You see if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. – Old Man Potter, “It’s A Wonderful Life”

In 2020, the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act established the Paycheck Protection Program, creating a $350 billion kitty of forgivable loans for small businesses. The intent was pandemic relief for recipients to keep workers on the payroll and stay open in the near-term. The massive bailout program was rushed out, and hidden in a veil of secrecy, with the Treasury Department declining to disclose how it spent the funds or who the PPP recipients were. Eventually, the recipients were revealed – but only vague dollar ranges instead of specific awards were published. For example, records show that a family-owned shipping business related to McConnell’s wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, received a loan somewhere between $350,000 and $1 million. Chao disavowed any connection to the business or knowledge of the loan, although the New York Times reported that in the past, she had repeatedly used her official position to bolster the business. Their net worth is estimated between $25 and $35 million dollars. Meanwhile, the slipshod administration of the loan program opened the door to massive fraud, waste and abuse, with the Government Accounting Office declaring “the limited safeguards and lack of timely and complete guidance and oversight planning have increased the likelihood that borrowers may misuse or improperly receive loan proceeds.”. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner received million$, along with many in their orbit – even a golfing buddy.

Other friends of Trump made out like bandits – and evangelicals were especially keen on cashing in on free government money to the tune of $17.3 million. Joel Osteen’s megachurch received a $4.4 million check. Members of the President’s evangelical advisory board were exceptionally well-rewarded for their loyalty, with Paula White’s ministry receiving between $150,000 and $350,000, and Robert Jeffress’ church getting between $2 million and $5 million. Prestonwood Christian Academy, associated with Trumpist Jack Graham, received between $2 million and $5 million – but reported zero jobs being retained. There were numerous other ministries tied to the President that reaped a financial bonanza.

Like Daystar Television Network’s Marcus Lamb, who bought a Gulfstream V just two weeks after receiving a $3.9 million PPP loan. Ostensibly an operating expense to spread the Gospel, Inside Edition reported it was used like an airborne RV for family beach vacations. Lamb’s organization denied using the PPP loan to buy the luxury aircraft, although hastily repaid the loan.

There are so many questions here that nobody is asking. What did America buy with this bailout? Should taxpayers be obliged to underwrite debt-free ministries with plenty of cash to maneuver? These figures are so gargantuan that one questions why such an immense budget? Like the ministry leaders pulling down million dollar salaries – can’t they cinch up their belts a bit to keep the lights on, like most American households are forced to do. And why, oh why, are they considered too big to fail?

In 2008, when General Motors desperately needed financial aid to continue, the government authorized emergency loans to continue paying bills and making payroll, but tied strings to the bailout. GM would have to go through a bankruptcy reorganization, auction off assets to raise cash, reduce management ranks and cut executive pay. The CEO was ousted, shareholders like me were left penniless, and a new company emerged from bankruptcy to continue making the same old crappy cars.

The point is, if you are too big to fail, you should nevertheless pay a price for surviving on the public dole. The government doesn’t operate on grace, and everyone else shouldn’t be forced to keep a bunch of religious goofballs living the high life. The government had the leverage that Chuck Grassley wished he had in his 2008 investigation of tax-exempt religious organizations. Maybe we would have seen some genuine reform of tele-vangelism. Instead, we got shafted by people who shoot pool with some employee here.

I could have ended there, but can’t resist this apt quote about virus relief from Mitch McConnell: “Socialism for rich people is a terrible way to help the American families that are actually struggling,”

How To Become A Mega-Rich Evangelical

If you love being an evangelical so much, it makes perfect sense to make money off it. Multi-millionaire church leaders might seem like an oxymoron. But the leaders of the top 50 megachurches in America reads like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Many have done it using various methods, but if you want your faith to make you stonking rich, just follow this make-bank business model developed by the top of the evangelical stardom heap:

  1. Become a minister Pastorpreneur. Never mind seminary education and ordination, that’s old school. All you need is to have “vision” and trailblazing aspiration. 
  2. Begin a church. It doesn’t have to start as “mega” – every church has the potential to be church-growthed into a prosperous economic enterprise.  Make sure you form the 501(c)(3) and by-laws to remove transparency and make yourself bulletproof. Appoint your family into all the top positions. Make sure every employee signs an iron-clad non-disclosure agreement.
  3. Make outsiders think they possess a slice of authority, but never sacrifice control. And never, ever disclose how much church finances benefit you personally. Instead, humbly state it “would be the most arrogant thing I could do.”[i]
  4. Zero in on a comfy, white exurban area with down-market churches you can harvest. Cater to their lifestyle, offering greater spectacle and more buoyant life-affirmation. With a little talent, a dynamic praise band, and heavy advertising, soon you’ll be attracting people bored with their own churches to come and own a part of “what God is doing”.
  5. Tout yourself as the community’s church. Come up with high visibility events that get on local news. Become friendly with a few wealthy locals that will share your vision of moving up into that abandoned mega-mall across town. But never, ever ruin your pristine carpet by taking in flood victims!
  6. If the Bible doesn’t fit into your revealing of the deep mysteries of Scripture, make stuff up. Just speak in the love language of God. Nobody reads the Bible anymore anyway.
  7. A rock star preacher does more than pastor a church. Podcasts, Facebook followings, books, blogs, uploaded sermons, public appearances, speaking engagements and conference: these all make Jesus – and particularly you – famous. The more prominent you are, the more you become a religious wholesaler on the path to riches. The impetus is to diversify the client base into a religious conglomerate.
  8. You have a flock of sheep people that can work for you!  Checks in the offering plate can bankroll your writing side-business. Use staff time and church resources to do the leg work behind your books, the royalties of which wind up in your pocket. There are some loosely-worded financial accountability standards, but most churches don’t mind sermons and study materials developed on church time and with church resources (double-dipping). The bigger the megapastor’s footprint, the greater that church’s stature and influence. No ambitious church can argue with heightened public image and political clout.  Having a pastor who is a “go-to” media celebrity only enhances the cult status of the church and its brand recognition.
  9. Retain the enormously profitable proprietary rights over your books, videos, etc. Set up your own parachurch organization (which by the way pads the payroll with family members) to manage all your money under the same tax-free roof. Your parachurch can be transformed into an IRS-defined “church”, with greater opacity of finances to make it hard to follow the money.
  10. Form a separate for-profit business to receive book royalties, income from video productions, freelance speaking gigs to hype your products, etc. And while these assets are produced during your work for the church, and church resources are used to develop them, the copyrights are owned by you, the mega-pastor, through your personal side business.
  11. Disguise your books to look like works of love, not lucre. Donate copies of your books to the church for a personal tax deduction. Remember that your congregants are essentially captive customers. Sell thousands of them to the church bookstore below retail cost. No need to mark them up; you will already receive royalties up to 20 percent of wholesale. The objective is for the church to spend tithe money on numerous copies of your books to drive it onto a bestseller’s list. Everything the church does must be designed around your product line.
  12. For tax purposes, pour your assets into a CRUT (Charitable Remainder Unitrust) and name yourself as trustee. This complex tax shelter allows you, the donor, to pay yourself up to 90 percent of the assets over your lifetime, with 10 percent committed to a charity. (In the time-honored tradition of Ananias and Sapphira, it’s telling just the teensiest lie when a celebrity preacher boasts about donating his book proceeds to his church. He enjoys a hefty nest egg, while the church has to wait for whatever leftovers the trust has not exhausted by the time of his death).
  13. Expand your product placement without even having to leave the building through McChurches. Because the dream-weaver can only be physically present at one venue at a time, your image can now be teleported to preach in multiple campuses via video simulcast uplink. Franchising strings together a conglomerate of satellite operations to expand the revenue base. You do the speaking and take the offering plate, while a local staffer facilitates the satellite feed locally. You continue to profit as the main attraction, without having to pastor anybody.
  14. Remember that you are not only a person, you are a trademark. And that means protecting your property from potential rivals. The congregants are your job security, and they will take their business wherever mega-grifters offer greater spectacle. You’ll need to be trendier and produce more and better theatricality because your church’s back door is as open as it’s front.
  15. Follow these rules, and soon you’ll be a celebrity-leader collecting holy piles of other peoples’ money.

[i] Morgan Fogerty, “The Get with Morgan Fogarty: Pastor Steven Furtick”, WCCB-TV, Inc., November 10, 2015. http://www.wccbcharlotte.com/news/local/The-Get-with-Morgan-Fogarty-Pastor-Steven-Furtick–345443532.html  (accessed November 20, 2015).