A Houston megachurch, whose celebrity pastor is reportedly worth $50 million, has repaid the federal government $4.4 million in pandemic loans after going viral for the outrageous handout.
Lakewood Church, which is tax-exempt like most religious institutions, took $4.4 million in taxpayer-funded Paycheck Protection Program loans at the height of the COVID pandemic last year—all while senior pastor Joel Osteen lived in luxury. It caused “Osteen” and “Ferrari” to trend on social media as observers questioned the institution’s need for such a huge payout.
Osteen reportedly lives in a $10.5 million mansion, however his spokesperson denied reports he drives a $300,000 Ferrari. (Snopes also debunked the viral claim.) Meanwhile, he has made appearances on the Today Show, urging people “don’t focus on what you have or don't have.”
Lakewood, believed to be the biggest church in the U.S. with an average weekly attendance of 45,000, shut down in-person services last year and told the Houston Business Journal they had to go months without the “ability to collect substantial donations.”
They insisted none of the PPP money went to Osteen or his wife, both of whom allegedly do not receive a salary from the church, and called the loan crucial “during such a time of need.” The money provided the church with “short-term financial assistance” to ensure their 368 employees would “continue to receive a paycheck and full health care benefits,” a church spokesperson said.
Thousands of other religious institutions received up to $7.8 billion in PPP loans, according to some tallies.
On Friday, a Lakewood spokesperson provided bank statements to the Houston Chronicle showing that the church had fully repaid the loan. PPP loans were 100 percent forgivable if a company retained all its employees at the same pay level, and if the money was spent on payroll and other eligible expenses.
The spokesperson did not say why the church repaid the loan however other big businesses like Shake Shack and the Los Angeles Lakers returned their loans after being heavily criticized.
Rob Boston, senior adviser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Houston Chronicle that Osteen was “rightfully” criticized for taking the loan.
But the larger issue, he said, was that “religious freedom is a core promise of our Constitution, and that means that no one should be forced to pay for someone else’s religious beliefs or practices.”
It’s not the first time Osteen and Lakewood Church have been shamed into action. In 2017, the church refused to open its stadium up for Hurricane Harvey victims but eventually did after a firestorm on social media.
Osteen has also attracted criticism from some other religious leaders for his espousal of the so-called prosperity gospel, which teaches that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing on a person.