Ministers Respond to Megachurch Investigations

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Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has asked for the financial records of six evangelical megachurches to look into concerns of overspending and abuse of donations by religious leaders. The Rev. Marcia Dyson, a political consultant, and the Rev. Harry Jackson, a commentator, talk about the situation and what could happen next.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Barbershop guys are in the house.

But first, just about every week at this time, we talk over issues of faith and spirituality. This week, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa may have put the fear of God, or at least, the taxman, into some high-profile clergy members when he asked for the leaders of six high-profile ministries to hand over financial records. Senator Grassley says he's reacting to news reports and complaints about financial abuses. The senator's request for information is voluntary and so far, most of the ministers on the list have said they will cooperate by the December deadline.

But the inquiry has raised questions about who exactly might be going too far - high-profile clergy with high-rolling lifestyles, or lawmakers getting involved in church business?

Joining me to talk about all this, Bishop Harry Jackson, he's pastor of Hope Christian Church in Maryland. He's a regular commentator on religious matters and he's joining us from member station WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia. Here in the studio is Reverend Marcia Dyson. She's an ordained minister. She's also a regular commentator on issues related to the church and social justice. Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARCIA DYSON: Thank you for having me.

HARRY JACKSON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Bishop Jackson, if I could start with you because you're at a gathering of clergy down in Virginia Beach right now. What are the ministers saying about this? Are they saying, oh no, or are they saying it's about time?

JACKSON: Well, many are saying oh no. Night before last, one of the people who has been brought up, Bishop Eddie Long, actually spoke at this particular conference. I have known him for a number of years. And there's a mixed feeling. Many of us feel as though there are excesses that people take. But the religious liberties issue is a concern. So there's moral law and there's civil law.

And it seems to me as though, Grassley's letter and the comments that he is making might have been motivated by someone who doesn't agree if the doctrines that these people teach or different persuasions within the Christian community. It's sort of like, they've sick the government on them. And so it's a little bit of a mixed bag.

I believe that many clergy would say, morally, we should rethink how we spend money. In the sense, many of our major ministries are like the nouveau riche. But also, many of them, I could name the names, are authors, they have businesses. And what we may be looking at is a complex inter-departmental kind of organizational entity that needs to be redefined, realigned and reorganized.

I don't think you'll find at the end of the day that there's a lot of dishonesty in these folks' ministries, but there may be a lack of wisdom as it pertains to how the world views their ministry and how the laws are set up. And maybe we're going to look at some additional laws.

I personally resent the fact, though, that there is a - there's a procedure here that seems to paint all these people as though they're guilty and they haven't even been really, really given the chance to speak for themselves.

MARTIN: Okay, well let's talk about more about that in just a minute. But, Reverend Dyson, I want to bring you in. Of the six churches that have been asked to turn over papers, two are run by African-Americans, the rest are run by white Americans. So what do these churches have in common that you think made them standout or drew attention to them?

DYSON: I think that the prosperity churches they seem to be targeting - they see the leaders as the new NBA players and they - (unintelligible) the new NBA players are being targeted for their excessive either, violence or how we look at them as rock stars.

The 21st century preacher, especially of a megachurch is considered a rock star. And when you have a televangelism outreach, then you are noted and you might have a lot of people in your congregation who are upset because they see you growing large and God is blessing you. And the prosperity gospel that you teach has not yet reached their reality.

MARTIN: Well talk to me about that, would you? Talk to me about what is prosperity gospel for those who don't know.

DYSON: Well prosperity gospel is basically, you know, that God wants you to have a house and a car. And that if you seek, you shall find, and knock on the door and it will be open. And that in fact that if you don't get these blessings, then some people feel that, though I'm quite sure the ministers at hand, I've heard all of them, preach and myself have watched their programs, was say then, God is not with you, and distance in you. And for them to outreach, for those in the peripheral may seem say, well that's antithetical to the message of Christ because what about the poor people and obviously some people are too stressed to be blessed and that you can't give a bumper tag theology for a lot of folks' realities.

And I think that that is problematic. And it is problematic when you're seeing folks jetting off in private jets. But what people should know, especially for the African-American church, is that there's a moment for cultural critic and celebratory moments. There are many times in our history where preachers have been made basically barefoot and pregnant. But, you know, give them a fried chicken, dinner was okay and they had a large family to take care of and they could not sustain themselves. So they had to work at post offices and other jobs, when they had to also pastor and heal their flock.

But as the church grows, there's also this phenomena called the passes and adversity. Well if you have a congregation of 20 to 30,000 people or more, through televangelism. If every person gave a dollar, now you don't have to do the IRS claim that, but you have an idea that she can do what you want with your gift money.

And culturally, for African-American churches, we always like our folk who are ahead of us to look good and you want to dress up the preacher, make sure he has something nice. That's just the cultural phenomenon in the African-American church, particularly.

MARTIN: You know, I had the impression when Senator Grassley said complaints - I got the impression, you know, who would be complaining if it were not people on the outside because frankly, this is a voluntary activity. You know, I am not required to support these organizations if I choose. Not to, I mean, of course, through the tax code, they are given favor treatment, but - so one has to believe that perhaps there are people within these congregations who think, you know, when enough is enough.

So my question to both of you is, is there an inherent moral conundrum in prosperity gospel, in preaching the word and yet living an opulent lifestyle, Bishop?

JACKSON: Yes, I'd like to talk about it, Michel. I believe that there is the potential of a conundrum or problem. Reverend Dyson is very articulate and her responses earlier alluded to it. And it's how much is enough? And when do you reach a point where you begin to bring kind of dishonor, if you will, to the institution of ministry.

She so accurately pointed out that many folks, myself included, started out years ago being bi-vocational and doing what we do because we love the people and we love the word of God. And as God blesses you, you can begin to subtly transfer your affection as an individual, to having all these things instead of just having Jesus.

We're at a point now where I think that the nation is going through very, very big soul searching time. We don't trust politicians anymore. We don't trust the doctors. There are all these - the lawsuits that are going out about malpractice. And the clergy needs to be a group that's above reproach. And so there's probably some need for people to self-analyze themselves and then bring themselves into some kind of alignment.

But on the surface of things, it's sort of like the nouveau riche, and I'll stop here. And that is folks who just recently come into money. Oftentimes, they have loud money. Really rich people who have been rich for a long time, they've got quiet money. And you can tell the long-standing millionaire from a distance. And I think some of our African-American community leaders are specifically in this. And some of the women that are lifted here are going through that nouveau riche phenomenon and I think they'll adjust themselves, especially in light of these kinds of challenges.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson, you have a reputation for talking about sensitive issues in the church that sometimes people don't want to talk about like sexism, things of that sort. I just wonder, what are you hearing? Do you - do you - do you find - do you feel people are more willing to say that perhaps this is not appropriate? Or are there people who are willing to say, look, I don't - this is what I want, I want pastor to look good. I want first pastor's wife to look great, you know. Is that how it is? How they reflect our community. What are you hearing?

DYSON: It's six in one hand, a half a dozen in the other. I just watched "American Gangster." And the thing they called Frank Lewis was when the woman gave him that chinchilla coat to wear to the fight. and I think that that is what it is. But you know, you do have - it is sort of a perplexing question because they do, I mean, we do want our pastor to live in a nice house and to drive a nice car. But I think that Rev. Jackson was right that we have to have some moral accountability within ourselves.

You know, if - there's a balance sheet - if what the minister has personally from the congregation - because we aren't talking about the widow's might. But what he's doing for the widows in the church overwhelms and it succeeds his gifts that they give to him in appreciation for how they have been blessed through his ministry, then you get - there's a pregnant pause there.

But I'm telling you when profiteers(ph) have $1.5-million weddings and eight- foot cakes and you know that somebody doesn't have food on their table, then, you know, that's an inflection - a reflection that someone must have with their own souls. I think when God's eyes to-and-fro the Earth looking for ones who's heart is right toward him, that that person would sit back and say, what am I doing with the money? What is the representation that I have here when the world is hungry, our children are on the streets, and we have $23-million sanctuaries and we have homeless people over the landscape. Where these churches are supposed to be the beacon on the hill to bring light and warmth - and not only the word of God, and not just literal or theoretical bread but also substantive bread for them, as well - then that is an indictment on the ministry if they're not doing - while they're taking care of the preacher, they're not taking care of the community. If not he lost his prophecy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and I'm speaking with Reverend Marcia Dyson and Bishop Harry Jackson about the recent inquiries about the financial practices of some of the nation's most prominent ministries.

Bishop Jackson, have you - I'm just curious how you manage these issues? You are both a commentator...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...you're a pastor...

JACKSON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...you know, a large church.

JACKSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Large church.

JACKSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: So how do you sort these issues out for yourself?

JACKSON: Well, that's a great question. For me, it's a matter of soul searching. And I think Reverend Dyson hit it. You've got to make sure that your own comfort doesn't so trump the outreach of the ministry into the community that it smacks of hypocrisy.

I'll never forget being on a radio program downtown San Diego or something like that early in the morning. And a folks said, I bet you're one of these preachers wearing $2,000 suits and driving a Mercedes. And the truth is that I dress well, I drive a very nice car but I don't drive a Rolls-Royce. And I think we've got to come back to the idea that we got into this calling because we believe that Jesus wanted us to help people. And that if anything prevents the message from being heard, then it becomes tangential, distracting, and we've got to tone that down.

One thing I find in the inner cities, though, there need to be people that are seen as being prosperous in the clergy. I think one of the things that the early, quote, end quote, "prosperity gospel guys" did was they demonstrated that you can live right, do right and still have things. And I think we just have an issue that they've gone perhaps to an excess in terms of public opinion.

I'll go further than pastor, or Reverend Dyson, and I'll say the guy - average guy in the community - is probably saying, they're a bunch of crooks, and they're stealing money, and I don't like it.

MARTIN: But if they are, then how are they supporting them because the fact is people have to be supporting these ministries with their tithes, with their offerings, so clearly somebody supports them?

JACKSON: Yeah, I wrote a book with a guy named George Barna called "High Impact African-American Churches." It was up for Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Award. It was on the top leadership books of the year 2005. And in that book, we find that about 47 percent of African-American adults for example are born again - so what you got is - and involved in church, you got is half the community is in there (unintelligible) ministers, others we want to reach are looking at us and maybe rightfully judging us. And we've got to come to this balance in this age in which morality is becoming a major thing in politics and in all affairs of life, the clergy, the minister should be above reproach.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this though - I'm sorry - Bishop, you seem to take exceptions to the idea that - I understood that you felt that some of the public comments by the senator would suggest that they have been found guilty before the investigation has even taken place - and I understand why that might be painful. But I want to ask - but you also said that a lot of ministers objected this because they feel that it's an encroachment upon religious freedom. And yet and as I mentioned religious institutions do have favored tax status in this country. They, you know, have favored zoning status. They have access to land without the restrictions that other people have. They have favored tax status because they're nonprofit. If that's the case, why shouldn't the government take an interest in whether they are in fact fulfilling their charitable and nonprofit mission?

JACKSON: Great question. I think there's due process. Local people should prosecute if they have a question. IRS has been deemed as the persons who should come in and investigate. Now there's overstretching in an election year basically is a little bit of political grandstanding and that's what I don't like. And then you let somebody who's not in my organization, who's a watchdog organization relish you to come after me out of jealousy, envy, whatever reason. So I'm for self-policing, but I do agree with you that maybe we need to reorganize some of our ministries. T.D. Jakes, for example, has T.D. Jakes Enterprises. I myself am an author, as I've alluded to, and I have a separate company that deals with my royalty, speaking engagements and this kind of thing and all my personal money goes through that organization. And then with regard to what we do, I have a political outreach that we're doing and that we make sure that we don't get involved in anything more than 501(c)(3)(ph) education. So I have lawyers who consult me and I'm trying to make sure that the organization stays separate...

MARTIN: Okay.

JACKSON: and focused on what they're supposed to do.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson?

DYSON: I was going to say if Rome was a suburb of Maryland, they will have to bring the pope in.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYSON: You know, because the Catholic Church has a history of abusive spending as well. I mean, it could be on the list. And I agree with everything that Bishop Jackson is saying that, you know, we talk about separation of church and state. We have to believe that the people who are pastoral will really do that.

MARTIN: Do you believe that this is an appropriate inquiry?

DYSON: I don't believe it's an appropriate inquiry. I mean, he is putting this segment forth as a senator, not through a really, committee - though he sits on the finance committee - and he's not the IRS. You know, I wish I could get that kind of help when I spent $70,000 of my own money to do work which was not tax deductible and got penalized for it, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYSON: So, yes, somebody helped me out there. But in trying to do the good work in with sanctuaries without walls. But I just hope that it's a wakeup call for our ministers who really know that we are not to be abusing God's philo - but we are to be clothed in them as well as we clothe ourselves and we dress ourselves in our riches. And when we give the prosperity gospel, I hope that they remember that I pray that you prosper and be of good health. As your soul prospers, there should be a balance in that, that we're feeding them spiritually, we're feeding them with social justice and we're feeding them with the word as well.

MARTIN: Okay. Bishop, we have 30 seconds, final thought from you.

JACKSON: Well, first of all, thank you for having us. This is a fair and balance, I believe, discussion. Let the government stay out of religion and I think we're going to be better off is my statement on it and I thank you for bringing this to the public's attention and having the discussion.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you so much. Bishop Harry Jackson is pastor of Hope Christian Church in Maryland. He's also the author of many books and he's a scholar of the black church. He joined us from WHRO in Norfolk. We were also joined by Reverend Marcia Dyson. She's a regular commentator on issues related to the church and social justice. She was kind enough to join me here on the studio in Washington. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DYSON: Thank you.

JACKSON: Thank you, Michel.

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