It's ironic that in celebration of a man who took a vow of poverty, we spend huge sums of money buying gifts and preparing magnificent meals in His name. I guess this is no more ironic than the extraordinary popularity of prosperity ministries, which have literally changed the spiritual landscape of Christianity. Who knew that capitalism and Christ would work so well together, propelling some religious leaders to financial freedom, while leaving many followers impoverished and shut out of the windfall?
Prosperity gospel teaches that God's devout followers and earthly leaders will prosper and be successful in all that they do, including in financial matters, as the outward expression of His favor. Many of these ministries have faced allegations of reckless spending, greed and abuse of its most vulnerable members, based on the extravagant lifestyles of their leaders.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa recently launched an investigation examining whether the spending habits of some of these leaders break the law, specifically those governing nonprofit organizations. Those under review include Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church; Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc.; David and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries; Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries; and Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries.
Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has investigated other nonprofits for misuse of funds. He requested financial documentation from the above-mentioned ministries, and at press time only Joyce Meyer has fully complied. The Copelands have handed over some documentation and Hinn plans to give his documentation in January 2008. Dollar and Long have refused, citing a separation between church and state, while Grassley maintains that he is only interested in their finances as nonprofits and not their theology. Funny how there is no mention of church and state when dining at the White House and partnering with politicians to promote conservative ideologies. Why would anyone want to muddy Jesus Christ's good name with the filth of politics anyway? Now, one of their own wants a full accounting and their feelings are hurt.
The public rarely gets an opportunity to examine the compensation of religious leaders because churches are not required to file tax returns. Churches must report to the IRS how much they pay employees, but those records are not public. You basically have to have a lot of faith that religious leaders are keeping their "word" about how money that is raised by the church is spent.
I don't think that anyone believes these folks should work for free, which is the argument that is often raised by some evangelicals, most notably Bishop Eddie Long. But, it is reasonable to expect that church leaders would exercise some humility in their spending, particularly when the populations they serve often have less than they ... even those who serve middle-class populations. Bentleys, private jets, ostentatious jewelry and numerous multimillion dollar homes are part of the portfolios of these religious leaders and glaringly defy nonprofit laws that allow for "reasonable" perks, which can obviously be broadly defined.
Perhaps it is not what they buy, but how they acquire it -- many through board votes made by relatives and loved ones. Joyce Meyer's board consists of only family members and close friends, most of whom live in multimillion dollar homes provided by the church. Paula White gave her financial advisor, Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Bentley, which was paid for by her church ... allegedly.
Even Oral Roberts, who is not being investigated, is under fire for lavish spending while his university is falling apart. Oral Roberts University is more than $50 million in debt, and its law school has closed. This is particularly disconcerting because endowment funds were tapped for personal spending, including the purchase of a multimillion dollar Beverly Hills office/home, country club membership, $39,000 spending spree by Mrs. Roberts, a senior trip to the Bahamas on the university jet for one of the Roberts daughters and a stable of horses for the Roberts children ... allegedly.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through his charity, Bishop Eddie Long paid himself $3.7 million in salary, benefits and the use of property between 1997 and 2000.
Many of us are investing our hard-earned dollars into churches, with leaders who are clearly serving themselves in questionable ways. But can we really point fingers when they cannot exist or go about the business of Christ in the way that they do without massive participation from the public?
Do you have to be poor to serve God? No. Do you have to be that damned wealthy to serve God? Hell no. As those of us who celebrate Christmas this year go about the ritual of buying our way into heaven, let's be mindful of whose interests we are really serving.