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October 30, 2006

A watchman for the house of Israel

If there were a Lord, Rusty Leonard would probably be doing His work (and given that Leonard does have an invisible friend, I guess that means he already is—uh, I think). Another gem from the (alas) subscription-only* Wall Street Journal:

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 inspir-
ational 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.

That depends on how you define “give back more than we earn:”

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.
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.
… 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.

Yet the money keeps on coming in, thanks to the sucker factor:

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.”
… “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.

Yeah: he’s telling you to stop giving money to charlatans—you’re just not listening.

Leonard says God called him to watch over the gullible back in 1998, after he 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.” And with more than suspect 500 ministries in his database, he apparently answered that call with a vengeance.

Meyer, of course, has found a way to sidestep accountability:

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.”

Praise the fraud Lord!

* You can also find the article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Posted by Stephen at 2:19 PM in Religion + cults | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

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