No taxes on $4M parsonage

Northville Township loses $40,000 annually after church buys home.

The Detroit News/March 17, 2007
By Doug Guthrie

Northville Township -- A Redford Township church that believes wealth is God's reward is raising eyebrows for buying its pastor a $3.65 million mansion and taking it off the tax rolls.

This month, township officials grudgingly conceded they had no choice but to remove the 11,000-square-foot home overlooking Maybury State Park from its assessment rolls, losing $40,000 annually in taxes.

They concluded the plush pad is a parsonage, but that hasn't quelled debate among township officials and neighbors about whether Christian charity extends to the Detroit World Outreach Church's purchase in September of the home for Pastor Ben Gibert and his wife and co-pastor, Charisse Gibert.

"I also have faith in God, but I don't expect to live in such opulence," said Evgenia Asimakis, a single mother of two who lives nearby and has trouble paying her property taxes.

Her neighbor, Gary Wall, is blunter: "You don't need a multimillion-dollar place to see God. He'll take a lot less."

Detroit World Outreach Church isn't apologizing. In fact, members say the mansion is proof God has blessed them.

The 4,000-member church is part of a growing movement that preaches prosperity. Also known as "health and wealth" theology, the ideology preaches that God wants followers to do well, be healthy and have rewards -- such as the $50,000 Cadillac Escalade the church bought the Giberts, who have four children.

Ben Gibert said God surrounds the faithful with beautiful things.

One of the leaders of his church agrees. "God's empowerment is to make you have an abundant life," said Elder Marvin Wilder, a lawyer and general counsel for the church.

"In this country we value rock stars, movie stars and athletes. They can have a lavish lifestyle, and a pastor who restores lives that were broken shouldn't? When our value system elevates a man who can put a ball in a hole and not a man who does God's work, something is wrong."

Born in the 1950s, prosperity theology has a strong following among some fundamentalist and nondenominational churches. It's gained popularity among mega-church ministries of such well-known national pastors as Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes and Pat Robertson.

Even so, most Christian denominations disparage the belief as consumerism run amok, said David G. Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland who has written about the movement.

"Are people really any happier for that sort of self-indulgent spending? The answer is clearly no," Myers said.

Wilder said the four-bedroom mansion "isn't flamboyant" and is compensation for Ben Gibert leaving his job as a high-paying automotive executive with DaimlerChrysler's minivan division after the sudden death in 2005 of church founder Bishop Jack Cameron Wallace.

Wallace dropped dead in Zimbabwe doing what Wilder said was the church's work. Wallace, 47, was an accomplished weight lifter and co-founder of Prosperity Nutrition Inc., which sold performance enhancement supplements, such as creatine, online.

Wilder said Gibert saved the church whose membership, once at 10,000, had fallen by more than half. Its services still are carried on a host of television channels throughout the Midwest.

"We know that it will cost the township some tax revenue, but every church in the state gets property tax exemption," Wilder said. "Having a parsonage is a historical precedent. Ours happens to be worth $3.6 million."

The mansion sits on 12 acres and behind a quarter-mile-long driveway and a tall, electronically controlled gate. That's necessary because the church has spoken out against homosexuality and Islamic violence, Wilder said. Wallace once had a live bullet delivered in the offering plate, Wilder said.

Gibert, who left a 7,000-square-foot home in Franklin for the mansion, agreed security is a concern.

"I am an African-American man who became pastor of a multi-ethnic church. Some people don't agree with that," he said. "I have not received death threats, but people have followed my children to school."

Thelma Kubitskey, the township's finance director, said officials weren't thrilled, but had to remove the house from the tax rolls. Tax-free status can be granted to church-owned residences if clergy live there, even if they're not in the same communities as the churches.

"If the church is willing to pay for the house, it's fine with me," said neighbor Janice Gutowski, whose $800,000 home is dominated by the Giberts' house and lawns.

"Churches don't pay taxes, so the rules should be the same for everyone."

Township Clerk Sue Hillebrand complained that Northville schools can ill afford to lose more revenue. She said she's amazed by the church's generosity.

"They could buy a very, very nice home out here for half a million," she said. "Can you imagine how many miracles you could perform, how many people you could help with the $3 million left over?"

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