A headline caught my eye this morning: “Indiana’s Largest Megachurch Faces New Foreclosure Proceedings.” It made me think of Steve Munsey, an Indiana prosperity preacher I watched in a Decatur, Georgia television studio in 2007, pleading for audience members and viewers to give their money to the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
As it turns out, the story is about Munsey’s church, Family Christian Center, which claims to have a weekly attendance of 15,000, making it one of the largest churches in the country. According to an investigation by the NWITimes.com, a paper covering northwestern Indiana, the judge presiding over the foreclosure proceedings told attorneys in court, “When I saw some of the expenditures being made in this church when there was a mortgage not being paid, I was astounded.” NWITimes reports that even as the church owed close to $100,000 a month in mortgage payments (not to mention mortgage payments on condos the church claimed to use for visiting clergy, and other unspecified bills in excess of half a million dollars), Munsey and his wife Melodye raked in “$2.9 million in total compensation from 2008 through 2011 from organizations connected to Family Christian Center, IRS records show.” In all, “The church annually spent $3.5 million in leadership compensation and had a $900,000 budget for travel and meals, a $500,000 housing allowance and $500,000 for jet fuel and other expenditures, according to the transcript. In 2010, the church paid $1 million for property in Illinois, the transcript states.” There’s more: an IRS investigation and tax liens, for starters. You can read the whole investigative story, for which Munsey declined to be interviewed, here.
Count me as not astounded—well, not surprised, anyway. This is an old story in the prosperity gospel world. Lavish spending, compensation through a web of for-profit and non-profit entities connected with a church—these are only some of the factors that provoked a Senate Finance Committee investigation, launched by Sen. Chuck Grassley, in 2007. The investigation took more than three years but ultimately produced nothing in terms of government oversight. Instead, after pressure from the religious right, the Committee opted for “self-reform” within churches. How has that worked out?
I first became acquainted with Munsey’s shtick in that little Georgia studio when I was working on my book, when he was the opening act for another later-fallen prosperity preacher, Eddie Long. It was the TBN “Praise-A-Thon,” and Munsey was playing a prominent role in trying to rake in the bucks for network, which, along with its founders Paul and Jan Crouch, has been embroiled in its own controversies. Here’s an excerpt:
Munsey, a middle-aged man (an “empty suit,” as described to me later by someone disenchanted with the movement) with a flop of a hairpiece that looks like straw, is imploring the audience not just to make a donation but to make a “Passover offering.” Seven is a biblically significant number, the number of completion and perfection, and in this spring of 2007 the Praise-a-thon began on Easter Sunday, the seventh day of Passover. If you make the Passover offering, Munsey claims, God will give you seven blessings: God will dispatch an angel to lead miracles; rid you of your enemies; bless you with prosperity; heal you; give you longevity; give you an inheritance you knew nothing about; and give you back everything the devil has stolen from you. In other words, these are the ways in which the TBN Praise-a-thon is about you and not about Paul and Jan Crouch or Steve Munsey or Benny Hinn or Eddie Long or anybody else making more money. Instead, if you give, you will be blessed in miraculous ways.