Joyce Meyer Ministries made the front page in today’s (Monday) Wall Street Journal. The article was about the “Wallwatchers” organization and their monitoring the financial status of churches and ministries across the country. I’ve publicly called numerous times for better accountability with media ministries (See the November issue of Charisma magazine), because there are serious financial abuses in some ministries out there. But the big question becomes: “Who’s the cop?” Who gets to be the person that decides who’s doing it right and who’s not? Who is Wallwatchers, and why should we trust them?
This isn’t to criticize the organization, which I hope is doing an excellent job. However, looking at their website, I can also see them taking issue with doctrinal and theological positions of some ministries (See “Word of Faith – A Critical Look” or “Positively Dangerous – Joel Osteen’s power-of-positive-thinking Could Lead Many Astray”). Which leads me to wonder if their theological differences impact their financial evaluations of the ministries. I’m sure Rusty Leonard, who founded Wallwatchers was motivated for all the right reasons, but when you try to become the all-encompassing, self-appointed watchdog of the Christian world, things must get muddy and confusing. His opinion on who’s humble enough, doctrinally in line, financially transparent enough, cooperative enough (who says anyone is required to cooperate with Wallwatchers?) and more, puts a lot of power in the hands of one organization.
Sounds like Wallwatchers could be setting themselves up for the very thing they are supposed to be against. I don’t know. I’d love to hear from you. Here’s the article from the Wall Street Journal. Let me know what you think…
How Rusty Leonard Watches Over Donors To TV Ministries
and Joyce Meyer’s Response
By ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS
October 30, 2006
PHOENIX — In the soaring sanctuary of the Phoenix First Assembly Church here, television evangelist Joyce Meyer recently assured 6,500 evangelical Christians that the money they were dropping into her collection buckets would feed the poor, educate the ignorant and minister to the willing.
“I’m not buying clothes or a car or a house with your money,” she thundered. “You don’t have to worry about us taking it and living a high lifestyle.”
But that is what the 63-year-old Ms. Meyer has been doing, insists Howard J. “Rusty” Leonard, who has dug up property-tax records and church financial reports. They show Ms. Meyer’s ministry has bought five houses, a private jet worth $6.5 million and expensive artwork for her, her ministry and her family to use.
Using his own money and working from a suburban office park outside Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Leonard is out to make his organization, Wall Watchers, into an investment guide for the religious. Unlike other nonprofits, which must file tax returns, churches aren’t required to report how much they receive, whom they get it from and how they spend it. Mr. Leonard reasons that if the faithful were more careful, the money would be better spent.
“If donors would stop being so dumb and start thinking like investors, then there wouldn’t be so much fraud and misuse,” he insists.
Ms. Meyer, whose ministry has agreed to pay $1.56 million in real-estate and personal-property taxes since attracting Mr. Leonard’s interest, is unapologetic about the riches she acquired. She and her husband, Dave Meyer, the ministry’s vice president, earn most of their living from royalties on sales of her inspirational books and tapes, and from other ventures, including a line of greeting cards, she says. “We give back more than we earn from our salaries. The secular world presents it like we are living the high life on poor widows,” she adds.
Mr. Leonard credits his dogged pursuit of the ministry for its new willingness to make public its financial statements and other data. Neither the Meyers nor the Internal Revenue Service will go that far. The Meyers say that criticism from outside the ministry prompted the disclosures but decline to credit Wall Watchers.
Mr. Leonard says about 85% of the ministries he asks for financial information eventually fork it over.
Raised a Catholic in suburban Philadelphia, Mr. Leonard, 47 years old, decided to devote his life to Jesus Christ when he was 19, the same year he became a stock broker. He and his wife started Wall Watchers in 1998 with their own money.
He says that he felt God called him in 1998 to “watch” over the donors who sent in donations to religious organizations after he and his wife, Carol, read Ezekiel 33:7: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.”
In 1989, Mr. Leonard had joined Templeton Investment Counsel Inc. There, he managed a $3.5 billion portfolio of client assets. He says he has provided about two-thirds of the $3 million of Wall Watchers’ operating costs so far. Mr. Leonard says that he can’t continue funding Wall Watchers with so much of his own money and may have to cut back some of the number of churches he researches. Mr. Leonard doesn’t charge or solicit donations from the churches he researches for fear that it might look like Wall Watchers’ seal of approval could somehow be bought.
Americans drop an estimated $90 billion into church collection plates yearly. When Mr. Leonard began questioning religious organizations, churches ignored his persistent calls, letters and impromptu visits.
The glare from his Web site, where he lists the recalcitrant ministries, is starting to help change that. Mr. Leonard now has a database of more than 500 ministries, many of them television evangelists, that provide audited financial statements, lists of financial holdings, and names and salaries of their ministers. He compiles data from statements on church Web sites, property-tax records and documents that nonprofits file when seeking tax-exempt status. He also sends researchers to church services to see, among other things, how a minister asks for money.
He posts reports online, along with “analysts’ comments” that describe the history, philosophy and outreach programs of each group. A “Donor Alert” cautions contributors that they should probably be giving their money to somebody else instead.
The Meyer ministry deals in Christian-theme advice on family and marriage, with the message that life is spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially rewarding for those who turn to God. At the Phoenix rally, Ms. Meyer spun an infectious mix of down-home frankness and unabashed exuberance for wealth building, with frequent breaks for sales pitches and fund raising. With music swelling in the background, she told the audience, “I said, ‘God, if I am going to be your woman, I want to be a kept woman.’ God takes care of me.”
The ministry spreads Ms. Meyer’s teachings through syndicated radio and television shows — plus 75 motivational videos, 225 audio tapes and 70 books, including the recent $23 title, “Look Great, Feel Great.”
“I know God is speaking to us through her,” Nina Long, 56, said at the Phoenix service. Ms. Long donates $210 a month to the ministry, she says.
According to its financial statements, Joyce Meyer Ministries had revenue of about $109 million in 2005, including contributions, sales
of Christian materials and speaker fees. The ministry spent about $107 million in 2005, including $33 million on its missions and outreach programs, its biggest expense. The ministry says it distributes books, holds youth programs, provides medical care, digs wells and runs food programs in Asia, South America and the U.S. — including the inner-city St. Louis Dream Center, which the Meyer ministry says serves 23,000 meals a month.
Joyce Meyer’s ministry headquarters in Jefferson County, Mo.
According to the 2005 annual report, the ministry also spends a lot on itself, including $18 million on undetailed “management and general operations” and about $11 million on “meetings and conferences.” The report includes a $347,412 line item for “books, flowers and gifts for outreach,” and $2,048,816 for travel.
Ms. Meyer and her husband run the ministry from a 560-employee office park outside St. Louis. According to state property records, the ministry’s gated, 53-acre compound includes a TV and recording studio, a distribution center for books and tapes, a 5,000-square-foot maintenance garage for the ministry’s cars and a small chapel that isn’t always open to the public.
State real-estate tax and property records show that the ministry has headquarters decor valued at tens of thousands of dollars, including a $5,000 silver eagle, an $11,000 French clock and a $30,000 conference table. Those tax records also show that at one time Ms. Meyer and her adult children lived in church-owned houses near St. Louis.
Ms. Meyer and her husband are about to move from their church-owned house to one nearby that they own themselves. A spokeswoman said the move is partly the result of criticism that they lived in a church-owned house. The other four houses that were owned by the church have already been sold.
Mr. Leonard began looking at the Meyer ministry in 2000, and three years later put it on donor alert and called for the IRS to investigate whether the nonprofit ministers’ buildings and workers were involved in for-profit sales of Ms. Meyer’s books and tapes.
In an interview, Mr. Meyer says that the IRS hasn’t contacted the church and that the church isn’t the subject of an investigation and audit. The IRS doesn’t comment on investigations.
Mr. Leonard’s inquiry caught the attention of Randy B. Holman, the Jefferson County, Mo., tax assessor. Missouri law says that a tax-exempt organization must be “purely charitable.” Mr. Holman put the headquarters on the real-estate tax and personal property-tax roles, but the ministry appealed, arguing that it is tax-exempt. The ministry also said that its donations to homeless shelters and other charitable works exceeded any taxes that Mr. Holman claimed were due.
After the local newspaper picked up the story and some ministry critics became aggressive, the ministry agreed in a negotiated settlement to pay the county slightly more than half the three-year tax bill.
After the ministry began giving Wall Watchers financial statements and information about its board, Mr. Leonard lifted the donor alert. The Wall Watchers Web site now praises the financial disclosures, which aren’t required by law and which the Web site says “many other televangelists” refuse to make.
The 2005 financial statement shows that Ms. Meyer’s salary has been cut to $250,000 a year from about $700,000. But royalties from book and tape sales now go into a private company she controls. “It is kind of ironic,” she says, “I am financially better off doing it this way. It is a blessing.”