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‘Pastor Planes’ Project Investigates Televangelists’ Flight Expenses

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Image credit: The Trinity Foundation, via @pastorplanes on Twitter

Televangelists’ astronomical travel expenses are receiving a fresh dose of scrutiny through Pastor Planes, a new aircraft-tracking project from the Trinity Foundation.

The Texas-based ministry watchdog organization is using the ADS-B Exchange network to track 52 ministry-owned aircraft linked to prominent names such as James Robison’s LIFE Outreach International, Jesse Duplantis Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries and Kenneth Hagin Ministries’ Rhema Bible Church. These ministries and many others are spending thousands of dollars per hour to routinely fly around the country and abroad, the Trinity Foundation says.

The foundation is chronicling its daily findings through Instagram and Twitter. One of the more notable flights from last week involved an organization run by prosperity gospel televangelist Jesse Duplantis, who controversially solicited donations to support his purchase of a $54 million Dassault Falcon 7X in 2018. A Dassault Falcon 900 jet registered to Duplantis Ministries’ Voice of the Covenant flew from Bakersfield, California, to Las Vegas last Monday, only to fly out to New Orleans the following morning.

Barry Bowen, who is leading the Pastor Planes project at the Trinity Foundation, posed the question on Twitter, “Is televangelist Jesse Duplantis a high roller in Las Vegas casinos?”

Via @pastorplanes on Twitter

Another notable finding: The Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Bombardier Global Express took an eight-hour flight from Italy to Orlando in late June that could have totaled tens of thousands of dollars. According to the Air Traffic Cost Calculator, it costs $5,042.94 per hour to operate the aircraft, bringing the total to a whopping $40,343.52 for a single flight.

In introducing the project a couple weeks ago, Bowen wrote, “From the mundane to the exotic, we are tracking trips to ministry events and vacation destinations.” The project’s chief objective is to bring “financial transparency to churches, ministries and Christian universities using privately owned aircraft.”

“Our focus is primarily on aircraft usage that we consider to be poor stewardship,” Bowen tells MinistryWatch. Accordingly, almost all aircraft he’s tracking are jets or higher-end twin-engine turboprops, rather than single-engine planes.

“Most of the televangelists and ministries could rely on commercial aircraft for moving personnel,” Bowen adds. “Sure there might be minor inconveniences, but millions of dollars would be saved by replacing them with commercial airline tickets.”

But not all costly flights equate to poor stewardship. Bowen says the Douglas DC-8 jet owned by Samaritan’s Purse may be the largest ministry-owned aircraft in operation, at over 150 feet long and 42 feet high—but it’s primarily used for disaster relief and medical assistance. In March 2020, the organization airlifted a 68-bed field hospital to Italy to care for COVID-19 patients at the height of the country’s first wave. And just last month, it transported masks, personal protective equipment, medical machinery and more supplies to Nepal.

While Bowen hasn’t found a credible hourly operating rate for the Douglas DC-8, he says the trip could have reached $100,000 in operating costs based on its rental rate of about $19,150 per hour, according to Paramount Business Jets.

Bowen reasoned that since the DC-8 has a legitimate purpose, he isn’t concerned with tracking its daily movements. After all, he adds, “it takes a cargo plane to move a field hospital and transport large amounts of food and medical supplies.”

The Trinity Foundation has been investigating the lavish inflight lifestyles of televangelists for about two decades, and Pastor Planes is the latest extension of that effort. Earlier this year, the organization also launched a video project, Air Traffic Out of Control, focused on the travel destinations of famous televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar.

The foundation started monitoring Israeli tours over a decade ago based on its conviction that profits from such tours should be reported as unrelated business income. Bowen says these tours can easily exceed $100,000 per day since they involve chartering jets designed for transporting large groups of passengers.

“The Cessna and Gulfstream jets owned by televangelists are rarely designed to fly more than 20 passengers,” he adds. “A flight from Newark, New Jersey to Tel Aviv, Israel takes almost 12 hours. The aircraft for an Israeli tour will easily cost more than $10,000 in hourly operating costs.”

Last year, many annual tours by the country’s leading televangelists and pastors were canceled due to the pandemic, but they’re beginning to pick up again with several planned for this Fall. In November, Matt and Laurie Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network will embark on an 11-day TBN Israel Tour, visiting more than 40 sites. And Greg Laurie, pastor of California megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship, will host a 10-day Israel tour in October.

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Shannon Cuthrell

Shannon Cuthrell is a journalist with a background covering business, technology and economic development. She has written for Business North Carolina magazine, WRAL TechWire, Charlotte Inno and EE Power, among other publications.