The Watchdog of Religious Media Ministries?

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.”

This entry was posted on Monday, October 30th, 2006 at 8:51 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Randy

    I have read some of the Wallwatchers stuff. I do appreciate the outing of financial lifestyles and apparent mususe of funds.  It always amazes me that when creative financing risises to the public spector, changes are made publically concerning how a ministry is run. I do not like their attacks on individuals that don't see things their way.  That kind of "reporting" seems to place them as official overseer, according to how they see it, right, worng, or debateable.

     

    I have read your artical on Charisma for November and agree with you there! I became tired of trinkits for money a long time ago. If someone is sending money to any ministry for a book, sun catcher, or what ever is being offered in exchange for money, I believe that person has recieved their reward.  I'm tired of telethons, droning, rambling, high pressure offerings.  It is deception and it makes Christians appear goofy to the world we're are trying to influence.

    One of your contributors is Hugh Hewitt, author of The Embarrassed Believer. I felt compelled to take the book down from my bookshelf and begin reading it again a cpuple of days ago. 

  • Mary Hutchinson

    Has anyone caught the new Jim Bakker show of late?

    He is on about 50 affiliates with the same talk show format he pioneered at CBN and TBN.

    He was the first guy out there to try to add some creativity to Christian broadcasting, offer something besides a man in a suit preaching.

    After his past failures, he is not doing the typical fundraising thing to pay for the program.  Its an hour long and tends to be half talk show and talk infomercial for products.  You like the product, you buy, bills get paid.

    His audience is the same as its always been, and Brason seems to be the perfect place to invite all the retirees to come se him.

    When intereviewed,he is the first to say that Christian TV is terrible, embarassing and that today's young people need to do what he did in his youth –find a new way to reach their age group.

     

  • http://www.myspace.com/donna_ellis mrs. ellis

    hi, Phil,

    i'm Roman Catholic, and i took notice that they list only a couple RC ministries, when we have SO MANY wonderful ministries throughout the world.  also, i found the organization guilty of typical, fundamentalist "Catholic bashing," mild as it may be.

  • Lawrence Kelley III

    The Bible, the Inspired Word of the God of Israel, says this contradiction to the “prosperity” doctrines preached by Joyce Meyer and many others: “All who DESIRE to live Godly in Christ, SHALL SUFFER PRESECUTION.” I Timothy 3:12. Read also Hebrews Chapter 11 about the martyrs, past and present (namely missionaries today) that died horrible deaths and lived horrible lives due to their committment to the Truth of God. (Today, the Muslims kill Christians at record rates and the American news media never mentions it.)
    Its hard when perecuted to be financially successful, and I challenge Ms. Meyer, or Joel Osteen, or Rick Warren to tell me how it is done.
    Jesus, the author of the Bible, thru His inpsired, obedient servants, made that statement of spiritual reality. He also said that, “The world will HATE YOU because of me…..” Mark 13:13, Luke 21:17, John 15:18 and I John 3:13.
    And why would this be so? Because Christians are supposed to be at the forefront on speaking out against evil and wickedness, and lawlessness and all other evils that “lie against the Truth” that God gives us through Jesus Christ and His Word. Need a reference? Try this quote: “Have NOTHING to do with the fruitless deeds of drakness, but instead EXPOSE THEM.” Ephesians 5:11. Christians should be the biggest Whistleblowers in the world.
    Here’s another quote: “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, SHOUT IT from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:26-28
    There are more verses about the consequences of ones’ belief in Jesus Christ than there are about living an “abundant life” (read prosperous), at least as Jesus would have it defined. And it doesn’t mean getting rich and giving a mere 10-20% of your income to charities or ministries. If the Rapture they all preach about is so imminent, then why not give 80-90% to needy causes like those mentioned in Matthew Chp. 25:31-46?? That would still leave all these spiritual hucksters as millionaires several times over. Am I wrong?? Meyer admitted this herself at the end of the above article: her income was reduced from $750,000 to $250,000 and she “better off for doing it this way.” Not a word about whether it was “God’s Will” or not. Humm??
    So, the fact that just one man, Howard “Rusty” Leonard, of GodWatch and Wall Watchers, is at least giving us some guidance and insight, thru his expensive research, is not a bad sign. Apostle Paul’s ministry and that of all the early disciples of Christ was one of speaking out and getting into trouble for it, not merely proclaiming the Gospel, but speaking the Truth about Everything around them.
    Every major Bible character from Joseph, son of Jacob to John exiled to the island of Patmos, got into BIG trouble with those in power for refusing to be silent about the Gospel and speaking out against Evil and wickedness in the society around them. John the Baptist had the nerve to call King Herod an adulterer, and got killed for it.
    Many, many major American and foreign Christian ministries have existed for decades and NEVER had a bad word said about their financial incomes or any other shady financial allegations.
    So before you either believe their teachings and preachings, and CERTIANLY, BEFORE you give any of these so-called Christian ministries your hard earned money, Go to God Watch dot org and get at least some critical insight of how they behave compared to so many, many other true Christian ministries that are not the least bit ashamed to publicly publish their financial statements through Mr. Leonard’s website. You’ll be gald you did, I was.

  • Cooke Reader

    This just reinforces my belief that most of these people are crooks.

  • Cooke Reader

    Phil,

    What happened to the watchdog group that ministries would joined by choise? I can't remember the name but I think Billy Graham ministries belonged. It verified all elements of the ministry and then got a seal of approval.

    Mack

  • jsindorf

    The group that Mack is refering to is the ECFA, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, and nothing happened to it — it is strong and still doing what it was intended to do. BTW if you go to the Wall Watcher’s site (click on the link in Phil’s article) and search for your favorite (or least favorite) ministry, you will see if that group is part of ECFA and how long they have been a member. But Wall Watchers thinks that is not good enough. They process all the info they can get from a 501(c)(3) organization and distill that into a handy Five Star rating to help donors determine if that is a good group to donate to. The poor suckers who are tagged with one star are in the Wall Watcher Toilet of Shame (my term, but it’s catchy, don’t ya think?). Who are some of these wretched slackers? Here is a very short list: American Bible Society, Habitat for Humanity International, Far East Broadcasting Company, Inc., Mission Aviation Fellowship, Bibles for the World,
    Turning Point Ministries, African Enterprise,
    Children’s Bible Hour… the list goes on, but you get the idea — these are top shelf, effective ministries have been given only one star out of five, and therefore must not be trusted with our God-entrusted resources. I have sat in the executive meetings of a non-profit group during the creation of its budget trying to allocate expenses to categories that are looked on more favorably by Wall Watchers to try to get a better rating from them, because more and more, donors are doing research — and that is a good thing. But, sometimes they get a bit agressive and really go after a ministry (like Joyce, or Benny or TBN) and put out headlines warning donors not to send any money to these ministries. Since, as Phil pointed out, this is a non-profit agency, they need donations and making news usually helps get donations. Really, I doubt that Wall Watchers had any impact at all on Joyce’s financial management — it is more likely the St. Louis newspapers. Joe Sindorf, Director of Media & Marketing, GRF

  • drenda

    I think that self-appointed "watch-dogs" like Wall Watchers can prove to be just as dangerous as the ministries they purport to hold accountable. The power to pronounce judgment can become more addictive and can produce controlling behavior with greater negative consequences than misuses of money! As a successful business owner of 24 years and ministry leader as well, I have seen danger in individuals wielding their personal opinions and judgments often motivated by pride to create far more serious issues than perceived financial indiscrepancies of others. If we live by the sword then we die by the sword.

    Not that there isn't a place for accountability and open communication to donors, and should be, but when any individual determines themselves to be the God-appointed judge, then they run the same risk if not greater of becoming "The King Who didn't Wear Any Clothes." To allow doctrinal issues into their ministry accessments signals that Wall Watchers is already in danger of error. Self-appointed scrutiny of others rarely stops with one area, but quickly spreads like a cancer. Even if Wall Watchers has a great understanding in the financial arena, are they theologians now as well? Who holds Wall Watchers accountable? If God doesn't want to separate the tares from the wheat until the judgment so that no wheat is lost in the transaction, do we not run a serious risk of damaging the church and its followers, and the world's view, with our own harsh judgments? In finality, every man and woman will give the greatest accountability on that judgment day. Until then, we should all operate our personal lives and ministries with "The Watcher" in mind.

    What's the answer? I'm not sure. But I would encourage any who feel they have been appointed as a watch-dog or critical eye of ministries to also consider all of the difficulties in running a ministry, oversight of compliance with tax codes, regulatory bodies, employee issues, and tireless hours of work, in addition to the hardships and criticisms that ministry will produce, and be careful not to be guilty of "hindering" ministry in an effort to curtail abuses in ministry. Perhaps if a watch dog has never successfully operated a large ministry, they are not the person with the best perspective to "oversee" others' ministry. I have worked in both secular and ministry arenas, and certainly ministry in my opinion, requires the greater sacrifice. 

    I have personally yet to meet a minister who does it for money, although I'm sure they exist, but not nearly as much as some would have you believe. I'm also sure there are easier ways to make money than ministry. Scripturally, we are told the workman is worthy of his hire and the minister of the Word is worthy of double honor (I Timothy 5:17). If a CEO built a company the size of Joyce Meyer's, even as a motivational speaker, they would receive greater compensation, without the Wall Watcher's or others' scrutiny. How sad, if we lost such leaders in the Body of Christ because we drove them away from the church with our judgments. The world applaud's such success in the non-Christian. As the church, we are "suspicious" of success and assume they must have done something wrong, since after all following God's ways certainly couldn't make someone successful (as if God has no clue about success and His Word is a book about failure)? Our pitch should be, "Come follow God and you too can be a failure like us!" Where's the watch-dog who seeks out failures in the church? We would never do that! But we are quick to go after success with vehement inidignation, as if to say, "Success and money are evil. Let us show you how to avoid both." My mom called it "biting your nose off to spite your face."

    People tend to focus on finding fault with your success than praise of the many years of sacrifice of both time and money it took to reach such a level of impact and notariety as that of Joyce Meyer. Criticism is part of the territory; it was for Jesus' ministry as well. Those who zealously found fault with his doctrine and financial holdings may have thought they were in the right. Perceptions can be so wrong! Opinions are one thing; judgment and publically denouncing ministries is another! Accurate judgment requires great humility and a flawless person. I'm not sure any of us can play that role!

  • Monique

    Very well put!

  • Cooke Reader

    They'll know we are Christians by our love….What's with this separatist spirit in the church?  The church is supposed to walk in love and unity.  The devil loves the critical bashing that is so prevalent amongst denominations and watchdog groups….while the Lord is surely grieved. The world sees the bashing as well and labels us accordingly.  Guys, we gotta stop it!  It's time to stop the nonsense and start to truly live the gospel and live 1Corinthians 13.  Read the Joyce Meyer Ministries response to the Wall Street article on her website.  Read her financial accountability and financial statements.  Read about how she doesn't take a dime of royalties from the many books that she has written.  Read about how she has put millions into tsunami and disaster relief, orphanages, feeding programs and outreaches throughout the world. You'll then see that it is clear that Wallwatchers has another agenda besides truth.  If you continue to walk in judgment of others without investigating the whole truth, you are choosing to walk in sin.

  • larry kelley

    I hope you were refreshed with that blast of God’s Truth. Keep it in your heart always. Our God, the God if Israel, is a God of mercy and love. We need only to repent and keep trying.

  • larry kelley

    God must have been confused when He spoke thru the Gospels when He said that suffering would always be close when living a life of truth and speaking out against evil in addition to preaching the Gospel, something Joyce Meyer NEVER does.

    You may as well also cut out of your Bible and throw away all those New Testament verses that show clearly we are to scrutinize those within the church who preach false doctrines by following Paul’s example. Paul made his “judgments” and as a prophet of God. He made numerous “judgmental” statements against those were preaching any other gospel than that which he delivered to them by God’s Command.

    And there is another void in your comments. The gift of prophecy is alive and well if you seek it out, and Rabbi Cahn in Harbinger prophetic book made this wonderfully clear. He also did the Isaiah 9:11 DVD. Present day prophets edify the church by also speaking out against any evil in the church and outside it. America’s churches are far gone away from God, the vast majority of them and the true Gospel is not preached at all as clearly shown by the doctrinal errors being committed, including the likes of Joyce Meyers and her basic doctrinal errors.

    Living a lavish lifestyle from monies that yes come even widows or widowers, and then keeping 70-80% of the profits is sinful, and has the exact same parallel to the husband-wife who withheld monies by lying about it, They were “judged” on the spot and dropped dead. Indeed, even Jesus said some “harder” things than that for all those would be his true disciples. FOR THE TESTIMONY OF JESUS IS THE SPIRIT OF PROPHECY. Revelation 19:9-11. We must also believe by Meyer’s doctrine and yours that all the mainline church prophets who speak out against her are all false prophets seeking to mislead others. All one has to do to see Ms. Meyer’s is a fraud is to read the entire Bible, and especially the whole New Testament. There are many critical parts of the N.T. which Joyce Meyers has never preached on at any times, anywhere.
    I would never be adverse to any pastor of a large gospel-preaching church being paid a sum of $150,000 per year, tax-free and net receipt. But more than that in this country is not needed to be compensated and live very, very well. But not several million dollar plus homes and several private jets, one is enough.
    And that goes to the final issue. A great deal of what Joyce Meyers preaches in her dozens of books and DVDs is nothing close to repeatedly presenting the plan of salvation and many mainline church teachings which are clear from the face of many scriptures. The common error and even heresies of these multi-millionaire evangelists like Brother Murdoch and Meyers are the exact same as God spoke to thru Paul in the Epistles. Their doctrines are far away from the suffering that the church will indeed go through until the sound of the Last trumpet near the end of the Tribulation period. The rapture delusion has them thinking they get a Pass card for suffering anything and are special above all other martyrs of the Christian church. And John Nelson Darby was shown and proven an arrogant boorish man who also distorted and falsely prophesied a new interpretation now called the Rapture doctrine.
    None of these major self-anointed disciples of God speaks a word about the soon coming tribulation the last true disciples of Christ on earth will suffer. Many who follow them will be deceived by the False Prophet and the Beast and think that Jesus changed His mind and decided to stay on Earth and discard His earlier judgment and warned destruction. They will also lose their salvation by taking the mark of the beast.
    This is how we know that the likes of Joyce Meyer are Not preaching the truth from God in His Word but instead make merchandize of the gospel. She also does not directly support homeless services in any perceptible way, or any of the other 5 needs of the impoverished and heartbroken as stated in Matthew 25: 31-46. That is our other litmus test for true godly sharing of one’s wealth, especially since the rapture is so imminent there is no justifiable need retain such personal wealth. Now who could argue with that? Why save your huge profits instead of saving starving homeless, and others sick or in jails. I have never heard of Joyce Meyer doing anything such as visiting to preach at any jails or prisons or nursing homes, ever.