Two of the most dangerous trends in Christianity are the growing rejection of financial transparency and removal of leadership oversight in megachurches and ministries. Such actions create an environment where wolves in sheep’s clothing turn the Church into a marketplace and victimize an undiscerning flock.
To document these trends, Trinity Foundation established the Governance Project, a database providing information on how religious organizations are governed.
While looking at amended articles of incorporation for televangelist churches, Trinity Foundation investigators discovered that many televangelists were eliminating church member voting rights. Church legal documents frequently used the phrase “the corporation elects to have no members.”
By vesting all decision-making power in a board of directors which are often hand-picked friends or employees, pastors consolidate power in their organizations and eliminate church member oversight.
As a result, congregations are denied the opportunity to approve church spending or to vote on the removal of abusive pastors.
As investigators, we are taught to follow the money, and that often requires following the power, examining the leaders at the top that make the final financial decisions.
Because of tax and liability laws, American ministries and many churches are established as corporations, registered with Secretary of State’s Corporations Division websites, and governed by a board of directors. The pastor usually functions as CEO and the church financial secretary often serves as treasurer. In many cases, these corporate entities operate more like a business than a church.
The Governance Project database includes data on more than 100 of America’s largest churches and a selected list of ministries that file Form 990s.
To compile this list of megachurches, we visited Outreach Magazine’s Top 100 Church list and added additional megachurches, often operated by televangelists.
The database indicates if a ministry files a Form 990 with the IRS. This financial disclosure document lists the number of independent board members (not employees or family members), provides a breakdown of revenue and expenses, and lists the compensation for highly paid employees.
One of our early findings: Churches and ministries with nepotism in leadership are less likely to operate in a transparent manner. They are also more likely to provide excessive compensation to family members.
A notes column reports if the organization owns a ministry jet, has been involved in a scandal, or arguably engages in excessive compensation.
The Governance Project was provoked by the discovery of memberless churches. So, what is a memberless church? There are actually two types. The articles of incorporation for Gateway Church (Pastor Robert Morris) in Southlake, Texas, says, “The corporation shall have no members.” In this context, it means that church attendees have no voting rights regarding church business.
The second type of memberless “church” is a religious organization that is arguably, not a church. These “churches” usually lack pastors, do not perform weddings or funerals and literally do not have members.
These religious organizations claim to be churches in order to avoid financial disclosure rules such as the Form 990 which churches, synagogues and mosques are exempt from filing. After the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reclassified itself as a church, the ministry stopped filing a Form 990.
This is a troublesome trend. Religious organizations are becoming less financially transparent for their donors. How can donors make informed decisions if they lack access to appropriate financial information?
There are several forms of church governance:
Corporation sole – One person makes all financial decisions. In the past, the IRS investigated people establishing one-member churches to avoid taxation.
According to the IRS, “Used as intended, Corporation Sole statutes enable religious leaders — typically bishops or parsons — to be incorporated for the purpose of insuring the continuation of ownership of property dedicated to the benefit of a legitimate religious organization.”
Board of directors – All important financial decisions are made by individual board members or by the board as a whole–sometimes the board may delegate important decisions to a person such as the president or CEO. Often times televangelist board members consist of family, employees, and friends thus lacking independent governance.
Congregational – Democratic in that church members vote on important church decisions.
Episcopal – Hierarchical leadership. The form of governance is used in the Roman Catholic Church and Episcopal denominations. It is uncommon in non-denominational churches.
Presbyterian – Church elders and/or deacons are elected by the congregation to make decisions on their behalf. In the Governance Project database, we use the term “Elder Board” to avoid confusion between a type of church governance and Presbyterian denominations.
Disclaimer: When looking at corporate filings, we discover there is a lot of gray area. Sometimes articles of incorporation fail to define the role of church members and leadership (elders, deacons, and board of directors).
The board may recommend policy changes and the congregation votes on them, or the board may have power to adopt policy changes without a vote of members.
Articles of incorporation for churches are often available on Secretary of State websites. However, states of Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Tennessee are especially difficult to research as their Secretary of State websites provide only minimal information.
Church bylaws, which are not available on government websites, are more difficult to obtain as few churches post them online. The bylaws will clarify who is the final arbiter of church decision making. Is it the board or the church members?
While the Bible does provide advice for church organization and governance, it provides a greater emphasis on the moral character of church leaders. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul describes the qualifications for a church overseer.
Some Bible translations say this person must not be covetous, others say he must not be a lover of money. Unfortunately, much of Christianity has rejected this verse in favor of a prosperity gospel that corrupts the biblical message.
For the pastors that don’t include financial reporting on your websites, we would like to encourage you to post a financial statement, budget and annual report, as well as your bylaws. Let your donors know where the money is going.
Attention: Pastors from churches in our database, we would like to hear from you, especially if you think we inaccurately describe your church governance. Keep in mind we rarely have your bylaws that might clarify how your church is governed.
If you have questions about a ministry or megachurch not included in the Governance Project or would like us to add your organization to the database, please, send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we will do our best to answer your questions.
Trinity Foundation intends to attempt to keep the databases current.
Each year as churches post annual reports, we will link to them, and as ministries file new 990s, we will analyze them.
Theopedia – Wikipedia-style website with a focus on theological issues explains the different forms of church government.
Smart Church Management – 8 Responsibilities of a Church Board
Due to the slight possibility of clerical error, please independently verify any information you use in this database to make any decisions.