Government review of televangelists' finances released
January 7th, 2011
01:02 PM ET

Government review of televangelists' finances released

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

The result of a Senate committee's long-awaited review of media-based ministries has finally been released.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, began the investigation into six televangelists in November 2007, when he was head of the Senate Committee on Finance. His office released the review Thursday.

At issue was compensation for the pastors and ministry leaders who openly led lavish lifestyles while their ministries received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.

The review by the committee did not impose new rules on the religious organizations or suggest they be stripped of their tax-exempt status. But it did bring to light compensation practices that may raise eyebrows in the non-profit community and lead to a discussion of new tax policies for religious organizations.

"The staff review sets the stage for a comprehensive discussion among churches and religious organizations," Grassley said in a prepared statement. "I look forward to helping facilitate this dialogue and fostering an environment for self-reform within the community."

Of the six organizations targeted by Grassley's review, only Joyce Meyer Ministries and Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church participated fully. The review states both groups were working to reform their ministries' financial practices.

Committee staff members Theresa Pattara and Sean Barnett wrote in the staff review, "The reforms undertaken by Pastor Hinn and Joyce Meyer are extensive and are to be commended." Joyce Meyer Ministries, based in St. Louis, went so far as to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

The other ministries in the review did not participate fully or at all, the senator's office said.

The review and correspondence released by Grassley's office shows Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church, Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries submitted incomplete responses to the senator's questions.

Atlanta-based Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International/Creflo Dollar Ministries did not participate at all, declining the senator's requests, according to released correspondence between Grassley and Dollar's attorneys.

Long responded in a statement Thursday night, "I am relieved that after more than three years of intense investigation and countless untrue allegations, that Senator Chuck Grassley's review has found no evidence of wrongdoing. Our ministry at New Birth has always and will continue to operate with accountability and integrity. I am thankful to God that the public now knows the truth."

Where churches would not participate, the review says, the investigators declined to issue subpoenas, instead relying on public records, court testimony, and even confidential informants.

According to the review, many of the ministries operate multiple non-profits, with the leaders drawing some form of compensation from each of them.

"The number and types of entities, including private airports and aircraft leasing companies, raises concerns about the use of the church's tax-exempt status to avoid taxation. However, given the four churches' refusal to provide tax information, we are unable to determine whether and the extent to which they are reporting and paying taxes on income earned in those entities," the review states.

The review praised the broader religious community in the United States and noted there are a few bad apples that may lead to a discussion of a new tax law for religious entities.

"While the majority of churches and religious organizations operate with policies and procedures that make them accountable to their members, it is the small minority that don't that are subject to scrutiny by the members and the public, including the press. These outliers present tax policy issues for consideration," the review said.

Churches have long had a strange dance with the IRS. The government has to balance the constitutional rights of the churches under the Establishment Clause and the groups' rights to free speech. The review notes tax laws relating to churches have not been updated in decades. Because the ministries are incorporated as houses of worship, they are exempt from filing the financial disclosures the federal government requires of other non-profits.

"The challenge is to encourage good governance and best practices and so preserve confidence in the tax-exempt sector without imposing regulations that inhibit religious freedom or are functionally ineffective," Grassley said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Church and state • Politics • United States

soundoff (339 Responses)
  1. Cedar Rapids

    ' including private airports '
    sorry but private airports? jeez.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  2. bill stapp

    And let's tax every non-profit organization.... how about the PGA for starters?

    And let's get rid of programs that pretend to be valuable, but mostly serve the employees who work for them... how about Head Start?

    And let's not go to war unless it is declared by Congress...

    and if cigarettes must have a warning label, then put warning labels on everything else that causes a problem... starting with meat.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • double-bogey

      There are no atheists in sand traps.

      January 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  3. Anglican

    Observer. Not all Christians are as you describe. To be Christian is to love your neighbor, even if they beat you up, either literally or on a blog. Peace.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  4. P'cola

    Double standard-no way would they allow a mosque or temple to behave this way.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  5. Ian J

    Religion is just a business. It should be treated as such. Religion is a man-made way to govern each other and try to get others to think like you. They make money and should pay taxes on it.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  6. DanteX

    Let me see if I have this correct.

    There are "Apostles" -yes believe it or not there are some have the ABSOLUTE ARROGANCE and UNABASHED GALL to refer to themselves as such- "Bishops" and "Ministers" and "Pastors" and "Prophets" and "Prophetesses" and "Reverends" that are driving around in expensive -SEVERAL – one for the SPOUSE too- automobiles and flying around in chartered or leased or owned aircraft and have their homes -BOTH PRIMARY AND VACATION- and have their personal "living expenses" -and private "expense accounts" as well- and have their "salary" ALL paid and provided for -and ALL TAX-EXEMPT too- by their respective "congregation" or "parishioners" -or more appropriately, a group of blindly-led FOOLS- and the vast MAJORITY of whom are in BANKRUPTCY and CANNOT meet their OWN "fiduciary responsibilities" that they have?

    Now I can see EXACTLY the reason why I am NOT "RELIGIOUS" and why I am "SPIRITUAL" instead.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  7. Terry P

    I DON"T CARE FOR Sen. Grassley, but he got this one right!!! These tele-preachers prey on old people on social security. All you have to do is sit up late one night and watch these con artists.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  8. Nick


    January 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Anglican

      GW? You referring to George Bush. Hey, I protested that war and am against all war. This Christian tries to live simply and do good. I am a member of an "organized" Church and I am not evil.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  9. therodman22

    "Organized religion"!! I always laugh when people quote what they have heard from others, but have not learned for themselves and cannot offer proof of their statements. People like to down those who give to ministries who for the most part fulfill what Jesus said to do in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and etc. These ministers they highlight that are doing corrupt and questionable are but a small percentage of the true church and the kingdom of God. Please look up the history of the great contributions the Christian Church has made to this world. The coming of Jesus and his message has done significant good in this earth and has even kept untold evils from coming to pass or spreading.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • chrisb

      even when I went to church I pretty much agreed with you on televangelists (though once i got more involved in church financing I saw how wasteful and questionable it was. Most probably don't commit outright fraud, certainly no one I met.)

      the truth is, churches should follow the same tax exempt laws as everyone else. why are religious organizations (not just churches) exempt from the laws that govern non profits that make sure they are not fleecing their donors? If they want to continue to remain tax exempt, they better get out in front of this and voluntarily start filling out those forms and ask to be treated equally. Since really we all should be treated equal by the law.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  10. Anglican

    Observer. This Christian has never gone so far. God loves us all, even those who do not believe. I know you will laugh at me, but that is my belief. We are all brothers and sisters. That is my true belief. Go ahead and giggle.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Observer

      I'm not giggling at you. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what the meaning of life is. The problem with many Christians is that they are unable or unwilling to let others decide for themselves and prefer to force their beliefs on others.

      Christians like to sugar-coat things with "God loves you", but the bottom line is that they will also tell you that God will send you to hell if you stay the person you are.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Logic

      I don't love all people. I know it.

      I hate stupid people. I hate ignorance.
      I love logic, logic is the foundation of society.

      Think on it, without logic god can not exist. I fail to see why religious people refuse to practice logic and instead practice blind faith.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Nick


    January 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Anglican

      The greatest evil? So nothing good comes for the Church. When is the last time you were homeless, hungry, or needed to pay you light bill with no money? You do not know evil.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  12. therodman22

    Sure there are ministers that are deceivers, even Jesus said there would be. Many things we are experiencing concerning the things that are happening Jesus and the bible spoke of. But Jesus also spoke of the judgement those that do these things they would receive, in this life and the next. And I could say many things about bible prophecy that has been fulfilled. To the one who said all churches teach is the afterlife and going to heaven is just not true. True Christianity is not about going to heaven, but first having a personal relationship with Jesus and expressing the character and personality of Jesus in this present life. For the ones who deny that God is real, the bible already speaks of those who believe this way, but God loves you and if you truly ask Him to reveal Himself to you He will. And please try and convince those who were professed atheists and unbelievers that have come to faith in Jesus and have had encounters with Him they are crazy. And I don't even want to begin to share about those I know personally along with myself who have seen and experienced notable healings, miracles, signs and wonders that even doctors and very educated people could not deny and had to testify to.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  13. Mariposa

    A few bad apples are going to spoil faith based contributions and tax exempt status for a large majority of faiths which do not, repeat not, abuse this favored status. Great. God will be the Judge.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  14. Anglican

    Froglist. You can not assume. I very much agree, but you guys assume all clergy are harmful. My point is that in my experience there are very devout men and women who work very hard and are good people. That's the problem with so many atheist on the "belief blog". You guys assume that all apples are rotten. All you do is cut people down. Sad.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Observer

      "All you do is cut people down. Sad."

      Your statement is true of SOME people, but take a step back and look at Christians. They claim that EVERY atheist and agnostic deserves to go to hell. Talk about cutting people down. Skip the hypocrisy.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Kenneth

      I think Jerry Clower stated it best, "It is the bad teenagers, the bad cops, the bad churches, the bad doctors that make the news. The small percentage who do not represent the rest but spoil it for all." (Paraphrased there)
      Believe it or not, a lot of us only consider our religious beliefs relevant to ourselves. Our faith works for us, and if it doesn't work for you, we hope you find something that does, even if it is non-belief. Everyone can use a hammer (science) but not everyone likes ice cream (religion).
      The majority of Catholic priests are not pedophiles, but you will look sideways at all of them because of the ones that are.
      It is a sad state of affairs.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Logic

      Well Kenneth do you have a worthy way out for your religion to practice, to make them fundamentally more "good"?

      One can advocate all they want but their localize religious corner doing good. But yes as a whole all the religions all over the world should be abolished and shut down.

      It is the root of evil. And yes you can argue against it. I'm not stopping you.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      It is a sad state of affairs – that they (the various churches and priests) created, tried to cover up and have not yet been completely held accountable for. I have sympathy only for the victims.

      January 7, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  15. Observer

    Good. We have a common ground.

    January 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  16. Paul Willson

    Kicjk in tgheir b doors artrest the leadfers for non compliance and sieze records Then review and if they are violating any HIT THEM HARD JAIL TIME

    January 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  17. Ringo


    January 7, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  18. Ringo

    Another toothless investigation. Time to make changes, kick a$$ and take names!

    January 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  19. Matthew

    Kudos to Benny Hin and Joyce Meyer for participating fully in the investigation and initiating some reforms. Shame on the others for not participating, once again shrouding themselves in secrecy.

    Still, though, I can't but help think that these "ministers" aren't really ministering to anybody but themselves. I wish I could "minister" myself to a private jet and fancy houses and cars like these people.

    On the other hand, I can't fault them that much, because people voluntarily give them donations, and who am I (are we) to tell people where they may or may not voluntarily send their money?

    January 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  20. Againstgreed

    OK, I agree there are some churches that totally abuse the funds and trust of some people. But here is my take... The pastors pay income taxes so the the IRS already gets whats theirs. But the Money that is given to the church doesn't belong to the government... so stop trying to get it. The people pushing for more taxes are just looking for a quick fix... and this isn't it. I don't think you understand the doors this will open up.... once taxes start you can no longer claim separation of church and state. EVER!!!

    January 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Ummm, no, you can claim separation of church and state BECAUSE IT'S IN THE CONST-ITUTION!

      Tax law, however, is not; and it can be changed by the normal legislative process.

      January 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Please show me where separation of church and state is in the US Const-itution. I see you are using tax law as your argument, really? Churches are tax exempt. How can you apply tax law into your argument??

      January 9, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.