Televangelist investigation: What is a church? Who is a minister? Should the tax man decide?

By David Waters With her trademark purple bible in hand, Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries takes to the stage … Continued

By David Waters

With her trademark purple bible in hand, Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries takes to the stage at a 2003 conference in Atlanta. Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Do you know how your church — or the megachurch down the street — spends its tax-exempt money? Do you know how much tax-exempt compensation your pastor receives or how he or she spend their money?

Shouldn’t you know? Shouldn’t the the government to find out for you?

Those are some of the intriguing and unsettling questions raised by a must-read staff review released last week by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

The 66-page report, filled with references to nearly every major religious figure in America from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell to Rick Warren, concludes Grassley’s three-year investigation of six media-based, multi-million-dollar “ministries.”

The report draws no particular conclusions. And because Grassley’s tenure as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee is ending, it’s unlikely the report will lead to significant changes.

Nonetheless, it should be required reading for every person who sits in a pew, stands in a pulpit, or pays the tax man.

Benny Hinn prays during a service at the Blaisdell Concert Hall in Honolulu on Jan. 11, 2002. AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman

Two of the controversial moneychangers cooperated with Grassley’s investigation: Joyce Meyer Ministries and Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church.

Four did not (without consequences): Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church; Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church/Eddie L. Long Ministries; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries; and the aptly-named Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International/Creflo Dollar Ministries.

Paula White during a 2008 night’s service at her Without Walls International Church. Photo by Jason Behnken/Tampa Tribune

“The number and types of entities, including private airports and aircraft leasing companies, raises concerns about the use of (those organizations’) tax-exempt status to avoid taxation,” Grassley’s staff reported. “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.”

Grassley’s staff also got distracted by health-care reform and several other more pressing matters. So they didn’t nail (nor shame, apparently) any of the “prosperity gospel” moneychangers they went after. Too bad.

But they did address the larger issues.

“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, the press,” the staff reported.

“These outliers present tax policy issues for consideration.”

Those issues should concern everyone.

In this June 18, 2003 photo, televangelists, (from left): Billy Joe Daugherty; Gloria Copeland; Kenneth Copeland; Charles Green; Richard Roberts; and Lindsay Roberts lay hands on Oral Roberts, 85, during the International Charismatic Bible Ministries conference in the Mabee Center at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Two of the most significant:

What is a church?

“Currently, anyone can set up an organization, call the organization a church, solicit tax-deductible contributions, and — unless the organization voluntarily applies for recognition of tax-exempt status or files annual returns – that organization will be invisible to the IRS and operate virtually without government oversight because no state requires religious organizations to register and file annual financial reports with the state attorney general,” the staff reported.

Under current tax law, religious organizations that are not churches are required to file IRS Form 990 and report their sources of income and expendutures annually.

Churches — and organizations deemed “integrated auxiliaries of the church” — are not required to do so.

“This lack of governmental, independent or denominational oversight is troubling when considering that churches can reach the size of large taxable corporations, control numerous taxable and non-taxable subsidiaries, and bestow Wall Street-size benefits on their ministers,” the staff reported.

The staff report paid particular attention to “Bishop” Eddie L. Long and his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Atlanta’s largest congregation with a membership of about 25,000. Its main tax-exempt campus “includes a $50 million, 10,000-seat sanctuary, a Christian school of more than 200 students, bookstore, computer lab, and the fully equipped Samson Fitness Center with racquetball and basketball courts and saunas.”

Bishop Eddie Long speaks Sunday, Sept. 26, 2010, at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. AP Photo/John Amis, Pool

Among its tax-exempt “integrated auxilaries” is LongFellows Youth Academy. Last year, academy alumni filed suit against Long alleging sexual misconduct when they were minors. Long has denied the charges.

Long’s “ministry” has found other ways around the tax code, the staff noted. Long dissolved Bishop Eddie L. Long Ministries, Inc. (BELL) in 2002 and transferred BELL’s assets to Long’s church, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church — “so those activities would not be subject to public scrutiny.”

Who is a minister?

According to tax law, “ministers of the gospel” are allowed to designate a portion of compensation as a housing allowance and exclude that amount from income.

Megachurch minister Rick Warren, for example, bought a house for $360,000 in 1992. In 1993, the church paid Warren $77,663, and Warren excluded the entire amount from his income as a housing allowance,” according to the report.

Other “ministers” claim the excemption on two or three homes. And many “ministers” who claim the excemption are not church pastors, but rather “ministers” for evangelistic organizations or church-affiliated ministries.

“The value of the parsonage and housing allowances is separate from the issue of who is a ‘minister’ eligible for the exclusion,” the staff reported.

“Some of the organizations reviewed by the Committee provide parsonage or housing allowances to family members and employees who may be deemed ministers solely to be eligible for the income tax exclusion. . . “

“Should the parsonage allowance be limited to a single primary residence or to a specific dollar amount?”

As J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine told Grassley’s staff, “Some pastors take advantage of a lack of denominational accountability to enrich themselves, churches . . . There are many independent churches out there today that are accountable to no one.”

What is a church?

Who is a minister?

Should all “churches” and “ministers” be granted special tax-exempt status? who should decide?

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  • lepidopteryx

    Have churches and their ministers pay taxes on their income just liek everyone else.

  • nuthergeorge1

    Does anyone really need a senate investigation to know these are scam artists? There’s good money to be made selling snake oil to the rubes.

  • raymondharbin

    The government has absolutely no constitutional mandate or right to provide definitions of “a legitimate church.”The very idea is patently absurd and anti-American.America IS a nation today because its founders fled the dictatorial English and European idea that the political rulers, in league with dominate church powers should be the final arbiter of this question.

  • badger8

    Since the churches have brought these doubts about whether or not they are legitimate upon themselves, and since they are essentially social services masquerading as storytellers, tax them all as regular businesses. Those who are successful at show business can continue to flourish regardless of the taxes paid and those who are legitimate salvers of souls can exist on the beneficence of those whose souls are saved.

  • sherlockjt

    “The government has absolutely no constitutional mandate or right to provide definitions of “a legitimate church.”

  • Afraid4USA

    So I guess I can just open my own “church” and start collecting donations (which I don’t have to report to the IRS), deduct my house payments, etc. etc. Easy to see how this would be abused. At a well known local big box church patronized by people who are well known in republican circles, a parishoner insisted on knowing how much his “pastor” was paid. When the big box churc refused to tell (citing privacy concerns), he started picketing the church!!! Finally the info, came out. The Pastor is paid approx $800K a year plus other perks.

  • vigor

    It’s time to end the free subsidy/no-tax status of the churches.They have become political organizations.

  • toc59

    What is a church? Who is a minister? What a laugh. ANYONE can claim god has told them that they are both. The religion scam is the greatest con in history. From the televangelists line about the all powerful, all knowing Lord NEEDING YOUR MONEY to keep the televangelist living in luxury and to proselytize so as to expand the pool of suckers to fleece to the Roman Catholic Church and it’s unimaginable wealth ocntrolled by the perverted mens club that is the priesthood to the Muslims convincing people to blow themselves up they are all about one thing, and that thing is controlling, even the most intimate aspects, the lives of their followers.Religion = control. It’s no accident they call their followers sheep.What a joke. The religion business needs to be taxed and taxed now.

  • noneckmd

    I get taxed, these churches should be taxes. I’ll use the words from their own GOOD BOOK. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Nothing Godly I see to many pastor getting rich. Do you think your Jesus would be flying around in his own jet plan. This ain’t nothing but a hustle about fleecing the sheep (suckers). I say tax them. I have one more verse from the good book, “A sheppard is suppose to know his flock” 10,000 member churches???

  • lufrank1

    If one examines the amount of untaxed U. S. real estate owned by the Roman Catholic Church – – If Fair income and property taxes were levied against those parasites, there would be no National Debt.

  • jckdoors

    Look into their political activities. Once you discover some, yank their tax-exempt status. And those of you who love to repeat the fantasy that this nation was founded as a religious haven are dreaming. In 1607 Jamestown was founded as a commercial enterprise. This nation is, and always will be a commercial enterprise. These “ministers” fleece their flocks, and prey on their inability to think for themselves.

  • dangreen3

    Anybody who donates money to these showman, is a vote, authorizing their deferment of taxation. Politicians warm up to them, for their followers. They deserve each other.

  • dfl1

    @raymondharbin:I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is anything in the Constitution that states that churches are entitled to tax-exempt status – it specified in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), meaning that its provisions were passed by Congress.So if the government is going to confer tax-advantaged status on church organizations, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the government to ensure that their assets/income are consistent with church related activities (i.e. not frauds/scams) in exchange for said tax-advantaged status. If a church doesn’t want such scrutiny, then they can forgo being tax exempt and still call themselves a church – but they’ll have to play by the same rules as non-tax exempt entities.

  • tbrucia

    It’s hard to prove fraud when the promises ‘televangelists’ make accrue to dead people, i.e. eternal life, happiness in heaven, etc. And if folks want to pay good money for promises, that’s their business. BUT why should the government treat one class of individuals (preachers) or one class of organizations (churches) differently than all the others. Let everyone pay their fair share. If the Deity wanted to subsidize his representatives on earth, He would have showered them with money directly from Above.

  • blinwilly

    nothing in the bible says they shouldn’t pay taxes on the contrary, render unto ceasar what is ceasars, and to god what is gods. mark 12:17

  • Nick5

    While Congress can’t define what a church is, or what a minister is, Congress CAN take away the income tax exemption currently granted to churches and their priests/ministers/nuns/brothers, etc. They won’t, but that would be an easier solution to the charlatans’ taking advantage of the rest of us (by not paying their fair share of income taxes) then trying to define an entity as a “church” or an individual as a “minister”. But, this country is so “religulous” these days that no change will occur, and the charlatans will continue to take advantage of the rest of us.

  • ben16

    Someone should do a study on how much federal , state and local tax income would come from making all these religions taxable. It’s probably a huge number and would solve a lot of problems. Love the picture of these fakes “laying hands” on old Oral Roberts. Looks like they are all hoping to get a piece of the action, and reminds me of the Sopranos!

  • jmorasco

    As an ordained minister I am offended by those who call themselves “ministers”, mainly to receive preferential treatment. I have never taken advantage of any tax breaks but I know of several people who have never attended a legitimate seminary but received their “diploma” in order to take advantage of these laws.No wonder any reasonably thinking person out there feels we are all just in this for the money.

  • Chops2

    Any thing they do that does not involve charity should be taxed. Multi million dollar mega churches are a scam and the rubes who give them money are the most easily conned fools I could ever imagine. If you like the entertainment, fine, I like the Beatles, do I claim they are like god? No.

  • jimmykraktov

    It’s time to call these “fraudulent fonies” what they really are: Cult leaders!! The raking in of funds from the gullible among us has been going, in the name of “religion” for centuries now. They need to be stopped, or at least taxed to the point where it’s no longer worth their efforts.

  • newsboy3

    Although I despise these rip-off artists just as much as anyone else, having the government involved in deciding what is or what isn’t a church is dangerous beyond belief and was spoken to DIRECTLY by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. The Johnson tax code was overreaching as it is and was set in place for the purpose of controlling religion: it is Unconstitutional. You people get all hot and bothered when they stick their fingers in your holes at airports wait until they get involved in your religion.

  • iamweaver

    The government has no real right to define who is or is not a church.On the other hand, the government certainly does have the right to decide which churches qualify as a non-profit, and should use the same yardstick used for secular organizations.

  • citizen625

    Tax ’em. Next.

  • chascar

    The majority of the people in America believe in the invisable big daddy in sky. They get the promise of everlasting life, they get to dump their guilt, they are told that they are loved and watched over by their god. They get simple answers to complex questions. They get comforted. It’s like Marx said, “Religion is the opium of the people”.

  • itsthedax

    Senate: “Are you scamming the people who give you millions of dollars?”Televangelists: “No.”Sentate: “OK.”

  • rbsher

    One need not have an “investigation” concerning this – just turn on your TV (particularly on any Sunday) and see how these “businesses” with their “fully paid for” cathedrals are raking in the money from those who truly want to believe in “something”.

  • B2O2

    It’s about time these scam artists who prey on the pitiable FauxNews captives at least paid taxes on their trade. Half of them are big time political operators anyway. Why is this so hard for the authorities to figure out?

  • dontsendnofarkingspam

    Every Church should pay taxes on profits. If they aren’t making a profit. Like any other organization they don’t have anything to worry about.

  • whynotajoke

    I’m going to start a church. The Atheist’s Church of Non Belief; Ministering to the needs of non believers in any god anywhere. Rev. Whynotajoke, Minister of Non belief Gospel of non belief that I’ll make up now:I don;t believe in god, and people that do, that’s fine, just don;t come to our church. We will drink scotch [Single malt] from large plastic cups as a sacrament, and not touch anyone under the age of 18 (Yes you Catholic priests, that includes boys of any age), nor anyone not wanting to be touched. We believe in the gospel of sitting around and maybe talking about the nothingness of being while imbibing our sacrament, and no guns will be allowed in our sanctuary. If you yell or raise you voice to a tone above a normal speaking voice, you will be excommunicated and your scotch [Single malt] will be poured either back into the bible, or poured into other member’s cups. I will also make up other more nonsensical rules as I go along, but none that hurt anyone or anything for that matter. Water added to your scotch [Single malt] might be allowed under extreme circumstances, say Christopher Hitchens stops by and we want to set a good example, but ice is okay as long as it is dry ice. Please let me know if you want to join, member ship fees and basket to be passed mid-service to increase our stores of scotch [Single malt]. Ice [regular] may be added if some British Atheist happens to come by and like ice. See, I can be a good minister and I have a good gospel started right there.

  • lifeforhimm

    Well, this is a serious response from so many that have thrown these ministers under the guilty status with no facts!!!

  • whynotajoke

    What? I am as serious as a felonious pedophile priest! They live for god by touching little boys.My church would not harm and children. As a matter of fact I am adding to my Gospel the following: Though shalt not drive drunk, of with a drunk. Thou shalt not let anyone else drive drunk. Though shall let a pedophile priest [or any pedophile for that matter] drive drunk in the trunk of a police cruiser on a very bumpy road. A laying on the hands of the pedophile may be done only if the police officer allows it by turning his dashboard camera off for the laying on of the hands…or whatever is nearby. I realize this is a direct violation of my first book of revelations from an earlier post, but I saw that this was good.

  • lifeforhimm

    Well, this is a serious response from so many that have thrown these ministers under the guilty status with no facts!!!

  • whynotajoke

    lifeforhimm:Are you a broken record or one-trick pony? Have you nothing to say? Does god hate you? Have you been touched by the hand of god?

  • lifeforhimm

    Catholic priest should be allowed to marry. God never ever said not to marry if you are a minister.

  • lifeforhimm

    Whynotajoke:What is your story?? Why are you so angry at God????????

  • lifeforhimm

    Whynotajoke:God did touch my life. He also healed my husband instantly off of his death bed…

  • BobbyYarush

    If these so called Churches took the money they acquire… and do some true good with it… such as donations to the poor… then I would say absolutely they should be exempt…. but now we all know that this isnt the case. These Tele-evangelists are lining their own pockets… houses.. cars… bank accounts. The true churches… that are worth their weight… could certainly withstand an investigation as to their finances… Iam sure.

  • IpiTombi

    church = scam

  • teddyrodo

    I guess the Benny Hinners accept that their god discriminates against ol’ Benny healing amputees, eh? whywontgodhealamputees.comLike the atheist billboards say, “…scam …”Oh yeah, the comments of the religious miracle heal claims — check out the news from around the world the day of the healing. Bet you’ll find ol’ godly doing more damage that repair. Like 1500 newborn mothers and 20,000 kids under the age of five dying EACH DAY in 3rd world countries, for one (see UNICEF stats)

  • krankyman

    It has been reported that Congress and its staffers own $35 million in back taxes. Ron Dellums, ex mayor of Oakland CA owes several hundred thousand with no payment date in sight.I suggest the members first investigate themselves, identify who refuses to pay their taxes and why.

  • hfaulk01

    Well this opened quite a bee hive for all to see.But expect no comment and no action from Congress, less THEIR ‘ministries’ become known to all.

  • eaglehawkaroundsince1937

    There is a final accounting coming.

  • JDYoung

    There is a Minister in the Washington Metro area who has a congregation of well over 10 thousand who has never taken a salary from the church(member’s find this inspiring for some reason). However he does take a “love offering” at every service that goes to his remuneration. Think of it for a moment 10,000 member’s at let’s say $2 a piece every Sunday. That’s roughly $80,000 a month & $960,000 a yr. What a racket! even if only half of the congregation comes at any one time we’re talking about $10,000 a week. TAX FREE!!!!!

  • nancop

    This is one of the oldest con games going.

  • whynotajoke

    lifeforhimm:Angry at who? I’m not angry with anyone.

  • whynotajoke

    lifeforhimm:You said: If what you say is true, and let’s assume for a minute that it is. Then your god created was, disease, the stuff that comes out of you butt hole, out of your nose, out of your pp hole, rats, malaria, anemia, cancer, dengue fever, warts, to name a few. What kind of a perfect being does such shoddy work? When you get that magic pimple on the tip of your nose, the one that hurts so bad but you cant pop it because it is so deep, do you thank god for this? Did you thank god for the reverend Fred Phelps from the Westboro Baptist Church? If what you hold is true, than what I said that follows is true and gospel.

  • usapdx



    What a bunch of idiots that follow and enrich these ministers. At least is their money that is creating and maintening millionares. In the name of God everything is possible.

  • wsblount

    Churches should pay taxes. I’d be willing to consider a hybrid system that allows for some exemptions (i.e. below designated income thresholds) or exclusions of money spent directly on some public service or program as long as those programs file detailed tax returns. Ministers should definately be paying taxes on all income they receive.

  • kalamere

    If you want to tax churches then you should tax ALL tax exempt organizations and non-profits. Why are they given tax exemptions??

  • devilsadvocate3

    @JKDOORS – You do know Jamestown was a commercial failure…right? Your truth is no more accurate. If Jamestown had been successful we would still be a part of the British empire. Many more individuals/families/group did start coming to this country fleeing religious persecution. That is not a fantasy moron, that too is a fact. Another fact, many of those fleeing religious persecution were enterprising, hardworking individuals who thrived in a country where an individual was not beholden to an aristocracy. Maybe you should retake your history courses.

  • Nymous

    They’re making their money from talking about magic dead guys, it’s sort of all downhill after that.

  • schnauzer21

    Posted by: kalamere “If you want to tax churches then you should tax ALL tax exempt organizations and non-profits. Why are they given tax exemptions??”But how many times have we heard about churches threatening to not give communion to Senators for leaning a certain way on a vote? If they continue to stick their nose into the government, then the government should stick their’s in right back. The Catholic “Counsel of Bishops” is nothing more than a lobby in a purple dress.

  • whynotajoke

    Does anyone want to join my church???

  • eezmamata

    I, yes me, I have god’s secret email address, only known to a chosen few. You’re going to hear lots of noise from your favorite ministers, preachers, hucksters and so forth, how they have the direct line.But only I have this secret email address.Send me twenty … no thirty .. no, your life savings, and I CAN MAKE YOU HARD forever … and I’ll tell god what a great person you are and how he’d be a real putz not to let you through the pearly gates, or have the 40 virgins, or whatever

  • eezmamata

    Generally speaking I like to see religions fade away into obscurity by their complete irrelevance rather than be forced out by their own perfidies, that force being executed by civil authorities.To be consistent in my desire for freedom from religion, I have to say I don’t like the idea of civil authority having anything to do with these churches.Sure, these churches are likely making suckers out of the believers, but remember who we’re talking about here — believers. They are already suckers.As long as these people aren’t hurting anyone else, the hucksters or the suckers, leave them alone.

  • wcarruth1

    My revered grandfather – a lovable rogue – said this a long time ago: “If you want to make some really big money, start your own church.” Amen to that, gramps! And, as many know, the government [no matter the leve] will maintain a strictly hands-off policy for fear of: [1]having the 1st Amendment thrown into their faces; [2] losing the votes of the millions of bible thumpers; [3] being labeled surrogates for Satan; [4] being called the anti-Christ.

  • whynotajoke

    EEZMAMATA: I am calling you out as a fraud because you can only get to the bottle, er I mean god, through me! No email will do, but you can make a donation to help fund the scotch. [Single malt.]

  • cpmondello

    Only the elimination of all conservative Christians will allow all Americans to be free and the world to no longer have to live in fear of the U.S.A.’s imperialist, terrorist holy war. The conservative ideology has never helped mankind in any way, it has not only never helped mankind in anyway, it has oppressed, murdered, raped and killed all those in it’s way to gain power. History shows us this. Fact shows us this. James Madison, the “Father of the U.S. Constitution”, along with many founders of this country, regardless of their religious or non-religious affiliations, knew keeping politics and religion separate not only preserves each, but helps them flourish: “The number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church and the State.