Is the "Prosperity Gospel" facing a recession? With donations dwindling, Mac Hammond, the high-flying pastor of Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, says his private jet is for sale.
This comes amid an investigation by the U.S. Senate into some of Hammond's contemporaries -including one who leads a church where Hammond serves on the board -and allegations that some ministers may have improperly solicited funds for presidential candidate Mike Huckabee during a conference at which Hammond spoke.
Living Word has also cut its hourlong TV show on Sunday mornings in half to save money, according to the Rev. Brian Sullivan, spokesman for the church.
Living Word has fallen $40,000 to $70,000 short of its weekly budget in recent months.
"We publicly acknowledge we are going through some financial challenges, and we're just adjusting our budget to reflect that and to live within our means," said Sullivan. "I think it's going to be an austere budget year for us.
"Is that a product of recession, or is that a product of maybe some bad publicity in the church in general? We speculate it's a combination of things," he said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R- Iowa, asked six churches late last year to submit financial documents because of complaints about the lavish lifestyles of their ministers. Hammond's was not among them, but he serves on the board of the Rev. Kenneth Copeland's Texas church, which was. Copeland's son, John, serves on the board of Hammond's church.
Kenneth Copeland aggressively rejected the Senate Finance Committee request for records. "It's not yours, it's God's, and you're not going to get it -and that's something I'll go to prison over," Copeland said at a meeting of prosperity ministers he sponsored in January.
Copeland is coming to town
"Prosperity Gospel" churches are based on the notion that success in business or personal life is evidence of God's love.
Copeland will be the keynote speaker at Living Word's stewardship seminars this week. Sullivan said he doesn't believe Copeland's appearance will further erode support for the church.
"I don't think we've been brazen, in your face, to spite what Sen. Grassley is doing," said Sullivan, who added: "We had extended an invitation to [Copeland] a while ago, and we're going to honor that invitation. Mac sees Kenneth Copeland as kind of a spiritual mentor, a spiritual father, someone ahead of him on the path who has been a sounding board and provided guidance."
At the January conference, Copeland told ministers he had Huckabee's support in refusing to hand over financial documents to the U.S. Senate.
During a break in that meetings, Copeland raised $110,000 for Huckabee, with pledges for $1 million more.
Pete Evans of the Trinity Foundation, a religious watchdog group, said the contributions may have violated IRS rules. While individuals may contribute, nonprofit groups are not allowed to raise money for political purposes.
Sullivan said Hammond did not contribute to Huckabee or attend the session where money and pledges were collected.
Last year, complaints were filed against Hammond for endorsing then-candidate Michele Bachmann, now a U.S. House member, from the pulpit. Hammond later acknowledged that he'd made a mistake.
"To be honest with you, with a little bit of the fallout relative to Michele Bachmann, we're taking a little bit more careful road," Sullivan said. "I don't think we crossed the line, but it raised concerns and suspicions."
Disillusionment sets in
At Copeland's conference, which was broadcast live on the Internet, Hammond told other ministers that people "gradually become disillusioned" when their prayers are not met promptly or when promised riches don't come.
"They have needs to be met, and when they don't get it they leave," Hammond said. "They get their hands put on them, they don't get cured, then the disillusionment sets in."
Copeland also revealed to the ministers that Hammond was putting his private jet up for sale and had a test drive scheduled for later that day. Though the test drive fell through, "we are marketing [the plane] aggressively," said Sullivan, adding the money would be reinvested in the ministry.
The jet has been controversial. Last year, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed complaints with the IRS, alleging that Hammond got favorable terms on a $2 million loan deal with Living Word and benefited financially from a lease-back deal on the plane.
Hammond has two planes, the other being a stunt plane. He has said he needed the jet because he ministers at churches across the country. Last year, he also acknowledged he sometimes used the plane to travel to his two homes in Destin, Fla., but that he reimburses the church for personal trips.
Sullivan said that no action has been taken against the church in relation to complaints filed against the Bachmann endorsement or the airplane deal.