Skip to main content

Here’s How Joel Osteen and His Tax-Exempt Megachurch Legally Got $4M in COVID-19 Funds


For today’s holiday edition of waste, fraud, and abuse, #JoelOsteen is trending. Sing it with me: “It’s beginning to look a lot like grifting.” Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen made headlines this time for saying he hadn’t received federal CARES Act funding, then his church actually got $4.4 million in federal aid.

The U.S. Small Business Administration data was released in early December, and it showed that Lakewood Church got its PPP loan through Bank of America.

Some may wonder how it’s even possible for churches to qualify for massive federal funding. That one’s got an easy answer: Congress included them. In fact, despite Congress choosing to leave out small business that it deemed unworthy of help, it specifically included churches and other religious institutions in CARES Act funding.

Under the rules Congress set out, many religious institutions were able to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding. For some scale: the U.S. Catholic Church received somewhere between $1.4 billion and $3.5 billion under the program, according to an analysis by the Associated Press, using data provided by the Small Business Administration (SBA). Multiple evangelical churches received millions as well.

Data released by the United States Department of Treasury showed that as of last June, 88,411 religious institutions had already received PPP funding totaling $7.3 billion. According to Small Business Association CARES Act loan requirements, “For PPP loans, 501 (c)(3) organizations with 500 or fewer employees (full and part-time) that have been in operation as of February 15, 2020, are eligible to apply without regard to whether they are religious or secular.”

Osteen’s Houston church is the largest megachurch in America, with weekly attendance over 43,000 in normal times. COVID-19 guidelines have now cut attendance down to 25-percent capacity. Osteen’s weekly television program boasts over 13 million viewers in over 100 nations around the globe.

David Iloff, a spokesperson for Lakewood Church, issued a statement explaining Osteen’s public denial about receiving government assistance. Iloff told press, “Believing the shutdown would only last a few weeks, Lakewood did not initially apply for PPP assistance during the first half of the program. However, as the shutdown persisted month after month, given the economic uncertainty, Lakewood finally applied for the PPP loan and has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families.”

Whatever Osteen’s explanation surrounding his statements, it’s tough to square the pastor’s prosperity gospel rhetoric with his need for millions in government aid to stay afloat. Then again, maybe it does all fit together as part of a larger narrative.

Reaction to reports of Osteen’s PPP receipts has proven the public to have a long memory about Osteen’s history on crisis aid…

… as well as a firm grasp on economic consistency.

One thing is for sure, though. Osteen was hoping to trend during the final shopping days before Christmas—just for an entirely different reason.

Representatives for Lakewood Church did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.

[image via Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos