Cufflinks, stays at the Ritzy Hotel? James MacDonald and the ethics of gifts
“It’s been said, ‘Show me a person’s checkbook and I can tell you what interests them. “” – Social Action, 1964
James MacDonald, the controversial former pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC), is trying to restore his reputation. In July, MacDonald posted copies of checks on his website as evidence that he was reimbursing HBC for personal expenses incurred during his time as pastor. A refund check, dated December 28, 2018, was for $27,172.39!
The checks disputed a claim that MacDonald failed to repay the church.
MacDonald also provided monthly lists of church financial transactions revealing the cost of airfare, charter plane service, and gifts to pastors.
Concerned religious donors and religious journalists rarely have access to this type of financial information.
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Monthly filings revealed that HBC and MacDonald’s Walk in the Word media ministry shared the cost of purchasing more than $1,000 worth of cufflinks for church employees. Other deals included buying more than $1,500 in Bloomingdales gifts for a Greg Laurie marriage talk and $10,683.09 spent on taxidermy in the first half of 2016.
HBC sponsored a deer hunt as a fundraiser for a scholarship program. If the taxidermy were included in the price of the hunt, the donor would be required to deduct the cost of the taxidermy when reporting the donation on their tax return.
HBC paid $500 for another pastor’s stay at the Ritz Carlton, which MacDonald described as a “blessing.”
When a church or ministry provides gifts to donors, employees, and pastors of other churches, IRS rules come into play. Since the annual gift tax exclusion was $14 $000 for the years 2013-2017 and $15,000 for 2018-2021, HBC was not required to report these gifts to the IRS.
During his tenure as pastor, MacDonald donated motorcycles and a car to pastors, which would have been subject to gift tax if their cost exceeded $15,000.
In 2019, Dee Parsons of The Wartburg Watch reported: “I have been informed by reliable people that James MacDonald gave Ed Stetzer a vintage convertible Volkswagen Beetle. I was even given the vanity license plate, but I won’t post it. I was informed that the car had been paid for with HBC funds. Given recent HBC reports, I thought it was worth investigating.
Christopher Nudo, HBC’s attorney, told Julie Roys of The Roys Report that the Beetle cost $13,000 and was purchased by Walk in the Word. Stetzer then reimbursed the department for the cost of the car.
The Roys report also noted that “MacDonald had used church funds to donate six to eight Harley Davidson motorcycles to people inside and outside the church.”
MacDonald is not alone in practicing dodgy gifts. According to a confidential informant, the late Jan Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network showered her boyfriends with expensive gifts while married to Paul Crouch Sr.
Paula White gave fellow televangelist TD Jakes a Bentley for his 50th birthdaye birthday. Additionally, the Paula City of Destiny Church collects birthday gifts for her every year.
It is common for churches, especially proponents of the prosperity gospel, to collect love offerings for pastors and give speaking fees to speakers that are not reported as taxable income.
In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: “A spokesman for the church said [Pastor Eddie] Long no longer takes a salary, but instead accepts “love offerings” made by church members. »
In 2006, televangelist Kenneth Copeland celebrated his 70the birthday and 40e anniversary of being in the ministry. To honor the occasion, the Copeland Church, with the help of Creflo Dollar, raised money from pastors attending Copeland’s birthday party.
According to an informant present at the party, “Creflo’s goal was to raise $2 million to present to the Copelands at the party. This money was for the Copelands personally. Creflo didn’t receive the 2 million from the guests, so he invested about 1 million of his own money (or money from his ministry) to achieve his goal. I believe the amount ended up being 2.1 million. The informant’s testimony and the church’s response were included in a 2011 Senate Finance Committee report.
The church disputed the $2.1 million amount when questioned by Senator Grassley: “The Copelands received personal gifts or payments of less than $2 million. In all cases where it was unclear whether the donation was for the Copelands or the Church, the donation was treated as a donation to the Church.
Many televangelist and religious planes carried various party attendees, but it is unclear who paid for these expensive flights – the individual guests or their religious ministries.
Embrace higher ethical standards
To prevent improper political influence via gifts, state legislatures have passed laws limiting the amount of gifts for government employees as well as reporting requirements.
State ethics commissions provide oversight. Government employees are required to watch training videos or receive other instruction on state ethics laws. Ethics officers advise employees on how to respond to unsolicited gifts that may be prohibited.
In Texas, the state with the most televangelists, government employees are limited to accepting “non-monetary items with a value of less than $50”.
Fees are prohibited in some states. The Texas Ethics Commission advises state employees, “You may not solicit, accept, or accept fees for services that you would not have been asked to provide without your official position.”
The Evangelical Press Association’s Code of Ethics is worth following: “Journalists should refuse gifts that could unduly influence the performance of their work. Token courtesies, such as meals or media passes, should only be accepted in the normal course of editorial production.
Perhaps denominations and church ministries should adopt similar limits for non-charitable donations and require an ethics course for pastors and church accountants.
This article was originally published by Trinity Foundation.
Barry Bowen is a staff member of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas, Texas-based public nonprofit organization that has been tracking religious fraud and helping victims for more than 30 years.