Senator Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has begun a public campaign to look into the financial amenities and expenses of several big name television preachers. These ministers include Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer, among others. Grassley sent letters to six ministries this week requesting answers by December 6 about their expenses, executive compensations and amenities, including their use of cars and private jets. Grassley says he is acting on complaints from news coverage of these various ministers.

There are several problems with Grassley’s approach. First, the IRS requires pretty stringent reporting of the salaries and benefits of these organizations already. You can go online and easily find our what a ministry like ACT 3 earns, what my total salary package is, and related valuable financial information. (I hope you will do this since you will find that we operate in solid and responsible ways in these areas.) Most people are simply not aware of this information  and of how important it is to ministry credibility. Donors who have reasons to question a group they support should use this resource. You can also find out how much a ministry has in the bank by this means and thus you can know what its cash assets really are. I was shocked at how much some respectable ministries, ministries that I once supported, have stored away while they still appeal for funds as if they are nearly going out of business. I learned this by these online records.

Second, when the government goes after a few bad apples the rest of us could face unnecessary complications. I am not fearful of some conspiracy here but I hate more government red tape because of these abusers. I am always a bit cautious about the government going too deeply into the inner workings of religious organizations. (I also affirm that sometimes this becomes necessary but I believe  restraint is called for here. I think Grassley, a conservative senator, knows this well.) 

The bigger problem here is that there is clearly an excessive lifestyle being perpetrated by these various preachers. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure this one out. The biggest problem of all, at least for Christians in general, is that willing people by the millions keep giving millions of their dollars to these people and do not seem to care that they live they way they do and spend money the way they do. The reported salaries of many of these leaders is in the millions.  And this does not tell you the whole story since there are perks, hotels, travel, royalties, etc. Behind all of this is the "health and wealth" gospel. Sadly, this distorted message is a partial truth, since wealth in and of itself is not evil. The problem is in how these ministries connect wealth to "promise" and how they link physical blessings to spiritual truth in the wrong way. The fact is that many Christians, and for that matter non-Christians, will be enabled create great wealth by simply living wisely. This is a desirable end. The opposite error of the health and wealth message is the "try to stay poor for Christ" message, which hardly any one believes is really the biblical message. But if you are not poor enough, and most of us are not, then at least you should "feel guilty if you prosper a bit too much." (No one ever defines what is "too much.") This is the gospel of evangelical pietism and was built up over the past two hundred or so years. It too is filled with immense problems. What we need is a third way, a way that does not fall into health and wealth madness on the one side and a false pietism of guilt on the other. What we need is a gospel that understands the cultural mandate and the wealth mandate as Christian. I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks to come.   

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  1. Adam S November 7, 2007 at 11:55 am

    I want to point out a factual problem. Churches can, but are not required to file with the IRS. Most of these ministries that are being investigated are Churches, not Christian non-profits, so are not required to file the type of documents that you suggest that people look for. Some of these organization post the information anyway or are members of one of the financial accountability groups which require public availability of this type of information.
    But in the end, several do not publish this type of info because they are not required to and they choose not to voluntarily publish it.

  2. Nathan November 7, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for the post and for Adam’s added context.
    Some of these “ministries” previously reported their activities with a required form 990 filing. When the scrutiny became inconvenient they took shelter by organizing as a church, and thus were no longer required to file the 990 form.
    I think it fair to mention that other more “orthodox” ministries are also subject to the temptation of “excess” compensation and benefits. One well known pastor draws salary and benefits from a church, a media ministry, and a college/seminary. It isn’t millions, but it is several hundred thousand dollars. I’m not sure where the book royalties end up.
    Another evangelist draws several hundred thousand in pay and benefits even though he has been functionally retired for several years.
    Maybe these examples represent excessive compensation, maybe not. What is excessive to me may be perfectly reasonable to another.
    My father ended decades of giving to a ministry based on this type of information, so one can see why some of these organizations would prefer not to disclose.
    I, too, would like to avoid unnecessary government intrusion into my life and nonprofit ministries. However, tax-exempt status is granted by the government. This status allows organizations to receive contributions that may be tax deductible by the donor. This benefit “costs” the government money (reduces tax revenue). Because of this, society (particularly taxpaying society) has the right to know that non profit organizations are not abusing their tax-exempt status.
    I look forward to future posts on this subject.

  3. David Gordon November 8, 2007 at 6:23 am

    What is the weblink to see this financial data on organizations?

  4. Glenn November 8, 2007 at 8:17 am

    “You can go online and easily find our what a ministry earns” – is there a website address for this?
    I once was a member of a (400 member) church where the elders held the belief that the pastor should not make much more than the average member. This provided the pastor and his family with a comfortable lifestyle and allowed him to carry the gospel with greater authority, as his motivation in terms of finances could not be questioned. Seems like a good standard to me. Paul was a tentmaker, the other apostles seemed to live according to modest means and the New Testament is full of real life examples and warnings concerning those who made a shipwreck of their faith. In fact, there does not appear to be one passage in the New Testament that would support a minister making a large profit from the gospel and living a lifestyle of opulence. I am amazed that more christians do not see this as clearly and do not demand accountability from these leaders.

  5. John H. Armstrong November 8, 2007 at 10:34 am

    You can go to a site called Guidestar and there you can see the Form 990 that non-profits are required to file with the IRS. Guidestar requires registration but you can search this information for free. It is at I tried it myself this morning. If you want to find ACT 3 you need to search under our old name, which is still our legal name in the files, Reformation & Revival Ministries. Some of the data about what we do and how we do it is dated and a few minor items are not up-to-date but all the vital financial stuff is there to see. (All our Form 990s are there through 2006, the most recent one.) You can thus, with Guidestar, type in the name of any non-profit and check this out.
    Also, it is correct that churches do not file these forms so some of these big-name people being investigated have used a church structure to “hide” some financial things, or so it seems. Churches, for example, are not required to make salaries public information. Many readers may be in large churches where even most on the board do not know what the pastor’s complete salary package really is since it is mixed into a much larger salary line in a budget.
    I do not in any way resent a good salary for a CEO of a non-profit, or for a pastor. In fact, most are underpaid if you ask me. What I resent is the way this information is hidden and the way some make excessive wealth via charitable donations, which makes the word charity a bit of a joke if you ask me.

  6. Gene Redlin November 8, 2007 at 10:58 am

    I am pretty comfortable with the whole idea that Grassley takes a look at these ministries. As a pentecostal Christian these are people that for the most part I like. I also want to make certain they are held to the same account I am.
    I just blogged on this. This is God whistling for the Assyrians.
    Here’s my take on this:

  7. Steve Scott November 8, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Just a few thoughts here. In the feeding of the 5,000 (many more with women and children) the disciples answered “we have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” Luke 9:13. It is apparent that they had enough money in the bag to buy a meal for 15 thousand people. And Jesus furnished a large upper room for the passover, no small amount there. Paul was content with abundance (Phil 4:12).
    I don’t think it’s as much how much these “leaders” personally gain from their ministries as it is living up to promises to their donors. What level of accountability are the donors holding them to? What is their personal gain worth to the donors? If none of the donors have a problem, then there isn’t one, from a numan standpoint that is. If there is a problem with their hearts, God will judge them. Unless donors have been stolen from, there’s not much to investigate.
    The idea of paying a pastor the average salary of the congregation is a good start, with those who “rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5:17) or twice the average.

  8. Adam S November 9, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Steve, in general I agree with you but in reality most people to not investigate the organizations they donate to. Donations are in general an emotional issue not a rational one. But at the very least there needs to be some sort of accountability. That ideally should come from the organizational boards. But there will be those that are so poorly managed and overseen that in essence there is no oversight. I think it is reasonable for the government to exercise level of oversight. In this case that maybe too much or too little. It is yet to be determined.
    While I agree God will judge, we also have a responsibility to hold one another accountable. That is why I support organizations like ECFA and even some of the watchdog groups. The reality is if these organizations were being adequately policed they probably would not be on the government’s radar. I actually think Joyce Meyer is a good example of an organization that was spending inappropriately, but several watchdog groups called her out and she made significant changes and has made her organization much more transparent. I think that is a success, and it didn’t involve government oversight.

  9. John H. Armstrong November 9, 2007 at 10:20 am

    1 Timothy 5:17 is a very interesting and important text. I have long felt it said, in shorthand, “pay the minister who does well” very well. Nothing in Scripture suggests ministers should be poor. But the issue here, as many have noted, is not that these big name leaders are poor. The issue is one of integrity, bad theology and false advertising. Ministries should be open to public inspection and this in itself would stop the government from being involved I think.
    There has never been a time in human history when so many in the ministry could make so much wealth. This is a result of the success of the financial system under which we live. This in itself is not bad. In fact, I have argued the opposite. But as is always the case the way wealth is used must always be deeply rooted in Christian ethics. The failure here is not in having money but in what we do with it. Consuming goods and services is not bad. It provides jobs, support for one’s needs and family, money for mission and charity, and (this is generally missed by Christians) wealth production for generations to come. What is bad is pure unadulterated consumerism, an evil rampant in our world and not just among the wealthiest of our people. In fact, the extremely wealthy may not be as taken by consumerism as many of our poorer and middle class citizens. Now there’s a thought that goes against conventional wisdom I think.

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