Researchers Todd M. Johnson, Gina A. Zurlo and Peter F. Crossing at The Center for the Study of Global Christianity compiled these statistics. Their ongoing research needs greater media exposure so that global Christianity will be motivated to take action against these financial crimes.
With the amount stolen from churches and ministries, Christians could easily double the amount spent on global missions. Everyone should have the chance to hear the Gospel.
Through best-selling books and excessive compensation, a growing number of pastors are becoming millionaires. Let’s take a look at one of them.
Thirty-one years ago James MacDonald and a small team of believers started Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC). The church grew rapidly and launched new multi-site campuses in the Chicago suburbs. MacDonald also reached a large radio audience after launching his media ministry Walk in the Word.
With assistance from his church and ministry staff, MacDonald became a prolific author. Moody Publishers, LifeWay Press and others published MacDonald’s Bible studies.
HBC fired MacDonald in February 2019 after radio show host Mancow Muller broadcast an audio clip of MacDonald discussing the idea of planting child pornography on Christianity Today President Harold B. Smith’s computer. MacDonald was furious because Christianity Todaypublished an article that didn’t defend him for suing Christians critical of his actions.
The annual National Religious Broadcasters convention attracts thousands of Christians involved in media and vendors looking for new business. On the exhibition floor the Israel Ministry of Tourism and Noseworthy Travel Services promote pilgrimages to Israel.
Such tours have become big money generators for televangelists and smaller ministries.
Televangelist Ed Young Jr. is promoting a tour of biblical sites in Israel. The price starts at $3,419 and that might be a bargain. The cost for a Light of Messiah Ministries trip costs $5500.
During the Grassley inquiry Trinity Foundation notified the Senate Finance Committee that Benny Hinn Ministries Travel and Tours was providing travel services to churches.
Trinity Foundation started monitoring Israeli tours more than a decade ago based on the firm conviction that some profits from such tours should be reported as unrelated business income.
According to a Trinity Foundation informant, Benny Hinn himself allegedly received kickbacks for bringing groups to various Israeli businesses.
In 2018, President Trump issued an executive order creating the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The executive order noted, “The efforts of faith-based and community organizations are essential to revitalizing communities, and the Federal Government welcomes opportunities to partner with such organizations through innovative, measurable, and outcome-driven initiatives.”
Nothing scares the American religious establishment more than the threat of real oversight and real disclosure. Perhaps a history lesson is in order before providing potential solutions.
In 1977, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson authored a bill, which never passed, that would have required religious organizations soliciting funds to provide documentation for where the money was going.
The events that prompted the bill have long been forgotten but scandals involving the Catholic Pallottine order shocked donors in the 1970s. The Washington Post reported that priests purchased expensive Florida property and provided $54,000 to finance Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel’s divorce.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) was created in 1979 in response to growing political pressure for financial disclosure.
As ECFA’s history relates, “Senator Mark Hatfield addressed a group of key Christian leaders and challenged them to police their own mission agencies as a “Christian Better Business Bureau” or face the potential of government intervention. Consequently, ECFA was formed, standards were established, and a chartering process was initiated for applicant ministries.”
Yet ECFA has done a poor job of policing its own members or slowing down the immense growth of religious financial fraud in the Church.
Former ECFA members Harvest Bible Chapel and Gospel for Asia were accused of misusing donations.
Reports in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research estimate more than $60 billion is embezzled annually by so-called Christian leaders. This amount exceeds what is spent on world missions.
In 2005, Trinity Foundation contacted Dean Zerbe, aide to Senator Charles Grassley, and requested the Senate investigate financial fraud committed by televangelists. In response, Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee requested additional documentation. Trinity Foundation provided investigative reports on over two dozen ministries.
The Senate inquiry went public in 2007, when Grassley’s staff requested financial records from six prominent TV ministries. However, televangelists wanted the IRS to investigate rather than Congress because the IRS is subject to the 1974 Privacy Act and would be required to keep more information confidential. Only a few complied and then even marginally.
In 2011 Grassley’s staff released reports on four of the TV ministries revealing conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and examples of extravagant spending. Trinity Foundation had provided the Senate with 36 investigative reports.
Grassley requested ECFA set up a commission to study areas of abuse identified by his staff and to offer solutions.
Lobbyists and Christian leaders met with Grassley in attempts to thwart the Senate inquiry and arguably succeeded. No subpoenas were ever issued.
ECFA set up a commission but failed to offer solutions to the growing financial fraud. The commission obtained “expert testimony” from televangelists’ attorneys without including the testimony of the televangelists’ critics. A one-sided consensus emerged for no new oversight or legislative remedies to close tax loopholes exploited by televangelists.
The government-sanctioned commission was captured by the very people it should have been holding accountable. Economists and political scientists describe this failure of oversight as regulatory capture.
Trinity Foundation would like to suggest four bold actions.
Take a stand against the prosperity gospel
Imagine Martin Luther attempting to reform the Catholic Church without addressing the evil of indulgences. Such a scenario seems ridiculous, yet that is how ECFA treats the prosperity gospel. ECFA is quietly neutral where it should be most outspoken. ECFA’s Doctrinal Standards never mention the prosperity gospel or related abuses.
At a minimum, ECFA should advise its members to avoid falsely promising that God will enrich people that give to their ministries. Not only is this an abuse of scripture, it is advance-fee fraud. According to the FBI, “An advance fee scheme occurs when the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value—such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift—and then receives little or nothing in return.”
Allow Wall Watchers to join ECFA
When Wall Watchers, the parent organization of Ministry Watch, attempted to join ECFA, its membership application was declined. Ministry Watch rates ministries, issues donor alerts, and warns Christians not to donate to organizations that spend donor funds recklessly or without transparency.
After its rejection, Wall Watchers reported on its website, “The denial of Wall Watchers application for ECFA membership was based on a difference in philosophy concerning the rating of ministries, not because Wall Watchers could not meet ECFA’s Standards. The ECFA Board concluded that Wall Watchers’ pursuit of its objectives as a member of the ECFA could create divisiveness within the membership of the ECFA.”
If ECFA intends to get serious about religious financial fraud and excess, it must be welcoming to victims, whistleblowers and Christians that investigate such fraud.
Select a president and board members willing to fight religious fraud
In 2017, ECFA’s board of directors included 15 people. ECFA’s website currently lists 11 board members and officers. Who will replace the board members that have recently left? ECFA should seek out people that are advocates for the victims of religious financial fraud. It is time to give them a real voice, rather than being a voice of the religious establishment.
Why not ask someone like Rusty Leonard to join the board? New perspectives should be welcomed.
Require member organizations to disclose how much key employees are paid
On March 12, 2009, Joyce Meyer Ministries joined ECFA. Joyce Meyer’s compensation should have been disclosed to ECFA during the application process. However, Meyer has never disclosed this amount to her donors. She hides behind a claim of church status to avoid filing a Form 990 which discloses salaries of highest paid non-profit employees.
Was Meyer compensated $2 million per year from her ministry? Possibly. At least one of the televangelists Grassley examined was paid this much.
Senate Finance Committee staffers prepared a memo for Grassley outlining tax loopholes being exploited by religious organizations. The memo also examined excessive compensation. Could the following quote written by Grassley aides be about Joyce Meyer?
“Staff reviewed a compensation study prepared for one of the six churches by a leading compensation consulting firm that also does studies for for-profit organizations. … Taking into consideration the compensation of for-profit CEOs and media personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Madonna, Rosie O‘Donnell, and David Letterman, and mindful that the minister also receives income from book royalties and consulting fees, the consulting company recommended that the minister‘s total compensation be set at $2 million.”
Is Meyer enriching herself at donor expense? Her donors deserve answers.
Following the Jim Bakker scandal, televangelist D. James Kennedy testified in a Congressional hearing and said, “I would think that if a person is going to give money to something, that they have … a responsibility to learn where it is going.”
How can donors avoid funding lavish lifestyles if they lack salary data and more facts about where the money goes, such as the IRS form 990?
The book is filled with fascinating insights which can explain why fraud is rampant in Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and even religious organizations.
An Institute of Internal Auditors “survey revealed that 49 percent of auditors were told ‘not to perform audit work in high-risk areas,’ while another 32 percent were ‘directed to work in low-risk areas so an executive could investigate or retaliate against another individual.’” In other words, auditors are told to look the other way in many cases and to help employers look for (miniscule?) dirt on disliked employees.
Is it possible ministry auditors such as Stanfield and O’Dell or Chitwood & Chitwood also fail to properly audit “high risk areas”? They represent some of the people we investigate for lavish lifestyles. We have our eyes on you.
One amazing fact in the book is that “tipsters” uncover more fraud than professional auditors and law enforcement combined.
A 2007 “PricewaterhouseCoopers study credited ‘tipsters’ or whistleblowers with uncovering 43 percent of frauds.”
At Trinity Foundation, we have observed multiple cases where courts refused to take a case because evidence was improperly obtained. The New Whistleblower’s Handbook gives practical warnings on how to avoid this pitfall.
“If the whistleblower knows about the existence of supporting evidence, but cannot lawfully obtain that information, the IRS suggests that the whistleblower ‘should describe these documents and identify their location to the best of his or her ability.’” By doing so, “the IRS can lawfully obtain it through a subpoena or other legal means.”
Know the Law
Federal whistleblower laws were mostly written to address fraud committed by government employees, government contractors and publicly traded companies along with environmental issues and occupational safety concerns.
While churches and ministries are generally not covered by these federal laws, there are states laws that protect private employees. Author Stephen Kohn notes, “Some states are better than their federal counterparts, while others can best be described as pathetic.”
Whistleblowers that procrastinate in filing a complaint, may sabotage their attempt to address their concerns or obtain justice.
Kohn writes, “Complying with the statute of limitations is particularly relevant in whistleblower cases. First, some of the limitations periods are very short. The periods are measured in days, not years.”
When Senator Grassley launched an inquiring into alleged tax abuses at six TV ministries, televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Paula White warned former employees to not speak to Senate investigators or they would be in violation of nondisclosure agreements.
The New Whistleblower’s Handbook addresses this issue. “But there is good news concerning restrictive employment agreements. Any employer who requires an employee to sign an agreement not to disclose potential crimes to the government is in violation of numerous laws, including the Securities Exchange Act and the federal obstruction of justice laws.
The New Whistleblower’s Handbook is a timely book for future whistleblowers. We highly recommend it.
Last but not Least, CONTACT US AS EARLY IN THE PROCESS AS POSSIBLE, PLEASE
We have plenty of experience in reporting our findings to the authorities and may be able to help you move your case forward. We have been maintaining people’s confidentiality and privacy for decades–214-827-2625.
Has Televangelist Benny Hinn repented from the prosperity gospel? We’ve seen this movie before.
At Trinity Foundation, we welcome Benny Hinn’s recent criticism of the prosperity gospel, but there’s much more to the story.
In the mid 90’s Hinn promised Ole Anthony and reporters that he would begin to verify healings and live a more modest lifestyle, starting with not driving luxury vehicles. Within a few short months he relayed a message indirectly to Ole that he had no intention of trying to verify healings or he would have nothing to air on television. That was the point, Benny!
Now, decades later, are we to believe Hinn’s questionable change of heart? In a podcast recorded with Stephen Strang of Charisma Magazine, Hinn says this change was prompted by reading the Bible rather than criticism from critics. We’re glad Hinn has started to read the Bible after all these years as a minister, but what about his false promises of physical and financial healing to millions of his followers? What about his false teaching—telling people to “plant” their “seed” money into his ministry in order to receive God’s abundant blessings? Instead of feeding the sheep, Benny has been chowing down on mutton all these years.
Talk is cheap. Transparency is expensive.
Hinn might have one huge reason to pretend to do an about face. Almost two and half years ago the IRS and postal inspectors raided Hinn’s headquarters looking for evidence of tax evasion. Could Hinn be facing criminal charges soon? If so, the recent confession could be part of a public relations campaign in preparation for a possible indictment.
Questions for Hinn?
In order to prove he is serious about repenting of past abuses, Hinn could and should answer questions about his extravagant lifestyle—mansions, huge salaries, private jets, $10,000 to $25,000 hotel suites, almost monthly $10,000 outfits and suits (per sources), etc.
He could and should answer questions about various scandals such as drug overdose deaths in his ministry. Hinn could and should make a number of his personal tax returns public—and we’re not talking about the ones from the past couple of years during which he’s been fearing prison time.
For decades, Hinn has refused to provide financial transparency to his donors. He should start by filing an IRS Form 990 that would reveal his ministry’s total revenue, total expenses and Hinn’s total compensation, including from his for-profit companies such as Clarion Call Marketing, Eministries Consulting Inc., and Pink Golf Cart (La Cocina Kramerica).
More Questions for Hinn:
1) Following the April 2017 IRS raid on your Grapevine headquarters, did you enter a pre-trial diversion program to avoid prosecution? If so, what are the terms of the pre-trial diversion program?
2) Your employees are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Have you used non-disclosure agreements to cover up fraud by silencing employees? Would you be willing to release your current and former employees from these agreements so they can discuss with the press their jobs at Benny Hinn Ministries?
3) During Senator Grassley’s inquiry into allegations of your ministry and five others abusing the tax code as non-profits, you hired former IRS Commissioners Fred T. Goldberg Jr. and Larry Gibbs. Did Goldberg and Gibbs lobby Senator Grassley on your behalf to gain the positive publicity you received from him?
4) Ella Peppard was injured at one of your crusades when a person was “slain in the spirit” and fell on top of her. After Peppard died from the injuries, her family sued. The lawsuit was settled out-of-court. How much money has your ministry spent settling this and other lawsuits over the years?
What about your many fake “prophetic” statements speaking on God’s behalf? What about this one in particular?
On December 31, 1989 at a New Year’s eve service in Orlando, you said, “The Lord also tells me to tell you, In the mid-90’s–about ’94 or ’95–no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America. But He will not destroy it with what many minds have thought Him to be. He will destroy it with fire. And many will turn and be saved, and many will rebel and be destroyed.”
A “Holy Ghost Machine Gun”?!
During a TBN broadcast you told the viewing audience, “Somebody’s attacking me because of something I’m teaching. Let me tell you something, brother. You watch it… They call it the ministry, my foot. You know I’ve looked for one verse in the Bible, I just can’t seem to find it. One verse that said if you don’t like ’em, kill ’em. I really wish I could find it. But don’t mention peoples’ names on your radio program and TV program thinking you’re doing God a service. You’re not. You stink frankly. That’s the way I think about it. Sometimes I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun. I’d blow your head off.”
It certainly appears you wanted to murder someone in particular. Have you apologized? Asked for forgiveness? Have you read Jesus’ exhortation yet about loving your enemies? About turning the other cheek?
Lots of unanswered questions, and yet… somehow, we already know the answers.
Replacing authentic relationships with superficial media and calling it “church” is ludicrous.
In a recent robo-call, convicted tax-evading televangelist Todd Coontz asked one of us to join his “church by phone.”
Gene Ewing, the tent evangelist who invented “seed faith” fundraising for Oral Roberts and a host of other televangelists, pioneered the “media church.” In 1978, Ewing founded Church by Mail to solicit donations.
First the IRS and then the courts determined the “excessive” salaries paid by Church by Mail to its founders were in violation of the tax code. Church by Mail’s tax exempt status was rejected—all the way to the Supreme Court in 1990. Unfortunately, Ewing re-invented his money machine, it’s current incarnation is St. Matthews Churches, and he continues his massive charade to this day, preying on the most vulnerable in our society.
The courts avoided rendering a decision of whether Church by Mail was a real church; however, one criterion of the IRS’s broad 14-point criterion defining what a church is or is not stands out above all the others—the presence (or absence) of a real congregation (read “Defining Church…” here).
And now SWAGGART… Jimmy Swaggart is embracing Ewing’s ideas. Swaggart’s church website says, “As a Member of FAMILY WORSHIP CENTER (FWC) MEDIA CHURCH, we will expect you to look at FWC as your Church.”
Ironically, the same Swaggart web page promoting “media church” also says, “We believe that the Church should be a mirror of the Book of Acts.” And we have overwhelming evidence that most media do quite the opposite—they produce selfish individualism rather than loving community—just watch almost any family at almost any restaurant staring down at their phones instead of interacting with each other.
The early church turned the world upside down as a small group movement which usually met in people’s homes. Ultimately, Jesus set an example by spending most of his time mentoring not the masses, but rather a small group of disciples.
Decades after being a pioneer in financial transparency—Billy Graham helped found the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in 1979—Graham’s son Franklin and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) have apparently embraced financial secrecy.
In 2014, Franklin Graham received $888,498 in compensation from Samaritan’s Purse and the BGEA combined. After 2014, the BGEA stopped filing the Form 990. It no longer discloses what its top officials are paid. So how could a donor know if the BGEA is paying excessive compensation to key employees?
Not included on ECFA’s public information site but provided in a form 990 are a statement of expenses page, a list of the highest paid officers, disclosure of possible conflicts of interest, whether or not the non-profit organization has unrelated business income, and notes foreign countries where the non-profit maintains a bank account (among many other details).
Many churches and ministries refuse to file criminal charges or sue when a trusted employee is caught embezzling funds. The refusal to sue is sometimes based on Bible verses where the Apostle Paul criticized Christians for suing each other in I Corinthians 6:1-8.
However, another option exists for reporting criminal religious leaders that operate non-profit organizations.
By filling out IRS Form 13909, a church can report pastors or priests, financial secretaries and board members “using income/assets for personal gain.”
Ironically enough, if thieves fail to report and pay taxes on the embezzled funds, they have also committed tax evasion.
According to IRS Publication 17, “Income from illegal activities, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Schedule 1 (Form 1040), line 21, or on Schedule C (Form 1040) or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040) if from your self-employment activity.”