Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating several major church-based ministries known for their leaders' lavish lifestyles and prosperity teachings.
"Recent articles and news reports regarding possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Committee," Grassley wrote to the ministries in letters asking for detailed financial records.
None of the ministries targetedthose led by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula Whiteare required to file the financial disclosure Form 990 with the IRS because they are are designated as churches.
Grassley "is not just asking them to come in and talk, he is asking them for everything," Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, told The Tampa Tribune, which in May ran a lengthy investigative report on the Whites' Without Walls church and its finances.
The ministries have until December 6 to submit audited financial statements, compensation reports, records for ministry jet travel, and other documents. The Tampa Tribune has posted the letters to each ministry.
Some of the ministries contacted by news organizations say they will respond to the requests.
Creflo Dollar told CBS News his ministry is an "open book" and said he would comply with any "valid request" from Grassley. But he also warned that Grassley's investigation possibly affects "the privacy of every community church in America."
Joyce Meyer Ministries noted an October letter from the IRS stating, "We determined that you continue to qualify as an organization exempt from Federal income tax." The ministry also said that audited financial statements are available on its website. "JMM is committed to conducting itself with excellence and integrity, choosing to go above and beyond the level of accountability required by law," the organization told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which published a series of investigative reports on the ministry in 2003.
Randy and Paula White, who recently announced their divorce, told The Tampa Tribune they found the request "unusual, since the IRS has separate powers to investigate religious organizations if they think it's necessary. So we find it odd that the IRS did not initiate this investigation. It also seems odd that they have asked about areas that have no relationship to the operation of the church."
Grassley's office told the Tribune that the IRS "has been unable to keep up with the exponential growth of all tax-exempt organizations, including churches and ministries."
While Grassley is not proposing any changes to the law or tax code, he's suggesting that he may do so after the investigation. "Based on initial review, the way ministries operate has changed significantly over the last 20 years to 25 years, while the tax laws governing them for the most part have not," his office said.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today has previously profiled Randy and Paula White's Without Walls.
Joyce Meyer has responded to criticism about her church's finances in the past.
A 2003 Christianity Today editorial said financial transparency was a must, even when not legally required.
Other articles on faith-word churches and fiscal responsibility include:
First Church of Prosperidad | Arlene Sanchez Walsh on the African-style prosperity gospel right in our backyardsin immigrant Latino churches. (July 6, 2007)
Televangelist Report Card | A recent study reveals how religious broadcasters actually use their airtime. (October 22, 2001)