Jan “Momma” Crouch, the 78-year-old founder and Vice President of Trinity Broadcasting Network, died after a massive stroke this week, two years following the death of her husband and co-founder, Paul Crouch. Beyond her garish pink wigs and eye makeup so heavy that blinking seemed a feat, Crouch will, one hopes, be remembered for the oft-told story of the time she raised a chicken from the dead.
As the tale goes, the daughter of a Georgia Assemblies of God preacher who went on to help found the world’s most successful televangelism television network was just a girl when her beloved pet chicken was hit by a car. Its feet were twisted and its head was bent. And horrifyingly, (this is where Jan Crouch’s tears reliably begin to fall and coat her layered lashes, nearly blinding the woman) its eye had popped out from the trauma and was hanging limply from its socket.
The chicken was dead. But the 12-year-old girl, then Janice Bethany, would not be burying any fowl that day. She stood over her chicken and prayed. And lo and behold, the Lord heard her prayer and the chicken was resurrected.
It was the first of many miracles for Jan Crouch and later her husband Paul, who together built a round-the-clock religious television station that would bring them the fame and wealth that God promises for preachers of the prosperity gospel, a brand of Christianity which teaches followers that Jesus wants them to be rich, and for which the Crouches are at least partly responsible.
As a testament to the gospel’s power, Jan Crouch has testified over the years to a number of other-worldly wonders: Her debilitating depression was healed by a late-night dream where Jesus laughed uncontrollably; Her glaucoma was cured by watching a religious program on her own channel; And she aced a driver’s test and beat cancer—without studying or chemotherapy—all because of her faith in God.
Still perhaps the biggest miracle of all is the success of TBN itself.
The Crouches were part of a swell of colorful Christian fundamentalists that moved their ministries out of the traditional church and onto the nation’s televisions in the 1980’s. Alongside Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, Momma and Papa Crouch, as they were known, bestowed upon eager audiences their God-given Charismatic gifts: performing on-air miracles and healing the sick, interpreting God’s word and always, always, asking for money, for their mission: “to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.”
The network is still around after 43 years. If fact, the TBN reach has spread to 22 countries and now beams into 100 million households. The Crouches each earned an over-$400,000 annual salary for their work and an off-the-books extravagant lifestyle all paid for by semi-annual pledge drives called Praise-a-thons, and nearly constant pleas for donations as a show of faith—calls that the mostly southern, low-income TBN viewers have heeded in droves.
But those donations have slowed in recent years. The tax-free gifts have fallen by nearly half in the last decade; In 2003 TBN brought in $136 million in donations, but by 2013 (the most recent year tax documents are available) the tax-free gifts had fallen to $73 million.
The decline in offerings arguably has something to do with a rash of negative press. Reports on the Crouch family in the last ten years has documented intense family discord, including a deathbed power struggle for control of TBN and the ouster of Paul Crouch’s first son and namesake, not to mention a heap of lawsuits, sex and abuse scandals, and allegations of financial mismanagement and lavish spending.
With the death of Momma and Papa Crouch, can the network survive?
In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was “Satellite.”
TBN came to Crouch the way most money-making enterprises come to men of God: in a vision. As he told it to the LA Times for a 1989 profile, he was sitting in the den of his modest Burbank, California home in 1973 when the heavens opened and his ceiling turned into a giant television screen. On that screen, appeared a map. Soon spheres of light began to glow above major cities and then pencil-thin threads flashed and beamed in lines crisscrossing over the whole of North America.
Awake, but confused—being “in the spirit” was usually for “old-timers,”—Crouch said he asked the Lord, “What does this all mean?”
And the Lord replied, “Satellite.”
So Crouch heeded the word of God and began buying up UHF stations, expanding to bigger markets as fast as he could borrow the money and circumnavigate FCC regulations limiting the number of stations one person could own. In the meantime, Jane and Paul had two sons, Paul Jr. and Matthew.
As the Crouches built their empire, they hosted their own religious talk show, Praise the Lord. And they bought more than just television stations.
TBN has supported a number of charitable causes over the years, according to the Los Angeles Times. They funded soup kitchens, homeless shelters, Jan Crouch’s children’s ministry, Smile of a Child, and donated TV stations to a charity that provides broadcasting career opportunities for minorities and women.
Still, the Crouch’s philanthropy has been less documented than their scandals.
In 1998, Paul Crouch paid former employee Enoch Lonnie Ford a $425,000 settlement to end his wrongful termination lawsuit, in which he detailed his alleged sexual encounter with the TBN president. (TBN said the settlement was only agreed to in order to save the company money from expensive litigation.)
And though not atypical for modern televangelists, the extravagant tastes of TBN’s founders was attracting increased criticism from outsiders and competing ministries. TBN purchased Twitty City, the nine-acre Tennessee home of country music singer Conway Twitty. And it needed private jets, his-and-her mansions in Newport Beach, California, for Jan and Paul, and dozens of properties across the country. In 2007, TBN acquired the Holy Land Experience, the Orlando theme park that’s best known for its live show in which actors recreate the crucifixion of Jesus. After the purchase, Jan Crouch took over as director of Holy Land and lived full time in Florida where she witnessed a number of miracles including a wheelchair-bound boy walking, a blind man seeing, and a deaf woman hearing.
Back in California, the family was falling apart.
A 2011 lawsuit brought by Brittany Koper, their son Paul’s Jr.’s daughter, and one-time TBN finance director, detailed the lavish spending habits of the network heads. In her complaint and a lengthy New York Times piece, Koper alleged improper spending of church funds on personal homes in California, Tennessee, and Florida, a $500,000 per person annual expense for fancy meals, and a $100,000 air-conditioned motor home for Jan’s dogs.
The Crouches denied the allegations and said Koper had only brought the suit after she had been caught embezzling money from the network. Then TBN fired their founder’s first-born and ousted his family from the business. In a 2013 photo published at the OC Register, Jan is holding a letter that passes the control of TBN to her younger son Matthew, written reportedly by Paul Crouch Sr. while he was in the hospital, believed to be on his deathbed. Though he lived another year, Matthew took over TBN from there on and is president today.
In 2012, another granddaughter, Carra Crouch, sued TBN and Jan Crouch, saying that when she was 13, she had been sexually assaulted by a 30-year-old man in a hotel room during a TBN Praise-a-thon. Carra alleges that instead of contacting authorities, her grandmother fired the man and essentially covered up his crime. TBN denied any assault took place and that case is still open.
“Getting caught in the middle of disputes involving my daughter, brother and parents is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to endure,” Paul Crouch Jr. told the New York Times in 2012.
In a 2015 lawsuit, Brittany Koper said she had been fired only after refusing to participate in a scheme to move $100 million of TBN’s charitable assets into personal accounts. In the suit, Koper alleges her uncle Matthew Crouch, threatened her with a gun as a warning not to go to the board.
Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog group details the lawsuits as part of its donor advisories. But TBN lawyers have responded in kind, filing a dozen lawsuits against Koper and her family for, in part, stealing funds and documents, and failing to pay back a loan.
In a widely circulated video from the program "Behind the Scenes." in 2012, Matthew Crouch and his late father discuss what might happen to anyone who interferes with TBN’s mission.
"There have been a few attempts in TBN history to upset TBN, to stop TBN,” now-president Matthew Crouch says. “There have been a few fools...and you know what? Any attempt at stopping TBN, they have no idea who they are actually pushing into the corner. You and mom get pushed in a corner, God help you. That's a lesson I've learned from you. Seriously."
"God help anyone who would try to get in the way of TBN, which was God's plan. I have attended the funeral of at least two people who tried," Paul Crouch Sr. shot back.
But with the passing of Paul and Jan Crouch—a fate that only chickens seem to escape—God’s plan is murky. While TBN did not not respond to a request for comment, the words of a tearful Jan Crouch to a viewer letter give the network’s fans hope.
“I promise TBN will be there for you whenever you need it. Day or Night,” she said.
“The devil has his networks, Jesus only has one.”