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Billionaire Warren Buffet became one of the richest men in the world by knowing what adds value to a corporation and what does not. And one of the things that does not, he has argued for years, is a corporate jet: They're a luxury in almost every case and a necessity for only a few. He often railed against them in the annual reports of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, and elsewhere.
That's why, when Berkshire Hathaway finally bought a corporate jet in 1989, he somewhat ashamedly called it "The Indefensible."
But try telling that to Fred Price, Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, Benny Hinn, or Kenneth Copeland. Their organizations are among more than 30 churches and Christian ministries with luxury jets (see sidebar), according to a WORLD investigation. And according to Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based ministry watchdog, ownership and use of luxury jets is one of the surest indicators that donor money is not being used for ministry purposes.
"There are incredible abuses of these corporate jets for personal use," Anthony said. "Mind-bending abuse that they do with impunity."
Using ministry resources for personal use is prohibited by IRS regulations, but the IRS almost never investigates tax-exempt organizations. Of the more than 1 million tax-exempt organizations in the country, fewer than 10,000 get audited each year. When a media organization uncovers abuses of an executive jet for personal purposes, Anthony said, the televangelists say they've reimbursed the ministry.
"But it's just a claim," Anthony said. "They are not required to, and almost never do, provide anything that resembles real documentation of the claim."
All six of the televangelists under investigation for potential abuse of their tax-exempt status by Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (WORLD, Nov. 17, 2007; Jan. 26, 2008; May 31, 2008) are connected with luxury corporate jets. Eagle Mountain International Church, associated with Kenneth Copeland, owns three, including a Cessna 750, the fastest civilian airplane available in the world. (It's often called the Citation X.)
Paula and Randy White's Without Walls International Church bought a Gulfstream II jet for about $1.5 million in 2006. Before then, the Whites frequently chartered planes.
The flight records of lesser-known Jesse Duplantis allow a glimpse into this jet-setting ministry world. The Louisiana-based televangelist with a shock of silvery-white hair, a Cajun accent, and an exuberant style-in his youth he was a guitarist in heavy metal rock bands-has been preaching since the late 1970s. His current vehicle of choice is a Falcon 50, the only plane in its class with three jet engines.
The Falcon 50 is considered a "super-medium" or "long-range" plane, one able to go almost 3,000 miles between refuelings. When Duplantis bought the plane in 2006, he wrote in his ministry's magazine that it was an "amazing tool for world evangelism." In September of that year he took the plane to Russia for a series of meetings and preaching events, and he's averaged four flights per week over the last two years: His director of marketing, Michael Wright, said commercial airlines "can't get us from point A to B to C to D at the times we need to be there. For us, the plane is a necessity."
The necessity is expensive. Neither Wright nor the spokesmen for other televangelists with jets would disclose to WORLD the total costs of owning them, which can vary widely. Used "entry level" jets can be found for less than $2 million, while new top-end jets can sell for more than $50 million.
The "fully loaded" costs for these jets (including insurance and depreciation) can easily go over $10,000 per hour, and even for the low-end jets are almost never less than $2,000 per hour. For most owners, that translates to a cost of several million dollars a year, even with minimal usage.
Another example: From 2000 to 2007, Fred Price of Los Angeles--based Crenshaw Christian Center used his Gulfstream jet for more than 700 flights. Many of the flights were to the New York City area, where he had opened an East Coast branch of his church-despite the fact that these are two cities linked by more than 20 non-stop commercial flights each day. Daniella Masterson, a spokesman for Price, would not comment for this story.
Do donors care? Many of the organizations with jets refuse to release financial information, so it is not known whether donors would be pleased or shocked. Trinity Foundation's Anthony contends that most ministry supporters would be appalled at the costs: "Flying first class would be many, many times more economical."
Some Christian ministries-especially disaster relief and missionary organizations-have legitimate uses for airplanes, but the planes they're using are not luxury jets.
Dwight Jarboe, president and CEO of Ohio-based MMS Aviation, which repairs and overhauls planes for mission aviation groups, estimates that about 120 Christian ministries use aircraft in their ministries: "The majority of these are small single-engine or twin-engine propeller planes." These planes are used for disaster relief, often in remote locations.
MMS Aviation, which receives just over $1 million a year in donations, does not charge Christian groups for its services. "If an airplane is used in Christian ministry, they don't pay for labor, only parts," Jarboe said. His organization doesn't work on the kind of jets used by many prosperity gospel televangelists. He describes one group with a 10-passenger King Air that moves its team to locations that do not have commercial service: "It's not a luxury plane. It's basic transportation."
Mission Aviation Fellowship and JAARS are perhaps the most well-known users of aircraft for ministry purposes. Their planes are generally outfitted to haul cargo, not people, and while both organizations have fleets operating in the United States, most of their planes are in remote areas around the world. JAARS-originally Jungle Aviation and Radio Service-has an honorable and storied history supporting Bible translation efforts and missionaries in off-the-beaten-path-and sometimes hostile-places.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) takes a pragmatic approach on the issue. Acting president Dan Busby told WORLD, "It really comes down to whether a charity can justify business purpose for a jet, and many charities pass this test. If the business purpose test is met, then it is an issue of documenting any personal use and attributing the value of any personal use for compensation reporting purposes. So, in short, the proper use of jets for nonprofit purposes is a matter of documentation, documentation, documentation."
Of course, ministry ownership of expensive jets offers great visuals for television news reporters looking to disparage Christians as big on spending and low on stewardship. That's a cost of ministry jet ownership that Warren Buffett could have predicted.
Just as bird-watchers develop "life lists" of birds they have seen, so "plane spotters" develop lists of planes they have seen, and their celebrity owners. Several websites-including those managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-give hobbyists and journalists a way to track planes by their identifying tail number. Below is a sampling of Christian ministries and the luxury jets they own, compiled from some of these sites. For the truly intrepid, type the tail number into an internet search engine, and you can learn even more about the planes and where they've been.
Organization: Type of Aircraft (Tail Number)
Agape Church: Cessna 500 (N700VC)
Creflo Dollar/World Changers Church: Learjet 25B (N65A)
Dave Roever/Roever Evangelistic Assocation: Learjet 25D (N43DR)
Eagle Mountain Int'l Church: Cessna 500 N501KG; Cessna 550 (N888H)S; Cessna 750 (N1962J)
Fred Price/Crenshaw Christian Center: Grumman G-1159 (N132FP)
From the Heart Church Ministries: Gulfstream G-1159A (N357PR)
Greg Powe Ministries: Rockwell NA-265-60 (N141SL)
Jerry Savelle Ministries: Cessna 500 (N715JS)
Jesse Duplantis Ministries: Dassault Falcon 50 (N770JD)
John Hagee Ministries: Cessna 650 (N800GM)
Joyce Meyer Ministries: Canadair CL-600 (N7JM)
Kenneth Hagin Jr./Rhema Bible Church: Canadair CL-600-2B16 (N91KH)
Leroy Thompson Sr./Word of Life Christian Center: Cessna 650 (N818DE)
Mark Cowart/Church for All Nations: Learjet 24D (N929MC)
Michael Freeman/Spirit of Faith Christian Center: Grumman G-1159 (N685SF)
Moore Life Ministries: Cessna 421C N74KP; Cessna 560 (N61KM)
Nahum Rosario/Maranatha World Revival: Cessna 550 (N741T)
Paula White/Without Walls Int'l Church: Grumman G-1159 (N374PS)
Tony Brazelton/Victory Christian Ministries: Rockwell NA-265-60 (N1GM)
Word of Faith Christian Center: Learjet 24D (N711PC); Hawker HS-125-700A (N225BJ)
Word of God Fellowship: Cessna 550 (N717DT)
SOURCES: FAA AND FLIGHT AWARE