lives of their own and brood for decades in the recesses of the public subconscious.

The Sheltons believe their planes help them bolster their repartee with the Adventist public, when in fact the aircraft may be eloquently contradicting the very message they were intended to help deliver.

One supporter I spoke with at the ASI convention suggested that the Sheltons would do well to study the success of the late Wal-Mart founder, Arkansan Sam Walton. Walton, by all accounts, recognized that as his company matured, his leadership role was not to micromanage the company and sign every purchase order (as Danny Shelton told me he does for 3ABN) but to preserve at all costs the image of what Wal-Mart stands for: "We like you so much, we want to save you lots of money."

Like Walton, Shelton is an honor graduate of the Horatio Alger School of Success. And like Walton, Danny Shelton's father was an Arkansan, a fact attested by Danny's faint southern accent.

And, like Wal-Mart on the retailing scene, 3ABN has now surpassed its Adventist media rivals. Walton kept alive the "We like you so much, we want to save you lots of money" motif by driving his pick-up—not a jet-propelled vehicle, by all accounts—and popping in ad hoc to check up on his outlets and tell the faithful that the sky was the limit.

Though a billionaire in stock holdings, Walton dodged the pretenses of privilege and through example told the people that Wal-Mart was still in the down-home, neighborly business of saving its customers money. Supporters of 3ABN seem to be asking the Sheltons for the same assurances. They want to hear, in word and example, that 3ABN is still exclusively in the business of saving its viewers' souls. And the Sheltons are learning that spelling out that message for a multimillion-dollar corporation is not a task for the symbolically faint of heart.

The task ahead could, in fact, call for cutting back some travel mileage and working harder to pack more symbolism into fewer visits—as Ronald Reagan did during his presidency.

Yes, there's been a new kind of turbulence at 3ABN. No one is passing out parachutes, and no one is calling for mid-air replacement of the pilot—yet. But the organization is discovering, as St. Paul learned long ago, that though all things may be lawful, not all things are expedient, or appropriate, in the grander scheme. The network can still recapture its image as the beloved David, slaying the giants of unbelief, greed, hypocrisy, and worldly entitlement with the thrifty sling of self-sacrifice.

But it will never reach the whole world with the gospel if it loses the soul of its personality. Now would be an excellent time to divest the planes—citing financial constraints.

The gesture would play well in the conservative provinces—in fact, the communal sigh of relief would be heard across the land. It's a compelling move that could do wonders for the bottom line in 2004. It's a thought the Sheltons might do well to prayerfully ponder, the next time they're in the skies.

Edwin A. Schwisow was public relations officer for the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He now lives in Sandy, Ore., where he publishes books and writes for magazines.

The bottom line did indeed improve dramatically in 2004, but it was the wife that was divested rather than the plane.

"3ABN Defended by Board Member"

Dr. Walt Thompson, chairman of the 3ABN Board, responds to the above article.

Letters to the Editor

March 1, 2004 - 12:00pm - Editors


The article entitled, Three Angels Broadcasting Network: A High-Flying Organization, by Edwin A. Schwisow (AT Jan/Feb 2004) was most interesting.

Brother Schwisow has clearly made his case, and I will assume with high motives, to challenge 3ABN to more seriously consider its decisions and be even more effective in its expressed mission. Please allow me to speak to just a few of his observations.

It is true. We the members of the board of 3ABN are only human and it is true we are not many in number. While some might consider this a deficiency, our board is efficient, flexible and able to respond to opportunity and need—an advantage many larger boards might envy. Brother Schwisow may be correct in noting that some critics interpret our governance as compliant with Danny's heavy-handed control. So be it! In fact, any board that functions according to the dictates of its critics is already in trouble. The truth is that 3ABN and Danny have an excellent working relationship. We do not micromanage—by design. We have perceived our role as giving him room to move as the Spirit of the Lord directs—having a common understanding that with the free reign there is also responsibility for action. We are listened to and heard when we have advice and counsel, and are available to him when he has needs and concerns. It is difficult for me to conceive a better model for success than this. In addition, Danny has a number of other counselors whom he consults frequently—though unofficial, these serve much as an advisory board might serve.

The article makes note of Danny's exorbitant salary—exceeding the salaries of even the highest paid administrators of the Adventist church. In face, we have patterned 3ABN salaries after the church with the exception we do not provide most of the benefits the Adventist church provides for its workers. Three of our board members are administrators within the organized church and can vouch for this fact. It is also a fact that many of the royalties on music and publications made by the Sheltons are donated to the ministry. During the hearings regarding taxing 3ABN properties at the State last year the prosecution pressed the defense very hard attempting to find evidence that Danny and Linda were hiding something about their income—like many other TV ministers. They found nothing; in fact, they expressed amazement with the economy with which 3ABN and its administration operate.

Finally, the last point I wish to make, and the one triggering the article: the commercial jet. My comments will be short. The board has been involved in all of the discussions and planning regarding the planes. Our discussions and decisions have been deliberate. Our board has only one objective, i.e., to be faithful to the proclamation of the Three Angels Message to the world in preparation for the return of Jesus. We believe God has called us to this ministry and is faithful to his promises to his servants. We have not made our decisions carelessly, nor without divine petition for wisdom. I believe the board would agree with me in saying that God is not generally governed by public opinion, nor is He limited in his provisions. Furthermore, when we look at the world around us and see it spiraling rapidly downward to oblivion, it is inconceivable to me that God would withhold any good thing from His servants who have accepted the burden He has commissioned. And this includes airplanes!

Having said that, the record of heaven is true, God does discipline his children when needed and in ways that will ultimately glorify His name. Throughout the twenty years of its life, God has kept a close hand on 3ABN, opening and closing doors as only He understands. Undoubtedly there is a reason for the reduced income of the past year. It is our responsibility to seek the reason and correct it when discovered—assuming that is the reason for the financial reduction. Certainly we are all human and very capable of misinterpreting the signals from heaven. We are involved in a universal conflict between God and Satan that is real. We expect conflict, and hope to grow the stronger because of it. And certainly we are grateful for those of our critics who honestly desire to see the cause of God go foreword to glory. From these we covet not only admonition, but earnest prayer for guidance from the Almighty as well.

Walter Thompson, M.D., chair of the 3ABN board of directors, lives in Burr Ridge, Illinois.

Kermit Netteburg Corrects a Possible Misconception

The article's reference to Netteburg's thoughts was ambiguous enough that a misunderstanding could arise. hence the following clarification.

It should be noted that the article's statement about "the decline of as much as a million dollars in annual donations" does not coincide with 3ABN's Form 990's, which document more than $3 million decline in donations in 2003.

Letters to the Editor

May 1, 2004 - 12:00pm - Editors


3ABN Conversation Misquoted

This letter is in response to your January/February article on 3ABN, which I saw only [in late May]. The article incorrectly attributed information to me. The last paragraph on page 11 says Kermit Netteburg noted that 3ABN's use of a corporate jet seems to coincide with 3ABN's loss of a million dollars in annual donations.

I recall the conversation between Ed Schwisow and myself quite differently. Ed asked me about a drop of $1 million dollars in 3ABN contributions, and I said I didn't know about 3ABN finances. I didn't add that I'm not part of the board, nor do I have any relationship with 3ABN that would give me access to their donation records or their finances. The crucial point is that I did not confirm that 3ABN had lost $1 million in contributions—nor could I have done so.

Kermit L. Netteburg, assistant to the president, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists
Silver Spring, Md.

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