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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Living Large on Charitable Contributions

Some of you may read Michelle Singletary’s The Color of Money column that is published in Sunday’s Washington Post’s Business Section. This column passes along financial advice, and in this past week’s column she wrote an article titled The Pulpit and the Bling-Bling, which discusses an investigation that is being conducted by Senator Charles Grassley into the financial practices of a number of high profile ministries, including Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyers, Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar. Singletary does not render judgement on whether a pastor should drive a 2007 Rolls Royce costing more than most people’s homes, but she writes a very sobering column on whether the public should be concerned over the use of charitable contributions to buy such luxury.

Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee is probing to see if any of these ministries have misappropriated charitable contributions to subsidize opulent lifestyles. He has called into question whether it is proper for a religious organization to purchase mansions and exotic automobiles for its leaders and whether these leaders should earn the salary of a CEO who runs a Fortune 500 Corporation.

Sure, I ask the same questions, and frankly I believe that it would be a challenge for most ministers to justify using charitable contributions to finance a standard of living that resembles Bill Gates, Oprah or Michael Jordan. However, in rare instances I believe an organization could justify extravagant expenditures. For instance, Dateline did an expose on the ministry of Benny Hinn in 2005. During the investigation, we learned that his organization paid as much as $10,000 per night for him to stay at an exclusive, luxury vacation villa.

Hinn is one of the most famous people in America and can’t simply stay at a $500 per night hotel and be insulated from the public during periods when he needs to break away from everyone. Obviously, wherever he goes in public, people want an autograph, want prayer or simply want to express how they have been blessed by his ministry. $10,000 would pay for five weeks stay for me and my family on the beach, but then no one knows us in Myrtle Beach. However, Hinn and other famous ministers need the exclusivity of a private villa to maintain their privacy during times of incognito.

Is $10,000 too much? Generally speaking, I would say yes, but perhaps a handful of the most prominent ministers could justify it. The Pope certainly could and perhaps Hinn; however, he never responded to Dateline’s queries about the travel expenses.

According to Singletary, David and Joyce Meyers of Joyce Meyer Ministries have been asked by Grassley to explain why the ministry spent $23,000 on a toilet, $30,000 on a conference table and more than $11,000 on a French Clock, and Creflo Dollar was asked to explain why World Changers Church International purchased him a Rolls Royce. Most people cannot fathom spending almost $65,000 for a toilet, table and clock, or more than $300,000 for an automobile. And why would a Christian leader want to bring his/her judgement into question with dubious expenditures anyway?

I’m not defending the perception that Hinn and other ministers are living too large. In fact I embrace the idea of religious organizations being accountable to their contributors; however, Senator Grassley’s investigation appears to violate the principle of church and state separation. If there is a legal wall that separates churches from the state, then “The State” can’t have it both ways: interpret the Constitution to sanction a separation and then investigate church activity, like how much compensation a church leader receives from the ministry. I have a personal disdain for church leaders living in a stratosphere that is a stone’s throw from Heaven, while many of their members can barely pay their utilities, but in those instances, I simply choose not to financially support that lifestyle, and I would urge those members to run from those ministries like it were the bell of an approaching leper.

I believe my tax dollars would be well served and the citizenry better informed if Senator Grassley would use his office to pry the minutes and findings of the Energy Commission from the office of the vice president; something that would go a long way to promote an open and transparent government like he is attempting to do with the church. Amen

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