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Is Prosperity Gospel for Saints or Sinners?
By Tom Toolen
WASHINGTON--A small but growing number of televangelists are living luxurious lives like Middle East potentates, instead of pastors serving God and their congregations.
Critics of this lifestyle say that the sight of many pastors living this way is a disgrace, and the evangelical church movement is coming apart at the seams over this issue.
One of those critics is Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who was prompted to pursue a Senate investigation of the high-spending televangelists three years ago.
However, Grassley, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, concluded the probe recently without coming to any firm conclusions about the behavior of the television ministers.
Instead, he named the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to oversee a discussion among all churches in the coming months to bring about real reform.
"Our committee did not have the staff to follow up in our investigation, and I believe it is better left to church and religious organizations to police themselves to bring about policies so the public can have greater confidence in their operations," Grassley said.
The senator said he did not have manpower or resources to issue and follow up on subpoenas compelling television ministers to release financial data about their organizations.
But insiders in Congress also say that Grassley's request for the churches to clean up their own houses carries with it a hidden threat that if they do not do so, then Congress may have to step in.
“If the ECFA can work with representatives from the various church and nonprofit communities to accomplish financial reform without resorting to legislation, it would be much better for all,” Grassley said.
Many observers are criticizing televangelists who brag about owning private jets, Rolls Royces, multi-million dollar waterfront homes in posh neighborhoods, Rolex watches and expensive foreign-tailored suits costing thousands of dollars.
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, two of the most influential prosperity preachers, are among those who have been criticized for their level of luxury spending.
Kenneth Copeland Ministries, which has a number of private jets, has even established the Kenneth Copeland Airport to serve the Fort Worth, Texas area.
In 2007, Kenneth Copeland was charged with using his $20 Cessna Citation X jet for his own personal vacations, as well as for his friends. However, the Copelands’ financial records have not been made available to the public.
Copeland and other television ministers are adherents of the prosperity gospel. Despite Senate investigations targeting this over-the-top behavior, the movement is still attracting pastors who claim that the Bible says Jesus encouraged all His followers to become wealthy.
“If a pastor with a weak moral streak sees these people getting away with their lavish lifestyles, he or she may say ‘why not me?’ and then there is another failing church we have to deal with,” said Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas, which had worked closely with the Senate probe.
Anthony and other ministers feel that the break in church ranks is growing by the day as televangelists show no sign of cutting down their out-of-control spending habits.
“We need meaningful reform on one hand,” said Anthony, “but many pastors are afraid of bringing in government action that could endanger religious tax exemption status.”
Religious organizations operate tax-free, without filing detailed annual reports that are mandatory for other non-profit groups and charities.
Nevertheless, the discontent about the prosperity gospel grows and especially rankles many African-American pastors, who believe Jesus was a poor preacher who helped the poor and rejected earthly riches.
The National Baptist Convention, whose 7.5 million members make it the nation's largest African-American congregation, roundly criticized many televangelic ministers as "people who have lost their way as pastors by substituting greed for love."
Two of televangelism’s biggest spenders—Bishop Eddie Long and the Rev. Creflo Dollar—basically stonewalled when asked for financial data. Both have their headquarters in Georgia.
The pastors ignored most calls for information from investigators, citing their rights as the heads of religious tax-exempt organizations, which are not compelled to provide information under church and state separation laws.
Long, who is facing sexual abuse charges by two young men in his congregation, runs his ministry "like a dictatorship, with the board of his organization containing one person—himself—since he never provided us with names of any other board members from 2004 through 2007,” said a senior Senate investigator.
“He did finally produce a list of board members for 2008, but it is meaningless since Long is president of the corporation running his enterprise, and can veto any resolution the board has to remove a director,” said the investigator who asked for anonymity since Grassley did not give permission to speak.
Grassley himself authorized the release of a 66-page report, but no further action against the high-flying pastors was recommended, except for the in-house investigation by an ECFA panel, made up of religious leaders of all denominations.
But investigators, both in Congress and in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), say that some official action should be taken to rein in pastors who are taking advantage of their tax-exempt status while many in their congregations are hurting from the economic recession.
As for Dollar, the investigator said, "his organization's lack of cooperation was blatant." In addition, Georgia officials say that Dollar does not have his organization—Creflo Dollar Ministries—listed with the Georgia Secretary of State, which is mandatory.
“But he does have the church website calling itself by that title, so we are not sure where he is legally registered as a nonprofit religious organization,” he added.
Records from the FAA show that Dollar often travels in a 1984 GulfStream jet, which is owned by a corporation called World Heir, Inc., of which Dollar is listed as chief executive and his wife, Taffi Dollar, as chief financial officer. He is also listed as traveling in other private jets, one of which is owned by Dollar's organization, World Changers Ministries.
Flights for Dollar recorded by Senate investigators showed that several have been for one-day trips to such Caribbean vacation resorts as St. Kitts and Nevis and Nassau, Bahamas.
As for residential dealings, the Fulton County (Georgia) property reports showed that Dollar and his wife took out loans totaling more than $1.6 million dollars on a house that is officially owned by World Changers Ministries. The house was sold—for no money under a quit claim deed—to World Changers by the minister and his wife in 1998.
Neither pastor responded to phone calls for comment from The Spiritual Herald.
The issue for all televangelists has deeply troubled other religious leaders who fear the attitude by pastors like Dollar and Long will lead to more stringent actions by government officials, especially the IRS, which oversees ministries that have multiple for-profit and nonprofit entities.
The danger to religious organizations of losing privacy for their tax-exempt charitable status has slowed down the zeal to take action against prosperity gospel advocates, however.
“We do not want to have the government intruding on legitimate religious organizations, which would violate the Constitution, but we have to find a way to stop pastors from going overboard if they use tax-exempt funds to buy expensive cars and jet planes,” said Dan Busby, ECFA president. “We agree with Sen. Grassley that voluntary, in-house meetings are the way to resolve this issue.”
Some of the issues to be discussed include possible limits on clergy housing allowances and clarification of tax rules on “love offerings” received by the clergy. These offerings are often used as pretexts by pastors to buy luxurious items like cars, boats and jets, claiming the donor wanted such purchases to occur.
Another issue the ECFA committee will look into is whether the IRS should create an advisory panel consisting of churches and other religious groups so opinions can be gleaned on pastors' actions.
Such in-house recommendations may have a great effect on limiting many leading televangelic pastors who have vast profitable entities, including music publishing and recording companies.
Currently, the monies for such activities are said to be integrated into activities on church properties "in an attempt to justify them," said one Senate investigator.
Also, several Senate probers said they did not find IRS form 990s for the churches, a form which other nonprofits are required to file.
The trouble with the in-house cleaning is that many pastors in the black church feel that it will not bring any meaningful results.
“You won't get any cooperation from the leading offenders like Eddie Long or Creflo Dollar if you don't put some legislative teeth in the attempt to reform this conduct," said Anthony, adding:
“The committee that was established to look into the issue won't have the input of Long, Dollar or any of the other televangelists. The only minister who has joined ECFA is Joyce Meyer.”
Anthony was referring to the six pastors investigated by Grassley's committee, who are: Bishop Eddie Long; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland; Rev. Creflo Dollar; Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church; Joyce Meyer Ministries; and Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church.
Only Meyer and Hinn cooperated fully with the Senate probe, with the other four pastors basically stonewalling the field investigators.
There will be an attempt in coming months to heal the rift in the evangelical church in America.
But many religious leaders are not taking any bets that real reform will be coming soon because too many ministers are frightened of overreaction by government in respect to religious charities.
They take heart in the words of ECFA officials.
“We hope solutions will be accomplished by improved self-regulation by churches and faith-based nonprofits themselves, and not by burdensome outside regulation,” said Michael Batts, who will oversee the ECFA committee examining practices of televangelist pastors.