A Senate investigation into the spending of six televangelists concluded Thursday with a list of concerns and a call for the formation of a federal advisory committee to ensure religious organizations comply with laws.
Three years after launching the probe, Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Committee on Finance, released a staff review of the practices of the popular media-based ministries.
According to the report, only two of the six ministries – Joyce Meyer Ministries and Benny Hinn's World Healing Center Church – fully cooperated with the investigation and even implemented financial reforms.
"The reforms undertaken by Pastor Hinn and Joyce Meyer are extensive and are to be commended," the review states.
The other four ministries, meanwhile, did not provide responses or provided incomplete ones to inquiries made by the Senate Finance Committee. These groups include Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International, Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, and Without Walls International Church – formerly pastored by both Randy and Paula White, who are now divorced. The Florida megachurch is currently being led by Paula White.
Despite their lack of cooperation, no penalties were handed out. Much of the information detailed in the review of the ministries was obtained through public records and third parties, including insiders. But little could be confirmed about the televangelists' current salaries and spending.
The probe was launched in 2007 after Grassley received requests from members of the public to review the six ministries for alleged opulent spending and possible abuse of nonprofit status. The groups were also being questioned by ministry watchdogs and the media.
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After the probe was publicized, Grassley's office received more requests from people across the country asking for congressional investigations of other churches and religious organizations.
"The tax-exempt sector is so big that from time to time, certain practices draw public concern," Grassley said in a statement Thursday. "My goal is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations."
Grassley noted that the tax-exempt policy involving churches and religious organizations has not been looked at by Congress in decades. And through the investigation, he intended to spark discussions surrounding transparency and accountability among all types of churches and religious organizations.
"The staff review sets the stage for a comprehensive discussion among churches and religious organizations. I look forward to helping facilitate this dialogue and fostering an environment for self-reform within the community," Grassley said.
While the Senate probe garnered support from some Christian groups, it also drew protest from others who feared the investigation may delve improperly into theological questions.
The six televangelists preach what critics call the "prosperity gospel" which teaches that wealth of some form is a sign of God's blessing.
Kenneth Copeland Ministries, which provided an insufficient response to Grassley's office, argued that the inquiry was a violation of religious freedom, an invasion of privacy and a threat to the separation of church and state. KCM, like the rest of the ministries targeted in the probe, maintained that they fully comply with all laws.
Grassley's staff review noted concerns with a lack of governmental, independent or denominational oversight, especially when 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 report detailed some of the assets and questionable practices of each of the ministries, including family members holding all the key positions and occupying much of the board seats; generous housing allowances that allow the televangelists to live in multimillion dollar homes; personal use of church-owned airplanes; and compensation to relatives.
The report stressed that tax exemption for religious institutions is a privilege and not a constitutional right. Though eliminating the church exception would most likely withstand constitutional scrutiny, the report stated, it would "unnecessarily burden the overwhelming majority of churches, particularly those that are already financially challenged" and also would be contrary to Congress' intent – that is, minimal interference in church operations from the IRS.
"The challenge is to encourage good governance and best practices and so preserve confidence in the tax-exempt sector without imposing regulations that inhibit religious freedom or are functionally ineffective," Grassley said.
Grassley's staff recommended that the IRS sponsor an advisory committee comprised of representatives of churches and religious organizations, including practitioners or other experts, and that would consider only issues related to churches and religious organizations.
"We believe that such a Committee would be helpful in facilitating an ongoing dialogue between churches and religious organizations and the IRS."
Grassley has also asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an accreditation agency, to consider the issues raised in the report. In response, the ECFA has formed an independent, national commission to lead a review and provide input on major accountability and policy issues affecting churches and other religious organizations.
Notably, Joyce Meyer Ministries joined the ECFA in March 2009.