Senator Probes Megachurches' Finances
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, expects responses this week from half a dozen of the country's largest churches to questions about their finances.
Grassley has taken on megachurches, where millions of dollars are raised with little oversight. In letters that Grassley sent to the churches last month, he wonders whether the lavish lifestyles of the ministers violate the churches' tax-exempt status.
The churches are huge, with congregations in the tens of thousands. The buildings are like magnificent stadiums, and the pastors are larger than life.
Rev. Creflo Dollar preaches the prosperity gospel, the belief that wealth is a blessing from God. He runs World Changers International Church just south of Atlanta. In a DVD called Does God Want You to be Poor?, Dollar says that Jesus was not poor and his disciples were not poor. He says faith can transform poverty into an abundant life.
"When we are prosperous people, we are responsible for going in, going back and impacting somebody else's life that's down. That's our job: to pick people up," Dollar says on the DVD. "But listen, how you gonna pick somebody up when you're down yourself?"
Rev. Dollar did not respond to requests for an interview. At a recent Bible study at his church, he encouraged members to open a savings account. But it's the extravagant pattern of spending at megachurches that led Grassley to send letters to the six ministries — including Dollar's — with inquiries about their financial records.
The others include Bishop Eddie Long Ministries in Georgia; Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn Ministries in Texas; Joyce Meyer Ministries in Missouri; and Paula White Ministries in Florida.
Grassley said there have been complaints about the pastors' extravagant lifestyles and questions about whether the churches' tax-exempt status is being abused. That includes the personal use of Rolls Royce cars, private jets and multimillion-dollar homes. Grassley is also looking into exorbitant salaries, so called "love offerings" or cash payments to ministers; a justification for layovers in Hawaii and the Fiji Islands; and in one case, the purchase of a $23,000 commode with a marble top.
"There's enough questions being raised that we felt it should be further investigated," Grassley told NPR.
Since Grassley began seeking answers from the churches a few weeks ago, someone approached his staff with new information, that, "an individual always had to stay in a presidential suite when he traveled, and that the cost could be as high as $5,000," Grassley said. "Maybe that's not illegal, but it may raise questions about whether it's the right expenditure of money."
Some ministers have questioned the investigation. Bishop Eddie Long called it unjust and an attack on religious freedom and property rights. Long declined to talk further.
Ken Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, says that most churches in the country do not file a financial statement and they don't have the level of transparency Grassley is looking for.
None of the churches belong to Behr's group. Behr said the Senate inquiry does not infringe on the separation of church and state because Grassley's questions have nothing to do with church doctrine.
Behr said it has to do with tax issues and the following types of questions:
"Were perks actually taxable benefits? Were gifts that were given to the ministry actually what's called a pass-through transaction, where the individual gives directly to another individual rather than using the church in between?" according to Behr.
Questions also focus on compensation for the pastors. "Was there some oversight?" Behr said.
While the majority of churches have responded to Grassley, it is unclear how many will answer his questions.
Joyce Meyer Ministries has posted financial reports on its Web site. In a news release, Meyer said that even though she is not required by law to answer Grassley's questions, she will do so by the Dec. 6 deadline.
Regarding the $23,000 commode, the statement calls it "a tall, elegant chest of drawers" and says it's one of more than five dozen pieces of furniture that the ministry paid $261,000 for in 2001 to furnish its headquarters.
Grassley said he wants to make sure that billions of dollars in donations are being used properly and not for personal gain.
"My business is the enforcement of the tax laws and the integrity of the tax code and making sure that trustees of charitable giving are true trustees," Grassley said.
If the churches fail to respond this week, they could face further scrutiny from the IRS and from congressional hearings.
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