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When is a church not a church?
April 2, 2014 7:35 AM   Subscribe

NPR reporter John Burnett and investigator Samantha Sunne examine the finances of Christian TV network Daystar.
At NPR's request, the Trinity Foundation, a watchdog group in Dallas that monitors Christian broadcasters, compiled a list of the nation's 30 leading evangelist broadcasters. Twenty-two of them are designated churches, meaning they don't have to report anything to anybody. Of those, two-thirds have churches, while a third of them — including Daystar — hold no regular services.
posted by audi alteram partem (44 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I listened to this story yesterday.
I was pleased to hear of Rev. Billy Graham's commitment to financial transparency.
I serve a congregation that is committed to complete and public transparency - anybody could literally walk in off the street and check out our line-item budget that's posted on the bulletin board. They'd know what I make - but our position is that a servant leader shouldn't be ashamed of their wages, so long as they are appropriate. The reality is that these predatory organizations are "churches" in the same way that Taco Bell is "Mexican food." Maybe in the same way that Cinderella's Palace at Disneyland is a "castle".

The benefit of financial transparency is that we have far fewer accounting "discrepancies" than our conservative counterparts. Our routine financial audits are quick and painless.

The only data that is hidden from sight is individual giving records - this information is available only to the financial secretary. I have literally no idea what my individual members contribute to the organization. Some consultants have advised me that this is a lousy way to run a non-profit since the senior pastor is supposed to be the "fund-raiser in chief."
But I like it. It permits me the personal freedom to embrace impartiality in how I work with the membership. I think everyone gets this. My time isn't for sale.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:47 AM on April 2 [66 favorites]


I find it amusing and ominous (ominusing?) that Daystar is a title linked to Lucifer in the Christian tradition, who is in turn linked to Satan.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:54 AM on April 2 [12 favorites]


Slap*Happy, I thought the exact same thing - I looked it up. It appears that they get a lot of grief over this because they put it right in their "about" page. I guess they're, like, mocking the devil or something. I dunno. That's what you get when you use a goofy translation of the greek.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:58 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Baby_Balrog: "The only data that is hidden from sight is individual giving records - this information is available only to the financial secretary. I have literally no idea what my individual members contribute to the organization. Some consultants have advised me that this is a lousy way to run a non-profit since the senior pastor is supposed to be the "fund-raiser in chief."
But I like it. It permits me the personal freedom to embrace impartiality in how I work with the membership. I think everyone gets this. My time isn't for sale.
"

Our synagogue is set up much the same way. An announcement went out to the entire congregation when our Rabbi's contract as renewed, with his salary details. Details of individual gifts are never released, per Maimonides' eight levels of charitable giving.

Transparency is important. People should know how their money is being used, and for what. But it's easier with a decentralized system. The moment you get into a Catholic Church-style hierarchy, it becomes harder to track financials.
posted by zarq at 8:01 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


Grifters gonna grift.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:06 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I heard this and as a tax payer I WANT this thing audited. It's not a church, it's a telethon.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:23 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I find it amusing and ominous (ominusing?) that Daystar is a title linked to Lucifer in the Christian tradition, who is in turn linked to Satan.

Amunous.
posted by Theta States at 8:29 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


Aagh. My blood pressure went up 40 points as I listened to this this morning.

The double-standard for contribution transparency enjoyed by churches compared to all other not-for-profits has to end. Whatever supposedly good reason there might originally have been for it - avoiding persecution of people by govt based on religious affiliation, I suppose? - has been outlived. Further, the assumption that all churches get insta-tax-exempt status also needs to be seriously re-examined.

And if laws that touch fundamentalist evangelists ever do get tightened, expect a shit-storm of right-wing complaints about persecution of Christians by Democrats. (Sigh.)
posted by aught at 8:36 AM on April 2 [9 favorites]


The transparency is meaningless. They still don't pay taxes on the ridiculous profits and property (see the $6.5 million lake front "parsonage"). And if people are still willing to shower their few remaining pennies on the Billy Graham's of the world where everything is supposedly open, why would this couple's sudden filling of a 990 change anything? It might cost them some of the ~$34million they take in on average every year?

They're still grifting their "congregation" and the rest of tax paying society.
posted by Big_B at 8:44 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Transparency might help reveal if the advocacy that do on behalf of a variety of evangelical and conservative causes is largely funded by the efforts of big money donors that are using evangelical churches as a way of getting out the evangelical vote.
posted by vuron at 8:51 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


I'm totally with Slap*Happy here. Christian fundamentalism has a deep strain of belief in the magical and occult. Words matter, names definitely matter (if only in a sloppy and superficial way). So to acknowledge the synonymy of Daystar and Satan, then go ahead and use the name feels at best naive.

It has been a long time since I've been a Pentecostal, or even a theist, but a network named for Lucifer, promulgating a perverse gospel of prosperity fits neatly in the Pentecostal end times narrative with its brazen false prophets leading the church astray.
posted by wotsac at 8:56 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


Tansparency is meaningless. They still don't pay taxes on the ridiculous profits and property (see the $6.5 million lake front "parsonage").

Transparency lets you know how big their ridiculous profits are and how much they spent on that lake front property. That lets you (a generic, plural 'you' of the citizenry) advocate for changing the laws that enable tax exemption, and it lets people making a donation (or choosing not to) know where that money is going, if they choose to look. Transparency is not a panacea, that's true, but it's not meaningless: it's a tool, both for people within a given organization and without.
posted by cjelli at 9:02 AM on April 2 [12 favorites]


From the NPR article:
"There was abuse. But I don't want to say because there was abuse by a handful of televangelists that that's spread among all the churches of America," says Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who was the head of the Finance Committee when it launched the investigation. In an interview with NPR, he expresses dismay at the findings of his staff.

"Before the crucifixion, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of an ass. And to see people traveling around in Bentleys seems to be a waste of the resources that could be used to help people in need and to win converts," Grassley says.
Why the hell isn't every religious Christian politician in Congress emphasizing this? Blasting them as wasteful and sinful to voters? Tax exemptions for Churches do not exist so that clergy or staff can drive around in $175,000 cars. Even the most brain-dead tax-payer would understand that.

I get that a few of those politicians are probably supported in office by illegal political support and contributions, but still... that's a loophole that also needs to be closed.
posted by zarq at 9:03 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Well said cjelli.

I also think the story is kind of burying the lede a bit. This paragraph is what stood out to me:
The Church Audit Procedures Act states that a high-ranking Treasury Department official must sign off if the IRS demands a church's records. But since a court ruling in 2009, the IRS has not changed the law to specify who that high-ranking official should be. And here's the catch: until that happens, there's no one in the government to authorize a church audit.
Obviously this could be quickly fixed if there was any political will to do so, but I still find it troubling that it's apprently legally impossible for the IRS to audit a church right now.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:05 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


Even if it wasn't legally impossible it's politically impossible
posted by vuron at 9:06 AM on April 2


This aerial photograph shows Kenneth and Gloria Copeland's lakeside villa, valued at $6.3 million, which is not taxed because it is listed as a parsonage.

LOL forever. We'll be moving to a parsonage sometime in the next year, a girl can dream!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:19 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I guess they're, like, mocking the devil or something.



Satan is not mocked.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:27 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

Jude 8-9
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:40 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


There's an argument to be had about whether religious organizations—particularly politically active ones—should have to pay taxes, and this may not be the right context to have that argument. But if that ever changes, they should start by going after ones like these.
posted by Flexagon at 9:50 AM on April 2


Any rationale for tax exemption of churches long since passed away. Churches should be taxed, period, whether they're the friendly Methodists on the corner, the perfectly above-board Jewish synagogue down the street, the Prosperity Gospel Megachurch sitting on a couple hundred million in assets, or the grifter telethon "churches" that simply pocket 99% of what they bring in.

Churches should not be exempt from taxes, period. Render unto Caesar.
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:53 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


T.D. Strange: " Churches should not be exempt from taxes, period. Render unto Caesar."

I assume you're also in favor of eliminating tax-exemption for other non-profits, then? Because my synagogue certainly doesn't function as a for-profit business.
posted by zarq at 9:58 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, we'd have to tax everybody. Sorry, cancer foundations! Sorry, educational foundations! Cough it up! Of course, how would that even work- what would be the basis for the tax? All dollars incoming? All dollars leftover at the end of the year? Something else?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:00 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I assume you're also in favor of eliminating tax-exemption for other non-profits, then?

What is the basis of your assumption?
posted by mr. digits at 10:02 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


To clarify, I'd personally have zero problem with Churches of all stripes/creeds/sects being treated exactly the same as other nonprofits, and having to prove they continue to meet that criteria every single year. In fact, I think that would be a hell of a lot more fair than the way they're handled now, and given (perhaps undue) special status.

But otherwise T.D. Strange, I suspect your suggestion would require a somewhat drastic reshaping of our economic/taxation landscape, so that religious institutions and other nonprofits which support the advancement of religion (501(c)(3)'s) aren't treated differently than other nonprofits.
posted by zarq at 10:07 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


The reality is that these predatory organizations are "churches" in the same way that Taco Bell is "Mexican food." Maybe in the same way that Cinderella's Palace at Disneyland is a "castle".

I would say it's worse than that. Because they're not churches, they're TV networks (or media conglomerates, or production companies, or whatever the most technically correct term would be).

It's like claiming that Party City is a Mexican restaurant because they sell Cinco De Mayo supplies, or that this book is a castle.

Disseminating information about a thing doesn't make you that thing.
posted by Sara C. at 10:10 AM on April 2


mr. digits: " What is the basis of your assumption?"

Most "churches" as the IRS defines the term, actually function as nonprofits. The outliers in this article notwithstanding. Eliminate their tax exempt status completely, and you'd essentially be mass-targeting all religions and treating them differently than other nonprofit organizations.

The IRS cannot decide whether a nonprofit is providing a useful or important service to the public. Simply whether it meets requirements.

The idea raises an additional question. Would tax exemptions be eliminated for non-Church nonprofits that qualify for related benefits under 501(c)(3)? Many religious organizations that do not carry out the functions of a church, such as mission organizations, speakers’ organizations, nondenominational ministries, ecumenical organizations, or faith-based social agencies do qualify for exemption.
posted by zarq at 10:23 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I once watched a program on DayStar. It consisted of a man in a suit holding $100 in cash and saying "A hundred dollars is good. But you know what's better? A thousand dollars. A thousand dollars can buy you a used car. If you donate to my ministry, God will reward you."

Just my two cents, which, admittedly, will not buy you a car.
posted by ILuvMath at 10:44 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


So in addition to being a rube-baiting scam, DayStar rips off the Oscar-winning script of The Social Network??
posted by Bromius at 11:18 AM on April 2


Churches should not be exempt from taxes, period. Render unto Caesar.

Probably wouldn't do too much. Contributions aren't taxable income, and most people don't itemize so they don't get the benefit of the deduction.

At any rate, the UK a few years ago got rid of religion as a distinct basis of tax exemption / charitable status, replacing it with a uniform "public benefit" standard. I haven't heard any news on that in several years, so I'd be surprised if it really upset the apple cart much.
posted by jpe at 11:38 AM on April 2


The IRS cannot decide whether a nonprofit is providing a useful or important service to the public. Simply whether it meets requirements.

Actually, one of the requirements is that it provide a useful or important service. US tax exemption law is based on the old Pemsel case (19th century or so English case). It lays out charitable purposes as religion, education, relief of the poor, and provision of public benefit. This latter is the catchall, and it very much turns on whether the charity provides an important service.
posted by jpe at 11:40 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Any mefites want to get together and form a church? We can call it the church of the hivemind, put all our assets in it and stop paying taxes. Then we'll scam millions from miserable folks who just want a bit of hope and buy ourselves private jets, race cars, waterfront mansions.

This shit is sick, and these are some of the same so-called Christians who want to take over this country and turn it into their own Greedtheocracy.
posted by mareli at 12:02 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


zarq: "But it's easier with a decentralized system. The moment you get into a Catholic Church-style hierarchy, it becomes harder to track financials."

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends (and has for like 20 years now) that all diocese implement transparent financials and publicly-available yearly audits. They're usually on the website in summary form and you can drop by the diocesan office to see the whole book. Some dioceses have not implemented the recommended controls and transparency, but they are out of line with best practices and the majority of the US church, and there is considerable internal pressure to fall in line.

When I went to (Protestant) seminary, this was actually a big topic, because most major denominations have moved to a transparent financial model (suggested or required) in the past 20 years; most have adopted modern accounting standards; and pastors in general are very poorly trained to deal with this. Most churches/parishes still have a pastor/priest responsible for the money -- you wouldn't really want to hire a treasurer at EVERY church! -- and maybe a full-time secretary who helps out. There's been a big push, especially in Protestant denominations where individual churches are more independent of the denominational control, to provide much, much more training for church personnel on this. (In Catholic churches, the Diocesan office can hire a centralized financial staff and send them out to the parishes much more easily.) But financial education isn't part of the M.Div. curriculum or ordination requirements in any denomination that I'm aware of, and this is primarily treated as a professional development sort of issue with seminars at continuing education events. It gives a lot of pastors a LOT of anxiety.

But anyway, yeah, it's typically the independent, non-affiliated churches where the worst financial shenanigans occur. Large denominations have all moved towards recommending or requiring transparency, and even before that they had more regional oversight and a lot more people up in your financial business willing to rat you out if you were cheating.

And indeed, the article notes that Daystar uses "a structure the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability considers bad governance."

There is also, I have observed, a certain culture among church people that "since we're working for God, it's okay if we don't follow the (legal & financial) rules too closely, people know we mean well." And a lot of them do and if you give a struggling family $100 for groceries and forget to record it, well, what harm? And if you run your whole ministry that way because churches have forever, and also finance is complicated and time-consuming, and also you're not so great with numbers or computers, well, who is it hurting? You're HELPING people! And you end up with these churches that fall apart from bad financial management (typically from either being catastrophically sued or from being unable to pay salaries and rent), which is too bad, but what's worse is that that kind of attitude gives cover to charlatans and embezzlers who take advantage of these attitudes. (And really -- old story! "We're all about the SOUL! The material stuff is someone else's problem!" is pretty much the oldest financial corruption story in Western civilization; a lack of attention to worldly matters makes you a very easy target for exploitation.) There's a lot more emphasis on responsible stewardship of church funds (typically with theological justifications for why it's necessary, such as here) than there used to be, and a lot more emphasis on "professional management" not so much to "run the church like a business" but to ensure that the books are clean and the insurance is up-to-date and the snowplow guy gets paid so that the ministers are free to minister instead of flailing around dodging lawsuits. And part of that is because of a recognition that people can and do use Christianity as a front for scams and they can get away with it for years and years, and that is bad for Christianity, bad for individual churches, and bad for the Gospel, and that the antidote to that isn't an argument from authority ("We're the Presbyterians! Just trust us that we're good, not like those embezzlers over there!") but transparency and honesty.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:09 PM on April 2 [10 favorites]


jpe: " Actually, one of the requirements is that it provide a useful or important service. US tax exemption law is based on the old Pemsel case (19th century or so English case). It lays out charitable purposes as religion, education, relief of the poor, and provision of public benefit. This latter is the catchall, and it very much turns on whether the charity provides an important service."

Oh, neat. I learned something! Thanks!:)
posted by zarq at 12:54 PM on April 2


We can call it the church of the hivemind, put all our assets in it and stop paying taxes. Then we'll scam millions from miserable folks who just want a bit of hope and buy ourselves private jets, race cars, waterfront mansions.

There are a lot of reasons you couldn't do that. Since you're not serious, I'm not going to go through them all.
posted by jpe at 1:12 PM on April 2


Of those, two-thirds have churches, while a third of them — including Daystar — hold no regular services

What constitutes a service?

Surely there's sermons and calls to prayer and other religious service-y stuff airing on Daystar.
posted by Sauce Trough at 1:22 PM on April 2


jpe: "We can call it the church of the hivemind, put all our assets in it and stop paying taxes. Then we'll scam millions from miserable folks who just want a bit of hope and buy ourselves private jets, race cars, waterfront mansions.

There are a lot of reasons you couldn't do that. Since you're not serious, I'm not going to go through them all.
"


What? Why couldn't you do it? All you have to do is pass the 14 point test:

(1) a distinct legal existence
(2) a recognized creed and form of worship
(3) a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
(4) a formal code of doctrine and discipline
(5) a distinct religious history
(6) a membership not associated with any other church or denomination
(7) an organization of ordained ministers
(8) ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies
(9) a literature of its own
(10) established places of worship
(11) regular congregation
(12) regular religious services
(13) Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and
(14) schools for the preparation of its ministers

Most of these are paperwork exercises. Make a weekly Sunday School FPP and BAM! The Church of the Community Weblog is born.

Matt's already got a hundred thousand or so who've shelled out a fiver just to login. All we need to do is promise people eternal salvation and they'll flock to us.
posted by Big_B at 1:23 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Praise be to The Blue and The Green and The Gray. May they bring everlasting life, unending peace, and never ending discussion of minutiae.

Amen.
posted by sio42 at 1:28 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Wait...wait...come back...I need to sprinkle pixels on your username!
posted by sio42 at 1:29 PM on April 2


When the pastor is a little horse?
posted by Reverend John at 1:33 PM on April 2


We can call it the church of the hivemind, put all our assets in it and stop paying taxes. Then we'll scam millions from miserable folks who just want a bit of hope and buy ourselves private jets, race cars, waterfront mansions.

That's essentially the story of Scientology.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:31 PM on April 2 [8 favorites]


Call me old-timey, but I think there needs to be less of this talk of vague concepts and associated colors, like "Blue" and "Green" and "Gray," and more good old-fashioned worship of Shai-Hulud, bless his Water, bless the coming and the going of Him.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:56 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


It would be nice if the sheep would do a wee bit of research and quit sending checks to the fleecers. I blame us. (The faithful.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:08 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


You're right TheWhiteSkull.

It is time we got to basics.

Stillsuits for everyone.
posted by sio42 at 5:57 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Baby_Balrog: "Slap*Happy, I thought the exact same thing - I looked it up. It appears that they get a lot of grief over this because they put it right in their "about" page. I guess they're, like, mocking the devil or something. I dunno. That's what you get when you use a goofy translation of the greek"

From that link:
Satan is reminded of the title and position he lost every time “Daystar” is whispered thru the airwaves as we know He is the prince and power of the air.
I know that "He", being capitalized, if a pronoun reference to the Christian diety, but if you read that sentance with it just a regular pronoun it is quite.... ominous.
posted by I am the Walrus at 2:16 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


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