Pastor Joel Osteen and his Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas — the largest megachurch in the nation — received nearly $4.5 million in taxpayer-funded loans as part of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). That money was supposedly used to pay for the salaries of 368 people, though not Osteen or his wife since they don’t take an official salary from the church.
Still, it raised a lot of valid questions about why one of the wealthiest churches in the country needed a short-term bailout — especially when Osteen, more than most others, was perfectly capable of live-streaming his services.
Now, the Houston Chronicle reports that the church is finally paying back those loans. At least a chunk of them, anyway.
Just to get into specifics, Lakewood Church received $4,436,224 in funding in July of 2020. A spokesperson for the church said they didn’t think the needed the loans at first, but “as the shutdown persisted month after month, given the economic uncertainty, Lakewood finally applied for the PPP loan.” The money was meant to cover salaries and benefits like health insurance for all employees… which was ironic since many of these Texas-based evangelical Christians staffers presumably oppose universal health care and government handouts (or at least vote for politicians who do).
The bigger concern, though, was that churches were eligible for this bailout at all. Why were taxpayers funding the survival of religious institutions so they could continue proselytizing? They don’t pay taxes and they play by different rules from other non-profits; they don’t have to be transparent about where their money is going. They were handed a financial gift without having to prove the cash went where it was supposed to go.
It didn’t help that this occurred a few years after Osteen’s church was under fire for not using his massive arena to house people trying to escape Hurricane Harvey. After that backlash, the church still passed around the collection plate and received a random $250,000 gift from filmmaker Tyler Perry.
Maybe they finally learned their lesson because they’re eager to show everyone they’re returning at least some of the cash.
Lakewood provided a statement from its bank showing it has made payments on the loan since January.
The megachurch was among at least 60 religious institutions in Texas that received more than $1 million in loans through the CARES Act, the first stimulus package passed by lawmakers in response to the pandemic, according to data released by the Small Business Administration.
What’s odd is that, since Lakewood has under 500 employees, they don’t have to give the money back as long as it goes toward payroll or utilities. So is the repayment an act of charity? A nice gesture meant to get good PR? Or was the money used for other purposes? None of that is clear.
(Incidentally, the Daily Beast says the church has “fully repaid the loan,” citing the Houston Chronicle. That’s not what the Chronicle says. It just says the church “has made payments on the loan” since the beginning of the year. There’s no evidence the loan has been fully repaid.)
Anyway, we shouldn’t even be talking about this. Lakewood could’ve sent a strong message last year by saying: Sure, we’re struggling right now, but we’ll be okay, because we have our members and God on our side. Other people need this financial help more than we do, and it would be unfair for us to grab $4.5 million from a pot really meant for small businesses.
They didn’t do that. They decided they needed government help to cover costs for their staffers… and now they’re getting positive press for paying back at least some of it. It’s a decent (and, as far as we know, partial) gesture that never should have been necessary. Not for a church whose pastor lives in a $10.5 million mansion, drives a $300,000 Ferrari, and makes millions upon millions of dollars from sales of his book.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)