Depending on whom you talk to, the Greater Ministries International Church (GMIC) is either the biggest religious Ponzi scheme since the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy scandal or God's greatest gift to Christian missions in decades.

Organizationally, GMIC offices are in Tampa, Florida, where services are held several times each week, but the ministry is incorporated in the Cayman Islands. Staff members give varying answers as to its inception, ranging from 1968 to 1988. It claims to have several hundred "affiliate" churches but is not a denomination. Its founders share many of the ideas of the "common law" and militia movements, and several have prison records. But all insist they are not antigovernment. GMIC appears to handle multimillions of dollars in donations to its "Faith Promise Plan" but operates largely in cash and makes no annual reports or other financial figures available, even to members. As its founder and leader, Gerald Payne, told an Ohio audience last year, "For those who really want a financial statement, I can get you one—we're doing real good!"


Such a response did not satisfy the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, which issued a cease-and-desist order against GMIC in 1995 that it renewed in 1996. In November, state Attorney General Mike Fisher charged in Harrisburg that GMIC is engaged in "fraudulent activity in the name of religion" and obtained an injunction ordering it to stop soliciting new donors in Pennsylvania.

Similar cease-and-desist orders have been issued by authorities in Ohio and California. In late 1997, one of the church's key leaders, Patrick Henry Talbert, was indicted on 15 counts of fraud, racketeering, and grand theft, and has since left the group.

After ...

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