About two years ago, Focus on the Family — the massive non-profit group dedicated to promoting a very conservative Christian view of the world — managed to convince the IRS that it was a “church.”
How did an otherwise typical non-profit pull that off? Simple. They lied. Or at least stretched the truth beyond any conceivable reality. They said their employees were “ministers,” and their members were the “congregation,” and their cafeteria was a “place of worship,” and their board of directors were the “elders,” and their president was the “head deacon,” and their radio shows were just an “extension of its congregation.” The IRS bought it. They approved the change in 2016 and details leaked to the public in 2018.
And with that new distinction came a whole bunch of new perks… which is presumably why Focus on the Family made the switch. They won’t admit this, but being labeled a church meant they could hide salaries from the public eye, keep their major donors a secret, and never tell anyone where their money was going. They could now do all this while maintaining their tax-exempt status with the IRS.
It was just a shady move from a despicable organization.
It turns out they’re not alone.
According to the Washington Post, a number of other large Christian groups have pulled the same move: calling themselves churches when they’re really not, all to get away from any notion of transparency.
The piece hinges on the work of the watchdog website MinistryWatch, which has been paying close attention to this trend. They recently published a list of the “highest paid Christian ministry executives“… but several salaries are hidden from the public. The website had to rely on older forms submitted to the IRS — forms they no longer have to fill out as a “church.”
… MinistryWatch has identified a growing trend among Christian ministries to identify as churches and thereby withhold their Form 990s. Among the fifty largest Christian ministries in the country who have made this election include: CRU/Campus Crusade for Christ, The Navigators, Gideons International, Willow Creek Association, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Joyce Meyer Ministries, and Ethnos360/New Tribes Mission. In addition, many megachurches and their related radio and television ministries. These organizations and individuals include: Joel Osteen, David Jeremiah, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland.
These are the same Christians who routinely denounce secular ethics and call for the placement of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. Suddenly, given the chance to show people how they operate, they shut the doors because honesty would be bad for business.
How are the “churches” getting away with this? Some leaders say they just want to avoid “government interference,” which is laughable since it’s not like the government was interfering with their work in the first place, but it’s also because Christians who belong to these groups never demand the information. They’re perfectly happy to let their grifting leaders grift, and they live in a bubble where Christian superstars, like big banks, are essentially too big to fail. The leaders know they’re surrounded by yes-men too pathetic to step away from money and power or call out bad behavior, and they’re propped up by Christians who have been led to believe everyone on the outside is out to get them.
The IRS, of course, has been short-staffed and underfunded for too long. Unless there are more employees who can investigate wrongdoing, this won’t change.
Much like the Republican Party, the bad behavior some members might have called out in the past has infested the entire place. Now everyone’s taking the low road.
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