Checkbooks, Bank Cards and Bank Statements Reveal Pastor Priorities: Pastor James MacDonald and the Ethics of Gift Giving

(Photo: PO Box and bank routing number redacted. Reimbursement check written by James MacDonald’s executive assistant Sharon Kostal.)

Note: This is the first article in a series examining financial records and receipts for pastors and religious organizations. Future articles will explore travel expenses and per diem expenses.

“It has been said, ‘Show me a person’s checkbook and I can tell you what he cares about.'” – Social Action, 1964

James MacDonald, the controversial former pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC), is attempting to restore his reputation.   In July, MacDonald posted on his website copies of checks as proof that he reimbursed (HBC) for personal expenses incurred during his time as pastor. One reimbursement check, dated December 28, 2018, was for $27,172.39!

The checks challenged a claim that MacDonald failed to reimburse the church.

MacDonald also provided monthly lists of church financial transactions revealing the cost of airline tickets, charter aircraft service and gifts to pastors.

Concerned church donors and religion reporters rarely have access to this kind of financial information.

Monthly statements disclosed that HBC and MacDonald’s media ministry Walk in the Word shared the cost of purchasing more than $1,000 of cufflinks for church employees. Other transactions included the purchase of more than $1,500 in gifts from Bloomingdales for a Greg Laurie marriage conference and $10,683.09 spent on taxidermy in the first half of 2016.

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Privacy Laws Prevent Financial Transparency, Hurt Efforts to Investigate Religious Fraud

In the name of privacy, laws often protect devious administrators working inside religious non-profit organizations and churches. Journalists and concerned donors are denied access to critical government information.

Let’s look at three examples.

  • Money Trail Not Available

During the Great Depression, religious book publisher Zondervan launched a small Christian bookstore. The little retail business went through several name changes and grew into America’s largest religious bookstore chain, Family Christian Stores.

Marketplace changes, brought about by digital song downloads from Apple and book sales through Amazon, resulted in Family Christian’s sales declining.

In 2013, as Family Christian Stores reorganized to form a non-profit organization, Family Christian TR, LLC was registered in the island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, famous for its offshore banking. Two years later, Family Christian filed for bankruptcy and the financial trust ceased operation.

Family Christian’s bankruptcy hurt numerous publishers of books, CDs and DVDs as the organization failed to pay distributors for product.

Is it possible that some revenues, which would have compensated distributers, were embezzled and then transferred to the aforementioned account as a tax haven?

Meanwhile, unconfirmed allegations of money laundering by deceased televangelists also persist.

There may exist a paper trail providing evidence of financial crimes. Banks are required to report customers making deposits of $10,000 or more in cash. However, these Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) are protected by the Bank Secrecy Act and cannot be obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests.

Congress could amend the Bank Secrecy Act to allow journalists to submit FOIA requests to the Treasury Department for SAR of deceased individuals and companies no longer in operation.

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After Preaching for Christians to Expect Divine Healing, Kenneth Copeland Admits Pacemaker

(Photo: Kenneth Copeland preaching on August 1, 2022)

During this year’s Southwest Believers Convention in Fort Worth, televangelist Kenneth Copeland announced that his wife Gloria would not be in attendance because of her health. Kenneth explained that early in their marriage, over 50 years ago, Gloria received a traumatic brain injury during a car accident.

Kenneth also revealed he uses a pacemaker because of an irregular  heartbeat.

These confessions are at odds with the Copelands’ theology.

For decades, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland have preached that it is God’s will to heal all Christians, but sin and unbelief prevent many healings.

These statements are easy to find in sermon videos on YouTube and in ministry articles. The documentary Suffer the Children critically examines the health and wealth gospel of the Copelands.

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Who Can Fire the Pastor?

(Photo: Church governance models determine whether church “members”  or board members can remove a pastor or priest.)

“Who can fire the pastor?”  It’s a key question to ask when investigating the power structure of churches and ministries as a growing number of pastors adopt barriers to accountability which prevent them from being fired.

Sometimes corrupt pastors are protected by family members and yes men serving on church boards or corporation documents providing dictatorial powers.

Church articles of incorporation and church bylaws determine if church attendees can be members and if they are allowed to vote on church business.

In 2011, televangelist Eddie Long settled lawsuits with five men accusing him of sexual assault. Long did not disclose how much New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (NBMBC) spent to resolve the litigation. Concerned church attendees lacked the ability to remove the pastor from the pulpit.

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Documentary Reveals the Mind of a Pastor Conman

(Article updated with information about televangelists obtaining loans from mafia-connected individuals.)

The three-episode Discovery+ documentary series King of the Con tells the life story Barry Minkow, an infamous conman turned pastor, who subsequently robbed a church of $3 million dollars. The Bible warns of people like Minkow, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” – Proverbs 26:11 NIV

Minkow’s life could serve as a playbook for corrupt televangelists as so many of the same techniques are repeatedly used.

Through interviews Minkow describes how he rationalized his criminal behavior. “Looking back, it sounds crazy but at the time I really didn’t think it was so bad.”

As a teenager, Minkow started ZZZZ Best, a carpet cleaning company, in Inglewood, a small city near Los Angeles. When he was 19 years old, ZZZZ Best went public. As investors purchased stocks, the company’s value soared and a year later was worth $280 million. (Wikipedia provides a good overview of Minkow’s crimes.)

Minkow hired publicist Jeri Carr to promote his company. Local media enjoyed telling the story of a high school student launching a successful business. Carr and the media didn’t know that Minkow was also operating an illegal insurance restoration scheme. Insurance companies were billed for work that was never performed.

Early in the history in ZZZZ Best, Minkow needed funding to grow and turned to mafia-connected Jack Catain for a loan. The mafia generated large profits by loan sharking which is providing high-interest loans to people and businesses that banks considered too risky to serve. This may surprise many Christians but at least two televangelists have received loans from mafia-connected figures.

In his autobiography The Soul-Winning Century, Rex Humbard revealed how he received a loan from Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous president of the Teamsters. The union’s pension fund also financed criminal enterprises as Hoffa made lucrative loans to mafia, according to Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith

Robert Tilton’s church obtained a loan from Herman Beebe, an associate of Carlos Marcello, former head of the New Orleans mafia. In 1993, Tilton testified about the loan in federal court, “After we had gotten the loan from his insurance company we began to hear rumors and people saying that when you borrowed money from these particular people, that if you missed a payment they were prone to come and take over your properties, and that they were the type of people that we did not want to have any type of association with, and so we paid the loan off as quickly as possible.”

After ZZZZ Best’s Ponzi scheme collapsed following critical news coverage and a federal investigation, a jury convicted Minkow of fraud.

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Televangelist Creflo Dollar Preaches Against Tithing (We’re doing a double take on this one)

In two recent Sunday sermons Televangelist Creflo Dollar preached against tithing based on fear and guilt. On July 3rd, Dollar told his congregation, “I would argue that tithing isn’t required or even encouraged for believers in Jesus Christ…”

Instead, Dollar is now preaching that Christian giving should be based on gratitude.

Dollar made a surprising announcement in his June 26th, sermon titled “The Great Misunderstanding” about how his beliefs on tithing changed.

“I want to start off by saying to you that I’m still growing and that the teachings I’ve shared in times past on the subject of tithing were not correct. And today I stand in humility to correct some things I have taught for years and believed for years, but could never understand it clearly because I had not been confronted with the Gospel of grace, which has made the difference.

I won’t apologize ’cause if it wasn’t for me going down that route, I would have never ended up where I am right now. But I will say that I have no shame at all saying to you throw away every book, every tape and every video I did on the subject of tithing, unless it lines up with this.”

While Dollar’s rejection of fear-based giving is welcome, a lot of questions remain, and Trinity Foundation investigators wonder if Dollar is simply changing his message to appeal to a larger audience.

Yes, consider us skeptical. If a preacher is unwilling to apologize for leading people astray, does he really “stand in humility” as Dollar claimed?

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Church Purchases $8.3 Million Mansion, Received Tax-Exempt Status After Complaints to IRS

(Photo: Mansion and guest house from

It should surprise no one that televangelist David E. Taylor’s church purchased an $8.3 million mansion and guest house in Tampa, Florida. The church parsonage serves as a palace and Taylor is a king.

Taylor, a proponent of the prosperity gospel, teaches that Christians are supposed to be kings. This teaching is found in Taylor’s book The Kingdom of God – Part 1 which is promoted on Amazon with a fanciful description:

“In this royal revelation, given to David E. Taylor during multiple Face to Face Visitations and trips to Heaven, you will understand the need to reestablish God’s Kingdom order in your life, ministry, and destiny. When you realize your true identity as a king, you will gain all you need to reign!”

In his book Supernatural Marvels: Time Travel, Taylor also teaches that Christians can time travel.

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Bethel Redding-Related Ministries Reported for Possible PPP Loan Fraud

After reviewing recently published Form 990s, Trinity Foundation has reported two of three non-profit organizations affiliated with Bill Johnson’s California megachurch Bethel Redding for possible Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan fraud.

Trinity Foundation reported Bethel Media and Bethel School of Technology, but not Bethel Music, to the Small Business Administration.  Let’s take a look at their loans and Form 990s.

The loan program was authorized by Congress to help small businesses and non-profit organizations retain employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, all three organizations report zero employees on page one of their latest Form 990s, but it is possible they use independent contractors.

(Photo: Bethel Media Form 990, page 1, line 5 reports zero employees.)

In 2020, Bethel Media received a PPP loan for retaining 77 jobs and in 2021 received a second loan for retaining 50 jobs. According to ProPublica’s Tracking PPP database, Bethel Media received $496,300 for each year.

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Pastors Selling Homes to Churches for Large Profits

(Photo: Pastor Charles Stovall Weems preaching at Celebration Church.)

In 2021, Stovall and Keri Weems, then pastors at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, purchased a home at $855,000 through Weems Group LLC, a limited liability company, and then sold it to their church four months later for $1,286,900, a $431,000 profit!

This financial transaction plays a central role in an investigation conducted by law firm Nelson Mullins on behalf the church. Findings from the investigation were compiled into a report available to church members and the public.

(Photo: Duval County Property Appraiser reporting the home purchase by Weems Group LLC and Celebration Church in 2021.)

According to the report, “The  Church’s  purchase  of  the  Shellcracker property  was  not  disclosed  to  or  approved  by  the  Board.  The  closing  documents  were signed by Weems on behalf of both Weems Group and the Church. The Church financed the  purchase  of  the  property  by  drawing  on  its  line  of  credit  from  its  primary  lender, Wesleyan  Investment  Foundation  (“WIF”).  Weems  executed  a  Mortgage  Modification and  Spreading  Agreement  encumbering  the  Shellcracker  parsonage  and  increasing  the Church’s debt by $1,300,000.”

While Nelson Mullins never described the financial transaction as fraud, the sale to the church is similar to flipped property fraud schemes the FBI began aggressively investigating in the early 2000s during America’s housing bubble.

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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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