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Ministry Makes $150 Million a Year : Rich Life Style Reflects Swaggart Empire's Wealth

March 14, 1988|ROBERT L. JACKSON | Times Staff Writer

Family members also hold important operating positions. Donnie, who like his father built a home in the fenced-in family compound with a loan from the ministry, is the organization's director of marketing and development. Frances' brother, Robert Anderson, is director of purchasing, and Anderson's wife is in charge of data processing.

Frances' mother is a department supervisor and her sister is Jimmy Swaggart's personal secretary. In all, 22 Swaggart relatives are on the payroll, accounting for more than $350,000 of the ministry's annual pay-out of $11.5 million to its 1,200 employees.

Paid Out of Sales

William D. Treeby, the ministry's general counsel, said the salaries of family members are taken out of the proceeds--$10 million last year--from the sales of Swaggart's best-selling gospel albums. "So it's a very small part of this," Treeby said.

In an interview in his New Orleans law office, Treeby declined to say how much salary the organization pays Swaggart himself, although others have placed the figure at "less than $100,000." Treeby said Swaggart also receives an unspecified "housing allowance," which he said is "a customary thing."

"It enables a church to pay their ministers less money in salary," he said. "It's the same thing the government does for people in the military."

Secrecy also surrounds Swaggart's large fenced-in parsonage. Treeby said the homes of both Swaggart and his son were built partly with a loan of $1.8 million from Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries. He declined to give specific figures, saying the loan proceeds also were used to construct parsonages for some other ministers of the Assemblies of God Church.

He said the Swaggarts have made monthly payments on the loan, but he refused to give amounts.

$1.5-Million House

Public records in Baton Rouge show the tax assessor values Jimmy Swaggart's home at $1.5 million and his son Donnie's home at $726,000. The courthouse records indicate that Jimmy and Frances Swaggart borrowed $650,000 from the ministry in May, 1980, apparently to buy land to build their home, which was completed in 1984. Donnie Swaggart and his wife similarly borrowed a total of $410,000, according to the records.

In each case, Treeby filed a statement with the county court asserting that these loans were paid off in June, 1985, but that the actual mortgage documents had been lost.

William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University who has made a study of television evangelists, said Swaggart's secrecy is "part of a pattern which some ministers have adopted not to let folks know how their money is being spent."

"An extraordinarily high percentage of their receipts goes for such things as television production costs, buying airplanes and paying the direct-mail costs of raising more money," Martin said. "This would be a shock to most contributors, who like to think their funds are going for evangelism and needy causes overseas."

Martin said Swaggart has sought to portray himself as a man of humble origins and a humble life style.

"I have heard him tell his television audience that a thought came to him while he was working in his small study," Martin laughed. "But he never says that his little study is in a great big mansion."

Jeffrey K. Hadden, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who has also studied television evangelists, says the sales and solicitation program of the Swaggart ministry is the most aggressive he has seen.

"Swaggart pitches his records, tapes, Bibles and study course with seriousness and aplomb," Hadden said in a recent book. "Viewers who get on his mailing list are asked to contribute to a variety of causes, like feeding children in India (and) building churches in Africa. They also get the chance to buy eight-track tapes or cassettes of 'Jimmy Swaggart's Greatest Hits.' "

Because many items are offered "for a donation of a specified amount," the purchasers can claim their purchases as a federal tax deduction, Hadden said.

But Hadden, in an interview, predicted that as a result of his confessed indiscretion, Swaggart "is going to be faced with some real problems" in continuing to raise funds.

'Deeply Disillusioned'

"However it turns out," Hadden said, "some station managers are going to say, 'As a matter of policy, I don't want Jimmy Swaggart on here. We're not going to renew his contract.' Some people are deeply disillusioned."

Already, Swaggart's ministry has had to abandon one of its fund-raising methods in recent years as too controversial. Under the "stewardship program," ministry officials formerly showed elderly donors how they could make bequests by including the ministry in their wills.

In 1981, a court dispute resulted from just such a bequest. Zoe Vance, a wealthy reclusive widow of La Jolla, Calif., left a multimillion-dollar estate to Swaggart not long after Swaggart had baptized her and after other Swaggart aides had made repeated visits to her home.

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