(Photo: In the 1970s, televangelist pioneer Oral Roberts acquired mansions in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, CA, leading his Tulsa, OK-based ministry from afar.)
Oct. 31 was the day Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church door—October 31, 1517—which began the reformation, also called by some the 2nd wave of Christianity. He critiqued expensive church real estate along with many other practices of the Catholic Church and the Papacy. Today, Luther’s anger would probably be directed at the aberrant activities of the megachurches. The reformation is over 500 years old and we still struggle with some of the same problems.
To expand their reach and receive larger donations, televangelists and megachurch pastors are planting churches hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, from their base of operations. Some pastors appear to be motivated by pursuit of wealth, planting churches in wealthy communities. Others are drawn by the allure of Hollywood, taking up residence in Beverly Hills.
The investment in long distance ministry frequently produces extravagant housing expenses and over-the-top travel costs. Why fly first class when your donors will finance a jet?
The late televangelist Fred Price illustrates the trend of long distance ministry by planting a church in New York City while his home was located over 2100 miles away in California.
In 2007, Business Jet Traveler asked Price, pastor of Crenshaw Christian Center, “How much do you fly for the church?” Price responded, “A couple of years back, when we were first establishing the church in New York, my wife and I flew every single week-52 weeks-Los Angeles to New York and return. Now the least we’d go is once a month and recently we’ve had to go twice a month.”
Joseph Prince, the Singapore-based televangelist, has launched two churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and acquired a large plot of land in Colleyville, TX for future expansion. If there is one city in the world that doesn’t need another televangelist, it is Colleyville, the home of Robert Morris, pastor of Gateway Church, James Robison, head of LIFE Outreach International, Matthew Crouch, head of Trinity Broadcasting Network, and Joni Lamb, head of Daystar Television.
Church members and donors to the churches and ministries cited in this article should ponder critical questions. Can a pastor effectively lead his congregation from afar? Are million-dollar mansions good stewardship?
Florida Beach Houses
Scattered across the Florida coast, televangelists and megachurch pastors are purchasing beach houses for relaxation and privacy, creating a long-distance buffer between them and their congregations.
A Trinity Foundation investigation has identified 17 beach houses owned by pastors and heads of religious non-profits. Several are located near yacht clubs and others have large boat docks.
(Photo: A religious TV network executive owns a mansion shown in this picture. His residence is close to a large yacht club.)
Keith Moore, Pastor of Faith Life Church, has a large following in charismatic, Pentecostal circles. Moore preaches regularly at televangelist Kenneth Copeland’s annual Southwestern Believers Convention.
Moore’s church operates campuses in Branson, MO, and Sarasota, FL. The two cities are 770 miles apart. Moore also serves as president of Faith Life International which owns several expensive homes, one property is worth over $6 million, and two jets: a Dassault Falcon 900 EX and a Raytheon Hawker Beechcraft 390.
According to Redfin, Moore’s beach house is worth almost $2.9 million.
So far in 2022, Moore’s jets have made 16 flights to Branson, 27 flights to Sarasota, seven flights to Meridian, MS, and six flights to Fort Worth, TX.
Other pastors with multi-site campuses hundreds of miles apart in different states include David Crank pastoring churches in Saint Louis and West Palm Beach, FL, and Jentezen Franklin with churches in Gainesville, GA, and Irvine, CA. Both also own beachfront property.
In 2022, Jentezen’s church Free Chapel purchased a home in San Clemente, CA for $2.2 million. Meanwhile, Jentezen and his wife own a condo in a popular vacation spot in the Florida panhandle.
David and Nicole Crank’s beach front home, in Ocean Ridge, FL, acquired in 2020 and hidden in a shell company, is worth $5.7 million, according to real estate website Zillow.
In the 1970s, well-known faith healer Oral Roberts moved to California.
Oral Roberts biographer David Edwin Harrell wrote, “Roberts’s two California homes, partly for security reasons, were not much discussed by the ministry … His house in Palm Springs, purchased for $285,000 and financed by a Tulsa bank, was his only privately owned home. In 1982 ORU endowment funds were used to purchase a $2,400,000 house in a high-security development in Beverly Hills.”
Harrell also reported that Roberts and his wife Evelyn “spent nearly half their time” in California, over a thousand miles from the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association headquarters and Oral Roberts University.
James Eugene Ewing, head of Saint Matthews Churches also acquired a home in Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, his organization operates from Texas and Oklahoma.
The allure of privacy and celebrity, with close proximity to Hollywood, continues to attract preachers. Gregory Dickow’s Chicago-based Life Changers International Church owned a mansion in Beverly Hills for several years.
Judah Smith, pastor of Churchome in Seattle, launched a church in Beverly Hill to reach celebrities. According to entertainment newspaper Variety, Smith purchased the $2.5 million home of actor/director Sacha Baron Cohen.
Ritzy communities on the California coast, Newport Beach, Newport Coast and Dana Point, have also served as magnets for pastors, partly because Trinity Broadcasting Network operated nearby.
In 2017, Joel Osteen acquired a home in Newport Coast, CA worth about $8 million. The home, located near the Pacific Ocean, is registered to a Delaware limited liability company.
Osteen’s real estate is worth $20 million. His primary residence in Texas is worth almost $14 million, according to Zillow.
The televangelists are doing the opposite of what Jesus told his followers, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
Can a pastor effectively make disciples while living hundreds of miles from his congregation?
Jesus sometimes preached to large crowds, but most of his earthly ministry was spent in small groups teaching his disciples.
By reducing discipleship to preaching sermons and focusing on large groups, megachurch pastors and televangelists discount the best methods of discipleship.
At worst, long-distance ministry results in absentee pastors.
Five hundred years ago during the Reformation, critics of Catholic leadership condemned absentee bishops. Were the Catholic bishops any different from the megachurch pastors operating multiple campuses for financial reasons?
Catholic apologist Mark Brumley noted about bishops, “Their positions brought significant wealth, and the temptation to collect multiple income-bearing offices was enormous.”
During the Council of Trent, Catholic scholars responded to the criticisms of Protestant reformers and clarified Catholic teaching. A decree was made encouraging priests to live in the diocese where they were intended to serve.
This long-distance leadership issue extends beyond the church pastor to large media ministries and higher education.
In the late 1990s, televangelist Benny Hinn sold his church, moved his family from Orlando to a coastal mansion dream-home in Dana Point, California, and ministry headquarters to Grapevine, Texas, partly because of fears that ministry employees were leaking information to the press. Hinn was intentionally isolating himself from some of his ministry.
Graduates and current students have been vocal in criticizing Jerry Prevo, interim President of Liberty University of leading from afar. Graduate Calum Best told The Lynchburg News & Advance, “Prevo lives in Alaska and is out of touch with the Liberty community at large.”
Prevo and his wife also maintain a residence in Arizona.
Independent boards of directors are critical for providing effective oversight and accountability at non-profit organizations.
When board members live hundreds of miles away and have little daily in-person contact with the organizations they should be serving, it is easy for corrupt leaders to thrive.
Churches, Christian ministries and universities claiming to be Christian-based should raise their standards to avoid the problems plaguing the system today.