Paid to Speak: The Speaking Honorarium Business

The church and ministry conference business is back with a vengeance with guest speakers often collecting large speaking honorariums. Many religious organizations refuse to disclose the size of honorarium payments, leaving donors and attendees in the dark as to how the money is being spent.

Reciprocal speaking arrangements (you speak at my event and I speak at yours) abound as speakers seek the spotlight.

After hosting a virtual conference last year due to COVID, attendees flocked to televangelist Bill Winston’s International Faith Conference, which was held in September in Forest Park, Illinois.

Guest speakers included televangelists T.D. Jakes and Kenneth Copeland.  Copeland used his Cessna 750.  Eagle Mountain International Church, also known as Kenneth Copeland Ministries, owns two jets: a Cessna 750 and Gulfstream G-V.

In August, Copeland held his Southwest Believers Convention. Creflo Dollar and Bill Winston, guest speakers, flew to Fort Worth for the event on each of their Gulfstream G-IV jets. If the hosts reimburse travel costs, tens of thousands of dollars are spent on ministry jets.

Speaking Fees

How much do guest speakers cost? The Harvard Business Review provides “a rule of thumb for appropriate pricing”:

$500 – $2,500 for new speakers

$5,000 – $10,000 for a first-time author

$10,000 – $20,000 for authors with several books

$20,000 – $35,000 for authors of best sellers

Celebrities and politicians may cost significantly more. In June, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention. According to booking agency All American Entertainment, Pompeo’s speaking fee is between $100,000 to $200,000.

The National Organization of Professional Athletes and Celebrities reports that comedian Chonda Pierce, a popular speaker at Christian events, has a speaking fee range of $20,000 to $30,000 and Tim Tebow’s speaking fee is $50,000 to $100,000. Tebow was Liberty University’s 2021 commencement speaker.

Financial Disclosure

Churches may disclose honorarium expenses in their monthly, quarterly, or annual financial statements or in a Form 990, in the rare case they file, as churches are exempt from filing requirements. The Form 990 is a document in which American non-profits disclose total revenue, total expenses, and compensation for highest paid officers and employees.

Trinity Foundation reviewed well more than 100 Form 990s for this article and observed that honorariums are generally listed on one of three places on a Form 990: the Statement of Revenue page, the Statement of Expenses page and Schedule O.

Honorarium revenue and expenses are not transparent at America’s largest religious organizations due to churches being exempt from filing form 990 or making public church financial statements.

In 2007, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) spent $1,015,177 on honorariums of which $592,743 was for fundraising. In 2008, TBN stopped individually listing honorarium expenses on its Form 990s. Instead, honorarium for guests appearing on the TV network were likely included in the catch-all category of “all other expenses” which totaled $30,372,527 for 2008.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) stopped filing a Form 990 after 2015. The ministry’s final 990 disclosed $199,952 in honorarium revenue.

Churches and non-profit organizations paying honorariums can avoid charges of tax evasion by providing the speaker and the IRS with a 1099 Misc tax form for speaking fees of $600 or more.

Who Owns Copyright?

Sometimes honorarium payments are made not directly to the speakers but to the non-profit organization or company they work for, which explains why honorarium revenue is reported on the Form 990.

Ownership of copyright may determine who is paid.

In 2018, Dr. Michael Brown’s ICN Ministries received $101,461 in honorarium revenue. Brown may have adopted a policy in which his speeches are treated as intellectual property of his ministry.

In his book The Business of Church, author Stephen Lentz describes three possible copyright arrangements for churches:  (1) “The church owns the sermon.” (2) “The church owns the sermon, and the Pastor licenses it”. (3) “The pastor owns the sermon.”

Honorarium Income and Tax Evasion

In April 2021, televangelist Todd Coontz began serving a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion. Coontz failed to pay federal income taxes on all of his honorarium income.

In 2014, an IRS letter informed Coontz, “You have unpaid taxes for 2012. Amount due: $150,964.91.”

After he was indicted, the federal government disclosed hundreds of exhibits revealing Coontz’s income and spending. The exhibits provide a fascinating glimpse into the opaque finances of religious broadcasting.

Coontz’s conduct is the tip of the iceberg. According to one Trinity Foundation informant, honorariums have been used for massive money laundering. Trinity Foundation is seeking more informants to understand this criminal activity which may have persisted for several decades.

Employees in media ministry and Christian college accounting offices with knowledge of extravagant honorarium payments are encouraged to fill out the Religious Abuse or Fraud Questionaire.

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