(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.
(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.
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?
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.
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.
(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.
(Photo: Pete Evans, President of Trinity Foundation)
How much is embezzled by “Christian” religious leaders? Researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, which study this problem, produce an annual estimate which is published each year in the January issue of the International Bulletin of Mission Research.
This year’s estimate: $59 billion in ecclesiastical crimes. Meanwhile, $52 billion will be spent on world missions.
Let those numbers sink it. More money is stolen by religious leaders than is spent on world missions.
Is there a way to dramatically reduce this crime? Our non-profit foundation has tried to avoid suggesting any national legislation over the years, but that has to change.
(Photo: St Matthews Churches includes inexpensive items such as this tablecloth in mailouts to create a sense of obligation for the letter recipient to donate.)
How a Man You’ve Never Heard of Created the Unholy Grail of Televangelist Fund-Raising Letters and Keeps the Cash Rolling In Over 60 Years Later.
By Mike Renfro and Pete Evans
You’d certainly be forgiven if the name Gene Ewing doesn’t ring a bell. What this name does ring is the cash register. Gene Ewing is the behind-the-scenes J.R. Ewing of TV Preachers and their cash gushers. It’s a show that’s been going on for over six decades—mostly at the expense of the poor, elderly, sick and hurting.
His stock-in-trade for most of his career has been scripture-draped fund-raising appeals, replete with highly personalized pitches and promises for renewed health and prosperity. Predictably, it’s Ewing and his partners that have been the ones prospering. And if IRS records before they “went dark” and re-branded as a church are any indication at all, they’ve been prospering to the tune of millions of dollars annually—all pouring into a lawyer’s P.O. box, overflowing with cash, checks and cynically-abused dreams.
You can google him but you’ll struggle to find a photo of him from this side of the 1960s. Perhaps the only thing more mysterious and elusive than the man is the church from which his appeals emanate. And unlike many of his cohorts in televangelism such as Jim Baker and W.V. Grant, who both spent time in prison, Ewing’s always managed to avoid both the law and the limelight.
James Eugene “Gene” Ewing, Milton Ray McElrath (Ray), and until recently, their now-deceased lawyer J.C. Joyce have been the three main individuals consistently running what is now Saint Matthews Churches under many different names. How did this organization evolve into the money machine it is today?
(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.
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.