Major evangelical nonprofits are trying a new strategy with the IRS that allows them to hide their salaries
By Sarah Pulliam Bailey
January 17, 2020
|The Internal Revenue Service headquarters in the District.
Photo by Andrew Harrer
Several major evangelical organizations have in recent years moved to a new strategy where they shift from a nonprofit status to a “church” status with the IRS, allowing them to keep private exactly how their money is being spent and the salaries of their most highly paid employees.
That strategic shift was highlighted recently by MinistryWatch, an independent, donor-based group that monitors evangelical institutions. The IRS status change allows these groups, including Focus on the Family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to avoid filing a form that makes details of their institution’s finances public.
Leaders of the groups say they are changing their status to avoid administrative costs; some also believe that this status with the IRS could allow them extra religious-freedom protections in potential lawsuits over LGBT rights. The potential cost of applying to be a church is that the organizations cannot campaign on behalf of politicians or devote a substantial part of their work to lobbying on legislation. Critics say the option deprives the public of important information about how the tax-exempt organizations are operating.
“Transparency and accountability send an important message to the world, which is why this trend is so potentially destructive,” said Warren Cole Smith of MinistryWatch.
For decades, the U.S. tax code has allowed nonprofit organizations, including religious ones, to be exempt from most taxes. Donors can also deduct gifts to the nonprofit groups on their own taxes.
But tax-exempt organizations that are not houses of worship must also complete an annual Form 990. The form includes information about annual revenue, salaries of the highest-paid employees, names of board members and large contractors, and the amount of money the organization spends on administrative costs and fundraising. In lieu of a 990, some houses of worship (which are all generally described as “churches” by the IRS) choose to publicize their own audits, but doing so is not required.
MinistryWatch recently published a list of highly paid Christian ministry executives, but several pastors and nonprofit executives were excluded because many don’t file 990s. While these kinds of ministries range in purpose, they typically do not operate the same way most churches do, with at least one weekly worship service that is open to the public.
Smith said he began noticing this trend after writing about evangelist Franklin Graham’s salary in his reports for several years. Several 2015 reports suggested that Graham was making $880,000 on salaries from Samaritan’s Purse, the ministry he helped to found, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, his father’s ministry. Now that the BGEA is listed as a church, it does not file a 990 but posts a financial report on its website; that document does not clearly state Graham’s salary from the ministry. Public filings suggest his compensation from Samaritan’s Purse is nearly $700,000.
A spokesman for the BGEA pointed to a 2016 statement that explained why the ministry changed its status: It said that the ministry operates with churches, that it feels better protected from “government interference” when it is characterized as a church, and that filing a 990 consumed time and resources.
The IRS classifies churches as a public charity (as opposed to a private foundation) and describes 14 characteristics of a church, including a recognized creed and form of worship, a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government, established places of worship, regular congregations, and Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young. While many of these large ministries include elements of these church descriptions, they tend to operate under regular business hours; in the evangelical world, they would usually be called “parachurch ministries,” supplementing the work of churches, not replacing them.
An IRS representative said the agency does not comment on the status of specific organizations.
Smith said identifying as a church was a common practice of televangelists for several years, even though they did not meet several of the above criteria; the issue came under scrutiny during the Obama administration. By not filing 990s, Smith argued, the organizations were able to avoid detailing when their leaders spent donor money on mansions, private jets and lavish lifestyles.
From 2008 to 2011, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) investigated six televangelists — including megachurch pastor Paula White, President Trump’s close friend and adviser — because they did not disclose their finances to the public. Major evangelical institutions generally filed under the nonprofit status during that period, but now they increasingly appear to be following the example of those televangelists.
Along with Focus on the Family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, ministries filing as a “church” with the IRS include the Navigators, Gideons International, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, the Willow Creek Association and Ethnos360.
While Smith has seen an uptick in this trend, some groups have been doing this practice for decades. A spokeswoman for Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade), which evangelizes on college campuses, said they filed with the IRS as a church more than 20 years ago. Cru is one of the largest evangelical organizations in the country, with more than $630 million in income, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Smith and other observers say they believe some organizations are also changing their IRS status to give them an added protection from possible future legal disputes around LGBT rights. Some activists have used public filings to identify and harass donors to organizations, especially when those organizations advocate for limiting LGBT adoptions or for other socially conservative causes. Smith pointed to how the chief executive of Mozilla resigned in 2014 after it was made public that he had made a donation to a group pushing for a ban on same-sex marriage in California.
“That sent chills throughout the ministry world, that donor lists could be weaponized,” he said. “I’m not saying the concern is not legitimate. I’m saying don’t hide behind a church status.”
Paul Batura, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, said in a statement that the organization changed its status to “church” with the IRS “primarily to protect the confidentiality of our donors.”
“In recent years there have been several occasions on which non-profit organizations — on both the right and the left — were targeted for information, including the names and personal details of their donors,” he wrote in an email.
Focus on the Family still voluntarily releases its 990s, however, with donor information redacted.
Ruth Malhotra, a spokeswoman for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, said in an email that the Christian apologetics and evangelism ministry, which had been classified as a “mission society” in 2014, was reclassified as a church in April. The ministry publishes a public financial audit but does not release 990s.
Some of these organizations said they see themselves as church-like entities despite not holding worship services. Gary Cantwell, a spokesman for the Navigators, which is a ministry emphasizing spiritual development, said members of the ministry staff operate similar to church-based clergy, even though they aren’t licensed or ordained. Cantwell said the ministry made the decision about 15 years ago to file as a church because that was the most accurate category it could find.
“We are a part of the broader church, theologically,” he said. “To call us a church is not off-base.”
Cantwell said he believes the status provides the ministry with protections regarding the beliefs of its employees and the use of its facilities. For example, the ministry owns a property in Colorado Springs that people have used for weddings, and it would decline to host a gay wedding. Financially, the Navigators is among the top 20 evangelical organizations, with an income of nearly $138 million, according to the ECFA.
Some religious leaders have voiced concerns that the tax-exempt status they enjoy could come under attack, especially after that status was questioned publicly by then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in October. The issue was the most recent cover story for Christianity Today magazine, which suggested that it wouldn’t be terrible if churches lost their special IRS status.
David Bea, an attorney based in Chicago, said he has worked with more than a dozen religious institutions to change their status from nonprofit organization to church. He said that “there’s a lot of angst in religious organizations” because leaders are afraid that anti-discrimination policies might interfere with their ability to hire and fire employees based on their sexual orientation or decline to host or perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Being classified as a church by the IRS “increases their bona fides as a religious organization,” Bea said. He deemed it “good planning.”
“The law does allow them to work on religious principles,” he said. “Having that status is an extra seal of approval.”
Many ministry leaders have expressed that they fear potential audits from the IRS, although such audits are rare. For example, Franklin Graham said in 2013 that his ministry was targeted by the IRS under the Obama administration. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump addressed this fear by promising to eliminate what’s known as the Johnson Amendment, a provision of the tax code that prohibits churches and other nonprofit groups from expressly endorsing or opposing any politician and from advocating for legislation.
Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 that he claimed would effectively end the Johnson Amendment for churches. But others say the order only has the power to temporarily change IRS enforcement priorities; a future president could issue a different executive order.
Several observers said the shift toward IRS “church” status has nothing to do with Trump’s presidency. Many evangelical leaders believe that Trump has been favorable to them when it comes to IRS regulations, and many feel like he has protected them, said Dan Busby, the president of the ECFA.
“Administrations come and go,” he said. “I think with the increased polarization, organizations are concerned about the future.”