From Fenton to fortune in the name of God
Reprinted from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Saturday, Nov. 15 2003
by Carolyn Tuft and Bill Smith
Joyce Meyer says God has made her rich.
Everything she has came from Him: the $10 million corporate jet, her husband's
$107,000 silver-gray Mercedes sedan, her $2 million home and houses worth
another $2 million for her four children — all blessings, she says, straight
from the hand of God.
It's been an amazing run, nothing short of a miracle, says Meyer, a one-time
bookkeeper who heads one of the world's largest television ministries. Her Life
in the Word organization expects to take in $95 million this year.
Just look around, she told reporters last month from behind her desk on the
third floor of the ministry's corporate offices in Jefferson County.
"Here I am, an ex-housewife from Fenton, with a 12th-grade education," she
said. "How could anybody look at this and see anything other than God?"
In many ways, Joyce Meyer is an American Cinderella.
Describing herself as sexually abused as a girl and neglected and abandoned as
a young wife, Meyer has remade herself into one of the nation's best-known and
best-paid TV preachers. She has taken her "prosperity through faith" message to
"If you stay in your faith, you are going to get paid," Meyer told an audience
in Detroit in September. "I'm living now in my reward."
Meyer, 60 and a grandmother, runs the ministry with her husband, Dave, and the
couple's four children. All of the family, including the children's spouses,
draw paychecks from the ministry.
But the way Meyer spends her ministry's money on herself and her family may
violate federal law, legal and tax experts say. That law bars leaders of
non-profits -- religious groups and other charities -- from privately
benefiting from the tax-free money they raise.
Last month, Wall Watchers, a watchdog group that monitors the finances of large
Christian groups, called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Meyer
and six other TV preachers to find out whether their tax-exempt status should
Meyer and her lawyer say she scrupulously abides by all federal laws.
Meyer's rise to prominence followed years of struggle. But by 1998, Charisma &
Christian Life magazine was calling her "America's most popular woman
Last year, Meyer was the keynote speaker at the Christian Coalition's Road to
Victory tour, a gathering of some of the nation's most influential politically
And today, her TV shows, regional conferences and fund raising from her Web
site bring an average $8 million a month to her ministry. Of that, the ministry
says it spends about 10 percent — $880,000 a month — on charitable works around
Her star has risen so high and so fast that it amazes even Meyer.
"Dave and I feel almost like, 'Can this really be us?"' she said. "We feel like
we're the most blessed and honored people on the face of the Earth."
"Every nation, every city"
Meyer's ministry stretches around the globe.
From a 15-minute St. Louis-area radio show in 1983, it has spread to virtually
every corner of the civilized world, largely through the reach of satellite and
cable transmissions and the Internet.
In the United States, her "Life in the Word" TV show airs on local channels in
43 states, from Pembina, N.D., and Crowley, La., to Boston, Detroit, Los
Angeles and St. Louis.
Meyer has become a household name in areas of Canada, Mexico, South America,
Europe, Africa, Australia — about 70 countries in all, according to her
She says the ministry gets 15,000 letters a month from India alone.
In September, an Arabic language translation of her program began airing six
times a day on the Life Channel network in the Middle East. Meyer hopes to use
the network to bring the message of Christianity to 31 Islamic nations.
"You've got to keep in mind that nobody's ever done this," Meyer said. "When a
Western woman shows up in Western clothes, preaching the gospel of Jesus in the
Arabic language, it's going to be rather interesting."
Meyer and her husband say the ministry has the potential to reach 2.5 billion
people every weekday.
Despite the ministry's far-flung success, the couple say they still have work
"Every time we feel like we've reached our peak, God opens more doors," Dave
The couple's recent slogan, printed on posters in the ministry's headquarters
and on banners at its conferences, sets out an ambitious goal for the future:
"Every nation, every city, every day."
Devoted followers and dogged critics
Meyer's hard-edged, often self-effacing preaching has won her legions of
followers, many of them women who see her as part minister, part trusted
"She's so down-to-earth," bus driver Eva McLemore, 43, said at one of Meyer's
recent conferences in Atlanta. "She makes you feel like she's your sister, that
she can totally relate to you and understand you with no condemnation, no
Her style also has prompted criticism from those who paint Meyer as a
get-rich-quick carnival barker focused on one thing: how to get the most money
from the most people in the shortest time.
Ole Anthony, head of the Dallas-based religious watchdog Trinity Foundation,
says, "She is in the typical genre of the TV evangelists who have become
wealthy on the backs of the poorest people they are supposedly ministering
Besides being a charismatic speaker, Meyer is the author of more than 50 books
on a variety of topics, from self-help books on dieting and marriage to deeper,
more philosophical themes.
Two of her most recent books, "Knowing God Intimately" and "How to Hear From
God," deal with building a faith-based relationship with God.
She also sells audiotapes and videotapes, enough to fill several pages in the
ministry's product catalog.
Meyer makes no excuses for hawking her books and tapes and for relentlessly
pleading for donations on her Web site, on her TV show and at her conferences.
"They don't let me on that television for free," she said at the Atlanta
conference. "The gospel is free, but the pipeline that carries it is not."
A penchant for nice things
Meyer is fond of nice things and is willing to spend for them. From an $11,000
French clock in the ministry's Fenton headquarters to a $105,000 Crownline boat
docked behind her vacation home at Lake of the Ozarks, it's clear her tastes
run more to Perrier than to tap water.
"You can be a businessman here in St. Louis, and people think the more you
have, the more wonderful it is," Meyer said in an interview. "But if you're a
preacher, then all of a sudden it becomes a problem.
"The Bible says, 'Give and it shall be given unto you.' "
The ministry's headquarters is a three-story jewel of red brick and
emerald-color glass that, from the outside, has the look and feel of a luxury
Built two years ago for $20 million, the building and grounds are postcard
perfect, from manicured flower beds and walkways to a five-story lighted
The driveway to the office complex is lined on both sides with the flags of
dozens of nations reached by the ministry. A large bronze sculpture of the
Earth sits atop an open Bible near the parking lot. Just outside the main
entrance, a sculpture of an American eagle landing on a tree branch stands near
a man-made waterfall.
A message in gold letters greets employees and visitors over the front
entryway: "Look what the Lord Has Done."
About 510 people work there. It's an office much like that of any other
business, where clerks open mail, accountants count money, editors tweak
Meyer's videos, technicians copy tapes, and warehouse workers send out the tons
of Meyer's tapes and books to paying customers. The only sign of a church
inside is a chapel, but the public is kept out. Only employees worship there.
The building is decorated with religious paintings and sculptures, and quality
furniture. Much of it, Meyer says, she selected herself.
A Jefferson County assessor's list offers a glimpse into the value of many of
the items: a $19,000 pair of Dresden vases, six French crystal vases bought for
$18,500, an $8,000 Dresden porcelain depicting the Nativity, two $5,800 curio
cabinets, a $5,700 porcelain of the Crucifixion, a pair of German porcelain
vases bought for $5,200.
The decor includes a $30,000 malachite round table, a $23,000 marble-topped
antique commode, a $14,000 custom office bookcase, a $7,000 Stations of the
Cross in Dresden porcelain, a $6,300 eagle sculpture on a pedestal, another
eagle made of silver bought for $5,000, and numerous paintings purchased for
$1,000 to $4,000 each.
Inside Meyer's private office suite sit a conference table and 18 chairs bought
for $49,000. The woodwork in the offices of Meyer and her husband cost the
In all, assessor's records of the ministry's personal property show that nearly
$5.7 million worth of furniture, artwork, glassware, and the latest equipment
and machinery fill the 158,000-square-foot building.
As of this summer, the ministry also owned a fleet of vehicles with an
estimated value of $440,000. The Jefferson County assessor has been trying to
get the complex and its contents added to the tax rolls but has failed.
Stylish sports cars and a plane
Meyer drives the ministry's 2002 Lexus SC sports car with a retractable top,
valued at $53,000. Her son Dan, 25, drives the ministry's 2001 Lexus sedan,
with a value of $46,000. Meyer's husband drives his Mercedes-Benz S55 AMG
"My husband just likes cars," Meyer said.
The Meyers keep the ministry's Canadair CL-600 Challenger jet, which Joyce
Meyer says is worth $10 million, at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in
Chesterfield. The ministry employs two full-time pilots to fly the Meyers to
conferences around the world.
Meyer calls the plane a "lifesaver" for her and her family. "It enabled us, at
our age, to travel literally all over the world and preach the gospel" with
better security than that offered on commercial flights, she said.
Security is important to Meyer, who says she has received death threats. She
has a division of the ministry dedicated to her safety. Her officers wear
pistols; they guard the headquarters' front gate, keeping out anyone but
employees and invited guests.
The ministry bought a $145,000 house where the security chief lives rent-free
to keep him close to the ministry's headquarters.
The family compound
The ministry has also bought homes for other key employees.
Since 1999, the ministry has spent at least $4 million on five homes for Meyer
and her four children near Interstate 270 and Gravois Road, St. Louis County
Meyer's house, the largest of the five, is a 10,000-square-foot Cape Cod style
estate home with a guest house and a garage that can be independently heated
and cooled and can hold up to eight cars. The three-acre property has a large
fountain, a gazebo, a private putting green, a pool and a poolhouse where the
ministry recently added a $10,000 bathroom.
The ministry pays for utilities, maintenance and landscaping costs at all five
homes. It also pays for renovations. The Meyers ordered major rehab work at the
ministry's expense right after the ministry bought three of the homes.
For example, the ministry bought one home, leveled it and then built a new home
on the site to the specifications of Meyer's daughter Sandra and her husband,
county records show.
Even the property taxes, $15, 629 this year, are paid by the ministry.
Meyer called the homes a "good investment" for the ministry and said the
ministry bears the cost of upkeep and maintenance because the family is too
busy to take care of such tasks.
"It's just too hard to keep up with something like that when you travel as much
as we do," Meyer said.
She said that federal tax law allows ministries to buy parsonages for their
employees, so the arrangement does not violate any prohibitions against
Meyer also said the decision to cluster the families together was a way to
build a buffer to better ensure privacy and security.
"We put good people all around us," she said. "Obviously, if I was trying to
hide anything or thought I was doing anything wrong, I wouldn't live on the
corner of Gravois and 270."
The irrevocable trust
Meyer says she expects the best, from where she lives to how she looks.
Much of her clothing is custom-tailored at an upscale West County dress shop.
At her conferences, she usually wears flashy jewelry. She sports an impressive
diamond ring that she said she got from one of her followers.
Meyer has a private hairdresser. And, a few years ago, Meyer told her employees
she was getting a face-lift.
Not everything is paid directly by the ministry.
Last year, the Meyers bought a $500,000 atrium ranch lakefront home in Porto
Cima, a private-quarters club at Lake of the Ozarks. A few weeks later, they
bought two watercrafts similar to Jet Skis and a $105,000 Crownline boat
painted red, white and blue that they named the Patriot.
In 2000, the Meyers also bought her parents a $130,000 home just a few minutes
from where the Meyers live.
The Meyers have put the Mercedes, the lake house, the boat and her parents'
home into an irrevocable trust, an arrangement that tax experts say would help
protect them from any financial problems at the minisry.
Meyer says she should not have to defend how she spends the ministry's money.
"We teach and preach and believe biblically that God wants to bless people who
serve Him," Meyer said. "So there's no need for us to apologize for being
Meyer's "trusted" board
For the most part, Meyer can spend the ministry's money any way she sees fit
because her board of directors is handpicked. It consists of Meyer, her husband
and all four of her children — all paid workers — as well as six of Meyer's
closest friends. (Ministry officials said that daughter Laura Holtzmann has now
resigned; state records still list her on the board.)
"Our family is a huge help to us," Meyer said. "We couldn't do this if we
didn't have somebody we trusted."
Board members Roxane and Paul Schermann are such close friends that for more
than a decade they lived in the Meyers' home. The ministry employed both of
them as high-level managers and in 2001 bought them a $334,000 home. Roxane
Schermann no longer works at the ministry; her husband continues as a paid
division manager. The Schermanns bought the house at the same price from the
ministry in January.
Delanie Trusty, the ministry's certified public accountant, also serves as the
ministry board's secretary.
The board decides how the ministry's money is spent. The salaries of Meyer and
her family are set by those board members who are not family members and are
not employed by the ministry, Meyer's lawyer said. The arrangement meets IRS
regulations, the lawyer said.
"We certainly wouldn't have enemies and people we don't know" on the board,
Meyer said. "That wouldn't make any sense. Anybody who has a board is going to
have people in favor of you."
Meyer and her ministry refuse to tell how much the ministry pays Meyer, her
husband, her children and her children's spouses.
"I don't make any more than I'm worth," Meyer said. "We're definitely within
Such an overlap between top administrators and board members concerns the IRS
because "the opportunity to manipulate and control the organization is easier
to accomplish," said Bruce Philipson of St. Paul, Minn., the IRS group manager
of tax-exempt organizations for this region.
The followers stay loyal
Meyer's followers don't seem to care how much of her ministry's money Meyer
spends on herself. In interviews with some of her followers at her conference
in Atlanta in August, all said they believe that Meyer helps them and that she
deserves the wealth.
William Parton, 32, an Atlanta policeman, said people should not care what
Meyer does with the money.
"I think if they believe they are doing what God has called them to do, and
they have a following, and people enjoy listening to them, even if it's just
for entertainment value, just like sports athletes, they deserve to live
however their means dictate," he said.
Michael Scott Horton, who teaches religious theology at Westminister
Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif., said attitudes such as Parton's are
exactly what evangelists like Meyer bank on.
"These poor people want to believe that they have that kind of faith," Horton
said, "that they're going to risk it all on the say-so of this supposed man of
God standing up in front of them."
None of her critics seems to rile Meyer. She says her material success is a
reflection of her commitment to God.
As she puts it: "The whole Bible really has one message: 'Obey me and do what I
tell you to do, and you'll be blessed.'"
Reporter Carolyn Tuft
Reporter Bill Smith
More information is available at St. Louis Post Dispatch's index of Joyce Meyer articles.