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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Philippine Televangelist Charged With Sex Trafficking, Operated Church as Business

(Photo: Apollo Quiboloy is identified as the “Appointed Son of God” during a TV broadcast of his Sunday sermon.)

Apollo Quiboloy, the Philippines’ most popular televangelist (1.2 million followers on Facebook), was recently charged with sex trafficking.

The Associated Press reported, “The indictment accuses Quiboloy and others of recruiting women and girls, typically 12 to 25 years old, as ‘pastorals’ who cooked his meals, cleaned his houses, massaged him and traveled with him around the world. Some also had sex with Quiboloy on scheduled “night duty,” including some minors such as a 15-year-old girl, according to the indictment.”

Quiboloy has the support of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and might be found innocent of the charges.

Meanwhile, Quiboloy’s twisted theology and business practices should have served as warning signs, but discernment is lacking in the church today.

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Religious Leaders More Likely to Die in Plane Crash Than Receive Federal Prosecution

A couple of months ago, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published the Audit Technique Guide for Religious Organization.

Could this signal the IRS is intending to take stronger action against churches and ministries abusing their tax-exempt status?

For the past 15 years, the IRS rarely audited religious organizations or prosecuted pastors for financial crimes.

Prominent Christian religious leaders are more likely to die in a private plane crash than to be prosecuted for tax evasion.

Since 2014, Bahamas-based televangelist Myles Munroe and Remnant Fellowship Church founder Gwen Shamblin both died when their privately-owned jets crashed. Trinity Foundation has attempted to investigate both Munroe and Shamblin for international money laundering.

During this same time period only one televangelist, Todd Coontz,  was prosecuted and convicted for tax evasion. His ministry’s tax-exempt status has not been revoked.

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Just How Broken Is the Bible Translation Industry?

 

By Warren Cole Smith, President of MinistryWatch

OPINION—At a recent meeting of Bible translation organizations in Newport Beach, Calif., one of the speakers stood at the podium and asked the 50 or so leaders there a series of simple questions:  How long does it take to translate the Bible?  And how much does it cost to translate the Bible into a new language?  How many Bible translations have been completed in the past year?  How many will be completed in the coming year?

You’d think these questions would be simple enough to answer.  After all, ask an executive of almost any business on the planet these same questions about his or her business, and that leader will have a ready answer.

But if you ask a leader in the Bible translation industry, the answer you are most likely to get is: “It depends.”  To drive home this point visually, the speaker held up a coffee mug on which he had printed the words “It depends.”  His prop generated some laughter, and a few tight-lipped smiles.

In fairness, that answer – “it depends” — has some truth.  Every project is different.  The people doing the work vary in efficiency and training.  But the same things might be said of virtually every service sector business operating in the world today.  In those industries, it is hard to imagine that “it depends” would long work as an excuse for not knowing or not finding out.

But “it depends” has become part of the culture of the Bible translation industry.  It has helped produce a lack of transparency and accountability that should be a giant red flag to the tens of thousands of donors who give hundreds of millions of dollars to Bible translation organizations every year.

To understand just how big a red flag, we will have to do a little math.

Continue reading “Just How Broken Is the Bible Translation Industry?”