Pastors Selling Homes to Churches for Large Profits


(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.

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A Word from our Foundation’s President

(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.

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James Eugene Ewing, Founder of St. Matthews Churches: the Religious Direct Mail Monster

(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?

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The Dangerous Legal Structures of Hillsong Church

(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.

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Documentary Investigates Charismatic Hillsong Church

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.

Why People Fall for the Prosperity Gospel

A word from our president, Pete Evans, about why people fall for the prosperity gospel.

Desperation is a huge motivator.  When you or someone close to you is dying or suffering, it’s natural to want to help in whatever way we can.  Or, when finances become so strapped that you or a person close to you is in anguish, there is a desire to alleviate the suffering.  So if a televangelist comes on television promising that God wants to heal and financially bless individuals, but God requires a gift first—care of the ministry of course; desperate people begin to grasp at straws and take desperate measures. It becomes a sort of heavenly lottery and plays on people’s natural greed as well.  In desperation, people give to the ministry in order to get their invisible lottery ticket and “expect a miracle”.

The televangelists use a twisted and perverted version of one of Jesus’ parables—the parable of the sower and the seed. First, the true meaning of the parable:  Jesus was talking about the seed of Christ in us—about his life in us and how it can be trampled on, choked out, or—best case—nourished.

Next, the perversion of the parable:  the seed is your money; which, planted in the good ground will be multiplied by God via health, healing, or an exponential increase in wealth based on the amount one gives.  To quote Hitler’s despicable propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” I would add, at least until the spell is broken.  The Goebbels quote is often called “The Big Lie”.

Once Upon a Time NRB Promoted Financial Transparency

 

Thirty-five years ago, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) faced its biggest public relations scandal. Televangelist Jim Bakker resigned from the PTL Television Network after news media revealed hush money was paid to Jessica Hahn so that she wouldn’t reveal his affair.

Bakker’s local newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, tenaciously investigated the flamboyant preacher, revealing details of his extravagant lifestyle.
In 1989, NRB created the Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission (EFICOM) in response to the Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals.

NRB’s attempt at self-regulation was short-lived. EFICOM was shut down in 1993.

Last week Christian media professionals from around the world gathered at the NRB annual convention in Nashville at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

Trinity Foundation reviewed a list of speakers, sponsors and supporting organizations featured at the convention, discovering two non-profits not filing a Form 990 with the IRS.

The Form 990 itemizes revenues, provides a breakdown of total expenses, and reveals salaries of highest paid officers at non-profit organizations. (Churches, synagogues and mosques are exempt from reporting.)

Dave Kubal, one of the conference speakers, serves as president of Intercessors for America. According to the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search, Kubal’s organization stopped filing a Form 990 after 2016. Intercessors for America received almost $1 million in donations during the last year it reported to the IRS.

Intercessors for America, is lucky that its tax-exempt status has not been revoked. According to IRS rules, a non-profit should lose its tax-exempt status after not filing a Form 990 for three consecutive years.

The other non-profit failing to file a Form 990 is International Evangelism Outreach. The organization’s president, Eliudi Issangya, participated in NRB’s Great Commission Forum. Because International Evangelism Outreach does not file a Form 990, there is no public reporting of American donations to the Tanzania-based ministry.

If NRB wants its members to be more transparent, it should begin a screening process for convention speakers and participants which checks for publicly available Form 990s or publicly available audited financial statements.

If NRB’s leadership had real discernment, they would be doing everything possible to clean up religious broadcasting. Unfortunately, NRB is unprepared to face the next wave of televangelist scandals.

In fact, there is currently a televangelist under investigation suspected of crimes that would make Bakker’s sins look tame.

Million Dollar Homes Become Status Symbols of Televangelists and Pastors

By Barry Bowen and Pete Evans, Trinity Foundation


(Photo: Former home of faith healer David Turner, from Realtor.com)

Donors, where is the money going?

When a televangelist’s ministry or pastor’s church owns a private jet, you can almost be certain the leader lives in a mansion. That is one of the lessons Trinity Foundation has learned from investigating religious fraud and excess for more than 30 years.

In April 2021 the Houston Chronicle’s Jay Root asked Trinity Foundation for assistance on an article series about church parsonages in Texas. Trinity Foundation compiled a list of megachurches and large media ministries in the state and then searched for parsonages and homes of pastors and ministry leaders.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle examined the state tax code and filed open records requests with county appraisal districts seeking lists of parsonages.

Root’s thorough investigation uncovered startling evidence of pastors living extravagantly: “A months-long Houston Chronicle investigation of ministers’ tax-free residences found no shortage of extravagant homes in high-dollar locales. At least two dozen were worth over $1 million even using the artificially low values that exempt properties typically carry.”

If you are keeping track, that is at least 24 parsonages in Texas worth more than $1 million.

Trinity Foundation also investigated pastor and ministry housing in other states, discovering multi-million dollar homes of several televangelists and pastors who have received little media scrutiny. It’s time to present some of our findings.

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Requiring Restitution for Church Criminals

After pleading guilty to a massive crime operation that involved wire fraud and bank fraud, Charles Sebesta was ordered last year to pay back the amount stolen from his church: $11,438,213. Sebesta also received 130 month prison sentence.

A Department of Justice press release explained the crimes: “Having wrested operational and financial control of the Church from its elderly members by 2006, [Sebesta] began a 10-year spree in which he treated the Church and its considerable assets as his own personal piggy bank.”

After becoming chairman of the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, of Los Angeles, Sebesta forged check signatures and created a fake company, Sky Blue Environmental, to send payments.

The church refused to excuse the criminal behavior of its chairman and contacted law enforcement. As a result, Sebesta was required to pay restitution. The court ruling mirrored biblical justice which required thieves to pay back their victims. Such justice is often denied when churches and ministries refuse to file charges against pastors and financial secretaries committing financial crimes.

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The Prophecy Business: There’s Money to be Made Lying and Exaggerating God’s Promises

Every January so-called prophets share their prophecies for the New Year, which are then published on the Elijah List, a prophecy news website.

Recently, Charismatic Bible teacher Jan Hamon proclaimed, “I decree this will be my double portion year!”

For 2022, Chuck Pierce prophesied, “I am neutralizing your chromosomes from iniquitous patterns.” Pierce is one of America’s highest paid “prophets” and was compensated $1.2 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2020, which shows the prophecy business pays its best known practitioners very well.

When media began reporting Russian President Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine, the so-called prophets exploited the news. Pastor Hank Kunneman claimed that God said, “I’ve been speaking to you, Putin, and you are listening.” Hank, did God tell Putin to attack Ukraine?

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