THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Pastor's Empire Built on Acts of Faith, and Cash
The top Christian broadcaster's steady plea for money funds growth -- and a life of luxury for Paul Crouch and his wife.Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times September 19, 2004.
Trinity Foundation furnished substantial investigative data for this story.
Times Staff Writer
September 19, 2004
Pastor Paul Crouch looked into the camera and told his flock that Trinity Broadcasting Network needed $8 million to spread the Gospel throughout India and save 1 billion souls from damnation.
Crouch, head of the world's largest Christian broadcasting network, said even viewers who couldn't afford a $1,000 pledge should take a "step of faith" and make one anyway. The Lord would repay them many times over, he said.
"Do you think God would have any trouble getting $1,000 extra to you somehow?" he asked during a "Praise-a-thon" broadcast from Trinity's studios in Costa Mesa.
The network's "prayer partners" came through once again, phoning in enough pledges in one evening to put Christian programming on 8,700 television stations across India.
TBN was not short on cash. In fact, it could have paid for the India expansion out of the interest on its investment portfolio. But at TBN, the appeals for money never stop. Nor does the flow of contributions.
Over the last 31 years, Crouch and his wife, Jan, have parlayed their viewers' small expressions of faith into a worldwide broadcasting empire — and a life of luxury.
The network, little known outside fundamentalist Christian circles, was buffeted by unwanted publicity last week, when The Times reported that Crouch had paid a former employee $425,000 to keep silent about an alleged homosexual tryst.
But millions of people needed no introduction to TBN. Its 24-hour-a-day menu of sermons, faith healing, inspirational movies and Christian talk shows reaches viewers around the globe via satellite, cable and broadcast stations. Its programs are dubbed in 11 different languages.
In the U.S. alone, TBN is watched by more than 5 million households each week, more than its three main competitors combined. Its signature offering, "Praise the Lord," has as many prime-time viewers as Chris Matthews' "Hardball" on MSNBC — remarkable for a faith network. Televangelists who once dominated the field, such as Pat Robertson, now air their shows on TBN.
Much as Ted Turner did for TV news, the Crouches have created a global infrastructure for religious broadcasting. But that is just one element in their success. Another is a doctrine called the "prosperity gospel," which promises worshipers that God will shower them with material blessings if they sacrifice to spread His word.
This theme — that viewers will be rewarded, even enriched, for donating — pervades TBN programming.
"When you give to God," Crouch said during a typical appeal for funds, "you're simply loaning to the Lord and He gives it right on back."
Though it carries no advertising, the network generates more than $170 million a year in revenue, tax filings show. Viewer contributions account for two-thirds of that money.
Lower-income, rural Americans in the South are among TBN's most faithful donors. The network says that 70% of its contributions are in amounts less than $50.
Those small gifts underwrite a lifestyle that most of the ministry's supporters can only dream about.
Paul, 70, collects a $403,700 salary as TBN's chairman and president. Jan, 67, is paid $361,000 as vice president and director of programming. Those are the highest salaries paid by any of the 12 major religious nonprofits whose finances are tracked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
TBN's "prayer partners" pay for a variety of perquisites as well.
The Crouches travel the world in a $7.2-million, 19-seat Canadair Turbojet owned by TBN. They drive luxury cars. They have charged expensive dinners and furniture to TBN credit cards.
Thirty ministry-owned homes are at their disposal — including a pair of Newport Beach mansions, a mountain retreat near Lake Arrowhead and a ranch in Texas.
The Crouches' family members share in the benefits. Their oldest son, Paul Jr., earns $90,800 a year as TBN's vice president for administration. Another son, Matthew, has received $32 million from the network since 1999 to produce Christian-themed movies such as "The Omega Code."
Overseeing these expenditures is a board of directors that consists of Paul Crouch, Jan Crouch and Paul's 74-year-old sister, Ruth Brown. Control resides primarily with Paul. In a 2001 legal deposition, Jan said she did not know she was a corporate officer and could not recall the last board meeting she attended.
TBN's declared mission as a tax-exempt Christian charity is to produce and broadcast television shows and movies "for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to the world."
Supporters' tax-deductible donations fund the ministry's worldwide television network — and keep it growing. Expansion is an overriding goal. Televised appeals seek money for new transmitters, more satellite time and fresh cable deals to bring God's word to an ever-larger audience.
As more people hear the Crouches' message, more are inspired to send donations. That pays for further expansion, which brings more viewers — and more donations.
The formula has proved extraordinarily successful. While other religious broadcasters have struggled, TBN has posted surpluses averaging nearly $60 million a year since 1997. Its balance sheet for 2002, the most recent available, lists net assets of $583 million, including $238 million in Treasury bonds and other government securities and $31 million in cash. It has 400 employees across the country.
Such figures have prompted questions about why the network continues to plead for contributions. Wall Watchers, a nonprofit group in Charlotte, N.C., that monitors religious ministries, has urged Christian donors to stop writing checks to TBN.
"They have more money than they need," said Wall Watchers chairman Howard "Rusty" Leonard, a former investment manager for the Templeton mutual fund group. "There's nothing like this. It's over the top."
The Crouches declined to be interviewed for this article. Through TBN officials, they said the ministry keeps raising money so it can avoid going into debt as it pays for TV stations, satellite time and other ways to spread the Gospel.
Regarding the Crouches' salaries, the ministry said that during the network's first 21 years, Paul was paid less than $40,000 a year on average and Jan less than $35,000. The couple accepted higher compensation only in the last decade, as they approached retirement, officials said. Their current salaries were determined by independent compensation experts hired by the ministry's accounting firm, TBN said.
Devoted viewers say the Crouches have nothing to apologize for. Indeed, the ministry's material success is part of its appeal to believers — proof that the Crouches enjoy God's favor.
"The fruit of God is on their life," said Tennille Lowe, a computer analyst in Phoenix City, Ala., who is in her 20s and watches the network every day. "If they weren't prospering, I'd say, 'Wait a minute. I don't see any evidence [of God's blessing] in their life.' "
The most visible evidence of the Crouches' success is Trinity Christian City International in Costa Mesa, a striking white wedding cake of a building surrounded by reflecting pools, sculptures and neoclassical colonnades.
Visitors to the complex, alongside the San Diego Freeway, can attend live studio broadcasts, buy TBN-branded clothing and stroll down a re-creation of Via Dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem where Jesus walked to his crucifixion. In a high-tech 50-seat theater, people watch biblical movies in seats that tremble during the quakes, storms and other disasters recounted in the Scriptures.
The ministry owns a similar complex near Dallas and a Christian entertainment center outside Nashville.
But most TBN devotees will never visit those places. They connect with the network through its television programs, which provide a spiritual lifeline for millions. Many of these viewers worship in their living rooms. TBN preachers are their pastors.
"I don't go to church…. I turn the TV on and it's right there," said Sherry Peters, a bookkeeper in Mississippi. "Sometimes I will watch it for weeks on end, every day."
Olivia Foster, 52, of Westminster, sends the network $70 a month out of her $820 disability check.
"Without TBN, I wouldn't be here," said Foster, who lives alone and suffers from AIDS. "That's the Gospel truth. It gave me purpose that God could use me. I watch it 18 hours a day."
A Ham-Radio Start
Paul Crouch is the son of Pentacostal missionaries. Raised in Missouri, he took an interest in broadcasting at 12, when a friend introduced him to ham radio. By 15, he was a licensed operator. In a high school essay, he wrote that he "would one day use this invention of shortwave radio to send the Gospel around the world," according to his autobiography, "Hello World!"
At the Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Mo., Crouch and fellow students wired the campus for low-wattage radio and broadcast Gospel messages.
After graduation, Crouch stayed in Springfield and went to work for the Assemblies of God, a branch of Pentacostalism whose rituals include faith healing and speaking in tongues. His job was to maintain a film library. At the time — the early 1950s — many Protestant denominations were experimenting with movies and television as tools to win converts and teach the faithful.
During a visit to Rapid City, S.D., in 1956, Crouch was smitten by "a slight 98-pound angel" in a red dress, he later recalled. This was Jan Bethany, daughter of a leading Assemblies of God pastor.
The two married a year later and eventually settled in Rapid City, where Crouch became an associate pastor of his brother-in-law's church. In 1961, the Crouches left to run the Assemblies of God's new broadcast production facility in Burbank.
Twelve years later, the Crouches went out on their own, renting air time on KBSA-TV Channel 46 in Santa Ana. TBN's first studio set included pieces of furniture from the Crouches' bedroom, with a shower curtain as a backdrop.
The televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, then friends of the couple, moved from Michigan to help with the fledgling network and lived with the Crouches for a time.
The partnership didn't last long. In his autobiography, Crouch says that Jim Bakker tried to take over the network, but failed. The Bakkers then left for South Carolina and started their own TV ministry, which was a huge success before it was wrecked by scandal in 1987. Bakker admitted to an affair with a secretary and was later convicted of defrauding followers who invested in a religious retreat.
TBN, meanwhile, was quietly broadening its reach — with help from the Almighty, by Crouch's account. During the network's first day on the air, God moved a mountain so a clear broadcast signal could reach an antenna atop Mt. Wilson, Crouch wrote in his autobiography.
"And we will ever know that it was not just a spiritual mountain — this was a real dirt, rock and tree mountain!"
In its early days, TBN delivered programming through a web of UHF and low-power stations. Then, as the cable industry developed, Crouch bought time on systems across the country.
One evening in 1975, he was inspired to embrace a new technology. Crouch wrote that he was sitting in the den of his Newport Beach home when God projected a map of the U.S. on the ceiling. Beams of light struck major population centers, then spread throughout the country.
"I sat there transfixed by what I was seeing as I cried out to God to show me what all this meant," Crouch wrote. "As I waited upon the Lord, He spoke a ringing, resounding word to my spirit — 'Satellite!' "
While other televangelists concentrated on developing programs, Crouch built an unmatched distribution system. TBN outlasted or eclipsed its rivals and now leads all faith networks in revenue and viewership.
Today, the ministry and its subsidiaries own 23 full-power stations in the U.S. — including KTBN Channel 40 in Santa Ana — and 252 low-power stations serving rural areas.
Overseas, the network owns interests in stations in El Salvador, Spain and Kenya. Contracts with cable and satellite companies and station owners further extend its reach.
All-told, TBN airs on more than 6,000 stations in 75 countries, including places as remote as Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and Mbabane, Swaziland. Its programs are also available over the Internet.
To serve this diverse audience, translators at the network's International Production Center in Irving, Texas, dub programs into Spanish, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Hebrew, French, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Chinese.
A typical day of TBN programming includes health and lifestyle shows, Bible study, religious movies and late-night Christian rock videos. Pentecostal pastors espouse the prosperity gospel and offer prophecies about the Second Coming of Jesus.
Mainstream evangelists such as Robertson, Billy Graham and Robert H. Schuller appear on the network. Some lease their air time. Such payments bring in more than $35 million a year, nearly one-fifth of TBN's revenue. So many preachers want air time that the network keeps a waiting list.
The most popular offering is "Praise the Lord," a nightly, two-hour mix of talk, prayer and music. The Crouches and a revolving cast of guest hosts hold forth on a set decorated with stained-glass windows, chandeliers, imitation French antiques and a gold-painted piano.
With his silver hair, mustache and bifocals, Paul Crouch comes across as a grandfatherly sort. What he calls his "German temper" can rise quickly, however. He often punctuates a point by shaking a finger at the camera.
"Get out of God's way," he said once, referring to TBN's detractors. "Quit blocking God's bridges or God is going to shoot you, if I don't."
Jan Crouch wears heavy makeup, long false lashes and champagne-colored wigs piled high on her head. She speaks in a sing-song voice and lets tears flow freely, whether reading a viewer's letter or recalling how God resurrected her pet chicken when she was a child.
She and Paul project the image of a happily married couple. But off the air, they lead separate lives and rarely stay under the same roof, according to former TBN employees and others who have spent time with the couple.
The Crouches also present themselves as thrifty and budget-conscious. During one telethon, Paul said his personal $50,000 donation to TBN had wiped out the family checking account. He often says that he and his wife live in the same Newport Beach tract house they bought 33 years ago for $38,500.
But nowadays, neither of the Crouches uses that home much. Whether in Southern California or on the road, they live in a variety of other TBN-owned homes. In all, the network owns 30 residences in California, Texas, Tennessee and Ohio — all paid for in cash, property records show.
These include two Newport Beach mansions in a gated community overlooking the Pacific. One of them was recently on the market for an asking price of $8 million. A real estate advertisement said it featured "11,000 square feet of opulent European luxury with regulation tennis courts and a rambling terraced hillside orchard with view of the blue Pacific."
In Costa Mesa, the ministry owns 11 homes in a gated development adjacent to Trinity Christian City International.
In Sky Forest, a resort community in the San Bernardino National Forest, the network owns a four-bedroom, five-bath home.
TBN officials say the real estate purchases were consistent with the network's charitable mission, because the homes serve as venues for broadcasts and provide lodging for the Crouches and fellow televangelists as they travel across the country. The properties have also been good investments, they said.
From 1994 to 1996, TBN spent $13.7 million to acquire Twitty City, a tourist attraction on the former Nashville-area estate of country singer Conway Twitty, along with some adjacent property. After extensive renovations, the site reopened as Trinity Music City USA, a Christian entertainment park with TV studios, a church, a concert hall and a movie theater.
The amenities include a pair of condominiums for the Crouches. One is furnished in Paul's taste, the other in Jan's, former employees said.
In Colleyville, Texas, near the network's International Production Center, TBN owns nine homes on 66 acres along a country road, a spread called Shiloh Ranch. Six horses graze in a pasture; TBN officials say they were gifts from admirers.
Paul and Jan visit from time to time, and TBN occasionally broadcasts specials from the ranch.
Ministry officials say that a Christian drug treatment program also uses the property, but former employees say the program left years ago and Colleyville officials say there is no permit for such an operation.
A Passion for Antiques
Wherever they happen to be staying, the Crouches indulge expensive tastes courtesy of TBN donors, former employees say.
Kelly Whitmore, a former personal assistant to Jan Crouch, said in interviews with The Times that she used a TBN American Express card to make numerous personal purchases for Jan and Paul, including groceries, clothes, cosmetics, alcohol and a tanning bed.
Whitmore, 43, who lives outside Nashville, worked at TBN from 1992 to 1997. On the air, Jan once called her "my right arm."
TBN officials now describe her as a disgruntled ex-employee whose word cannot be trusted. Whitmore acknowledged that she has hired an agent and hopes to sell her story to TV or film producers.
Whitmore and another former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Jan Crouch's special passion was antiques.
Credit card receipts show that in December 1994, TBN bought about 40 items from Cool Springs Antiques in Brentwood, Tenn., including a three-piece wine cabinet for $10,000, a $2,800 candelabrum, a $350 birdbath and a seven-piece bedroom suite that cost $3,995.
At Harris Antiques and Imports in Forth Worth, Texas, TBN spent $32,851 in a single day in 1995. The purchases included two French chests for about $1,900 each, a $1,650 brass planter and a $1,095 bronze urn.
TBN officials said the items were reproductions, not antiques, and were used to furnish studio sets and network-owned houses. They said the tanning bed was used to darken the skin of 25 actors cast in TBN stage productions set in Biblical times.
Whitmore said she regularly used ministry money and a network-owned van to stock the bars in Paul's and Jan's separate condominiums at Trinity Music City.
Whitmore said the Crouches directed her to make the purchases at a store called Frugal McDougal, hoping it would not be recognizable on credit-card statements as a liquor store.
Credit card receipts also offer a glimpse of the Crouches' dining habits. In Nashville in the mid-1990s, Paul Crouch hosted dinners with TBN employees in a private room of Mario's, an upscale Italian restaurant, spending $180 or more per person for parties of up to a dozen, the receipts show.
A former top TBN official described heavy consumption of wine and liquor at a dozen such dinners. The ex-official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation.
"I have no problem with people drinking," the former official said, "but I have a problem drinking with [prayer] partners' money."
In separate interviews, Whitmore, the former TBN official and a third person who traveled and socialized with ministry leaders said that at the end of a dinner, Paul Crouch would sometimes hold up a TBN credit card and say: "Thank you, little partners!"
In a statement, ministry officials said that if Crouch thanked donors, it was "a sincere gesture and remembrance of true thanks."
They also said it was appropriate for TBN to pay for dinners at which network business was conducted. When network credit cards were used to pay for personal expenses or for alcohol, the Crouches or other TBN officials reimbursed the ministry, they said.
TBN never stops raising money. All that varies is the method.
The network appeals directly for cash during weeklong "Praise-a-thons" held twice a year, in the spring and fall. The approach is not subtle. The Crouches suggest that "Praise the Lord" will go dark if viewers don't send money.
No mention is made of the ministry's flush finances.
"The question is: Shall we keep this great, live, prime-time 'Praise the Lord' program on the air for another year?" Paul Crouch asked during last November's telethon. "It's really up to you."
Jan, from a studio in Atlanta, added: "Oh, dear friends, come on. We've got to keep 'Praise the Lord' on the air."
Viewers pledge a total of $90 million during a typical "Praise-a-thon." TBN says it collects about half the money promised.
During the rest of the year, the ministry keeps donations flowing by less intrusive means.
Except during "Praise-a-Thons," pastors appearing on the network can solicit donations only during the last 30 seconds of a half-hour show or the last 60 seconds of a one-hour show. TBN executives call this "the 11th Commandment."
But the network's toll-free "prayer line" is always visible at the bottom of the TV screen, bringing a steady stream of calls from people troubled by debts, illnesses and other problems.
The calls are answered by paid and volunteer "prayer warriors" in a cluster of drab two-story buildings in a Tustin office park.
The workers, Bibles at the ready, write down callers' requests — for healings, financial relief, mended marriages, jobs — and pray with them on the phone. TBN officials say the prayer requests are then taken to a chapel on the premises and prayed over.
While they have callers on the phone, the volunteers ask for their names and addresses. Later, the information is entered into a direct-mail database, one of Trinity's most powerful fundraising tools.
If the sumptuous Costa Mesa complex with its biblical murals and reflecting pools is TBN's spiritual heart, the Tustin complex is its financial nerve center.
Workers there deal with a daily avalanche of mail from around the world — poems, prayers, testimonials and donations in a variety of currencies. With surveillance cameras overhead, employees process the mail in an assembly-line-like operation, separating donations from prayer requests. The Spartan décor and brisk pace suggest a bank processing center.
In an adjoining room, employees enter the letter writers' names and addresses into the direct-mail database, which has 1.2 million names. An in-house printing and mailing operation generates thousands of letters a day asking the faithful to give.
Sheryl Silva of Anaheim is among those who do. She says the network has been a source of strength during difficult times, including a period of homelessness.
"I love to give whenever I can — at least $15 per month," said Silva, 46, who has glaucoma and gets by on a monthly disability check of about $900. "I give because I don't want them to go off the air. They might be the only thing good on TV that day."
Three Days in Iraq
Just as the fundraising never ceases, TBN's efforts to widen its audience are unending.
In recent years, the network has focused on winning viewers in the former Soviet-bloc countries, the Middle East and Asia. Crouch is negotiating with Chinese officials to make TBN available in hotels, embassies, foreign residential compounds and churches.
Earlier this year, the network converted to a digital signal, enabling it to deliver three spinoff channels through the same pipeline that carries TBN.
The Spanish-language channel Enlace USA serves the growing evangelical audience in Central and South America. JC-TV offers youth-oriented Christian programs. The Church Channel broadcasts church services.
In March, Crouch made a three-day trip to Iraq, where his son Matt filmed him giving a satellite receiver to an Iraqi pastor. Crouch handed $10,000 in cash to another Iraqi clergyman to buy receivers for churches and individuals who wanted to watch TBN.
In a fundraising letter, Crouch said that while he was in the war zone, God granted him another miracle.
"I honestly believe that Matt and I, with our small group, were made invisible to the barriers, checkpoints, armed guards, military infrastructure and enemies all around us!" he wrote. "Supernatural favor was our portion as we moved effortlessly through the war-torn and suffering city of Baghdad."
Then he asked his followers for their support.
"Will you help us help them? I know you will!"