The Dangerous Legal Structures of Hillsong Church

(Photo: Hillsong founder Brian Houston in the documentary “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed”)

Jesus once told a parable about two different people constructing houses. One built on a foundation of stone and the other on sand. When the rains came the house built on sand collapsed. The foundation was critical for a lasting home. In the parable, the foundation represented the words of Jesus and obeying them.

In a similar manner Hillsong Church was constructed on a foundation of sand.

Australian pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston founded Hillsong in Australia and launched a bold strategy to plant churches internationally.

In 2010, the legal structure for Hillsong in the United States was being constructed. Attorney Stephen Lentz, father of Carl Lentz who would become Hillsong’s most popular American pastor, drew up the articles of incorporation for Hillsong Ministries USA, Inc. and used language common to many televangelist churches’ governing documents. Stephen Lentz wrote in Article 6, “The Corporation shall have no members.”

These words started appearing frequently in church corporation documents in the 1990s. In 1994, before Joel Osteen became pastor, Lakewood Church restated its articles of incorporation with the words “The corporation elects to have no members.”

The churches of televangelists Mike Murdock, Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar also adopted similar language. Ironically, the bylaws of Grace Community Church, pastored by well known Hillsong critic John MacArthur, use the exact same words as Hillsong Ministries USA: “The Corporation shall have no members.”

This odd phrase prevents church attendees from being “corporate members”, which means that church attendees have no voting rights in the church. Instead, key decision making is restricted to the church board of directors or church elders.

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Documentary Investigates Charismatic Hillsong Church

Trinity Foundation staff investigator Barry Bowen was interviewed for the new documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed.

The three-episode documentary series focuses critical attention on the celebrity-driven church famous for its popular worship music and charismatic preachers Brian Houston and Carl Lentz.

Houston is currently facing a three-week court hearing in Australia. Houston has been accused of failing to report his father, deceased pastor Frank Houston, to authorities for sexually abusing children.

Former members illuminate the dark side of Hillsong by sharing their stories.

The documentary is viewable at the Discovery Network’s online streaming website Discovery+ . A free one-trial is available for people to sign up and view the documentary.

Barry explained how Hillsong registered churches in America as limited liability companies and acquired millions of dollars of real estate in Maricopa County, Arizona. More details about Hillsong’s governance model is found in our article The Dangerous Legal Structure of Hillsong Church.

One of our favorite activities at Trinity Foundation is assisting journalists and filmmakers in investigating abuses of religious organizations. So if you are a journalist and need help uncovering the paper trail of a pastor or priest, church or ministry, send us an email or call us.

Once Upon a Time NRB Promoted Financial Transparency

 

Thirty-five years ago, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) faced its biggest public relations scandal. Televangelist Jim Bakker resigned from the PTL Television Network after news media revealed hush money was paid to Jessica Hahn so that she wouldn’t reveal his affair.

Bakker’s local newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, tenaciously investigated the flamboyant preacher, revealing details of his extravagant lifestyle.
In 1989, NRB created the Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission (EFICOM) in response to the Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals.

NRB’s attempt at self-regulation was short-lived. EFICOM was shut down in 1993.

Last week Christian media professionals from around the world gathered at the NRB annual convention in Nashville at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

Trinity Foundation reviewed a list of speakers, sponsors and supporting organizations featured at the convention, discovering two non-profits not filing a Form 990 with the IRS.

The Form 990 itemizes revenues, provides a breakdown of total expenses, and reveals salaries of highest paid officers at non-profit organizations. (Churches, synagogues and mosques are exempt from reporting.)

Dave Kubal, one of the conference speakers, serves as president of Intercessors for America. According to the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search, Kubal’s organization stopped filing a Form 990 after 2016. Intercessors for America received almost $1 million in donations during the last year it reported to the IRS.

Intercessors for America, is lucky that its tax-exempt status has not been revoked. According to IRS rules, a non-profit should lose its tax-exempt status after not filing a Form 990 for three consecutive years.

The other non-profit failing to file a Form 990 is International Evangelism Outreach. The organization’s president, Eliudi Issangya, participated in NRB’s Great Commission Forum. Because International Evangelism Outreach does not file a Form 990, there is no public reporting of American donations to the Tanzania-based ministry.

If NRB wants its members to be more transparent, it should begin a screening process for convention speakers and participants which checks for publicly available Form 990s or publicly available audited financial statements.

If NRB’s leadership had real discernment, they would be doing everything possible to clean up religious broadcasting. Unfortunately, NRB is unprepared to face the next wave of televangelist scandals.

In fact, there is currently a televangelist under investigation suspected of crimes that would make Bakker’s sins look tame.

Million Dollar Homes Become Status Symbols of Televangelists and Pastors

By Barry Bowen and Pete Evans, Trinity Foundation


(Photo: Former home of faith healer David Turner, from Realtor.com)

Donors, where is the money going?

When a televangelist’s ministry or pastor’s church owns a private jet, you can almost be certain the leader lives in a mansion. That is one of the lessons Trinity Foundation has learned from investigating religious fraud and excess for more than 30 years.

In April 2021 the Houston Chronicle’s Jay Root asked Trinity Foundation for assistance on an article series about church parsonages in Texas. Trinity Foundation compiled a list of megachurches and large media ministries in the state and then searched for parsonages and homes of pastors and ministry leaders.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle examined the state tax code and filed open records requests with county appraisal districts seeking lists of parsonages.

Root’s thorough investigation uncovered startling evidence of pastors living extravagantly: “A months-long Houston Chronicle investigation of ministers’ tax-free residences found no shortage of extravagant homes in high-dollar locales. At least two dozen were worth over $1 million even using the artificially low values that exempt properties typically carry.”

If you are keeping track, that is at least 24 parsonages in Texas worth more than $1 million.

Trinity Foundation also investigated pastor and ministry housing in other states, discovering multi-million dollar homes of several televangelists and pastors who have received little media scrutiny. It’s time to present some of our findings.

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Requiring Restitution for Church Criminals

After pleading guilty to a massive crime operation that involved wire fraud and bank fraud, Charles Sebesta was ordered last year to pay back the amount stolen from his church: $11,438,213. Sebesta also received 130 month prison sentence.

A Department of Justice press release explained the crimes: “Having wrested operational and financial control of the Church from its elderly members by 2006, [Sebesta] began a 10-year spree in which he treated the Church and its considerable assets as his own personal piggy bank.”

After becoming chairman of the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, of Los Angeles, Sebesta forged check signatures and created a fake company, Sky Blue Environmental, to send payments.

The church refused to excuse the criminal behavior of its chairman and contacted law enforcement. As a result, Sebesta was required to pay restitution. The court ruling mirrored biblical justice which required thieves to pay back their victims. Such justice is often denied when churches and ministries refuse to file charges against pastors and financial secretaries committing financial crimes.

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The Prophecy Business: There’s Money to be Made Lying and Exaggerating God’s Promises

Every January so-called prophets share their prophecies for the New Year, which are then published on the Elijah List, a prophecy news website.

Recently, Charismatic Bible teacher Jan Hamon proclaimed, “I decree this will be my double portion year!”

For 2022, Chuck Pierce prophesied, “I am neutralizing your chromosomes from iniquitous patterns.” Pierce is one of America’s highest paid “prophets” and was compensated $1.2 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2020, which shows the prophecy business pays its best known practitioners very well.

When media began reporting Russian President Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine, the so-called prophets exploited the news. Pastor Hank Kunneman claimed that God said, “I’ve been speaking to you, Putin, and you are listening.” Hank, did God tell Putin to attack Ukraine?

Continue reading “The Prophecy Business: There’s Money to be Made Lying and Exaggerating God’s Promises”

Houston Chronicle Investigates Parsonages Tax Exemption Abuses

(Photo: Fort Worth-area based televangelist Kenneth Copeland’s tax-exempt parsonage is located in Newark, Texas, and owned by Eagle Mountain International Church.)

After months of investigating tax loopholes that benefit businesses at the expense of taxpayers for its Unfair Burden article series, the Houston Chronicle turned its attention to church parsonages, which are mostly tax-exempt in Texas.

Key findings:

  • “The state’s most populous counties identified 2,683 parsonages worth about $1 billion, costing other residents who must fund school districts and local governments $16 million every year.”
  • “There is no dollar limit to a parsonage’s tax exemption. At least 28 of the clergy residences were worth more than $1 million.”
  • “Across Texas’ largest counties, the Chronicle identified more than 30 parsonages for which appraisers had granted the 100 percent tax break even though they exceed the law’s 1-acre limit.”

In May, Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Jay Root contacted Trinity Foundation for assistance on the article series. It was a learning experience for all involved.  The main one Trinity Foundation helped with was the fourth in their series, focusing in on Kenneth Copeland’s parsonage and organization.

The Houston Chronicle submitted Open Records requests to Texas county appraisal districts, examined state tax code requirements to be recognized as a parsonage, and interviewed county appraisers after identifying parsonages that violated state law by covering more than one acre of land.

Staff photographers drove across the state taking pictures of parsonages. As a result, the Houston Chronicle has produced some of the best religion news coverage of 2021.

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Paula White Promotes Cult Leader Mrs. Moon

On December 5th, televangelist Paula White spoke at a prayer rally in South Korea on behalf of Hak Ja Han (better known as Mrs. Moon or True Mother), the widow of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon.

In her opening remarks, White said, “What a great joy and honor it is to be here today giving honor to the distinguished faith leaders and to all those that are serving in capacity of religion and faith and making a tremendous difference. I am honored to participate in this historic interfaith prayer rally for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. I want to take a moment and honor, as well as encourage, Mother Moon for her great work as a spiritual leader who loves the LORD and seeks to carry out and to comfort the heart of God in all the areas of conflict in the world. She is truly a jewel from God.”

Before White spoke, a water ceremony for peace was held. The Unification Church has been observing this ritual since 1985.

Continue reading “Paula White Promotes Cult Leader Mrs. Moon”

Six Ministry Jets Fly to Texas for Televangelist Marcus Lamb Funeral; Memorial Highlights

December 6th was a busy day for ministry aircraft as Pastor Planes (Instagram and Twitter) tracked 12 aircraft making 24 flights.

Seven ministry aircraft, of which six were jets, flew to airports in the Dallas-Fort Worth area carrying televangelists to pay last respects and attend the memorial service of Marcus Lamb, the founder of prosperity-gospel promoting Daystar Television Network, who died of Covid on November 30th after staunchly advocating resisting the Covid vaccine.

Trinity Foundation investigator Pete Evans observed limousines picking up two celebrity preachers after their jets landed.

Photo: A close-up view of the Dallas-Fort Worth area shows two ministry jets and a Beechcraft King Air F90 landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, three jets landed at Fort Worth Alliance Airport and one jet landed at Fort Worth Meacham Airport.

Continue reading “Six Ministry Jets Fly to Texas for Televangelist Marcus Lamb Funeral; Memorial Highlights”

GoFundMe Campaign! Seeking Funding for New Investigative Project

Photo: November 30th is National Giving Day. Trinity Foundation joins a host of non-profit organizations raising funds on this day. Please check out our GoFundMe page.

 


(New video about why we investigate televangelists)
Recently we initiated a new project that will captivate national news media, and attempt to send shock waves through America’s church community and beyond.

We want to go for real impact:  The digital equivalent of Luther’s 95 thesis on the Wittenberg Castle Cathedral door.

Trinity Foundation’s new investigative project takes aim at a particular method of fraud used in televangelist fundraising.  We are developing a strategy to expose this fraud so that potential donors won’t be deceived by the dishonest words of religious conmen.

To accomplish this goal, we need to bring new people on board. Trinity Foundation needs to hire an additional investigator or two, but currently we lack the financial means to do so.

Our new personnel would assist in updating our “Governance Project”; will research the assets of televangelists and mega-church pastors; and will research legal strategies for establishing precedent-setting civil and criminal court cases to protect the public from religious fraud.

Our founder, Ole Anthony, called for a 3rd wave of Christianity, but first the church at large needs to be held accountable and re-introduce transparency, accountability, and integrity—something that is sorely lacking in large media ministries and mega-churches.

Our team excels in open-source investigations, digging through online data for possible fraud, money laundering, and self-dealing.  We track ministry and televangelist aircraft and verify ownership.  Preacher Planes—a new Trinity Foundation daily blog on Instagram and Twitter—keeps this in the public’s eye.

We’ve created this GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the new project and attempt to cover our entire 2022 budget. Please consider financially supporting our investigations.

GoFundMe donors will receive periodic updates about the project and our investigations.