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What Would Jesus Fly?

MinistryWatch and Trinity Foundation Collaborate on “Pastors and Planes” Project

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  Barry Bowen of The Trinity Foundation compiled the flight information for this project.

Billionaire Warren Buffet became one of the richest men in the world by knowing what adds value to a corporation and what does not.  And one of the things that does not, he has argued for years, is a corporate jet.  They’re a luxury in almost every case, a necessity for only a few, and he would often rail against them in the annual reports of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, and elsewhere.

That’s why, when Berkshire Hathaway finally bought a corporate jet in 1989, he only half-jokingly called it “The Indefensible.”  

But try telling that to Perry Stone, Bill Winston, Jesse Duplantis, James Robison, or Kenneth Copeland.  They are among the nearly 60 churches and Christian ministries that own private aircraft and use them on a regular basis – 386 times during the month of January alone.

For years, the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation has been tracking the use of private aircraft by ministries and churches.  Recently the Trinity Foundation started posting graphics on Twitter to track daily usage.  (You can find that Twitter account, @PastorPlanes, here.)

MinistryWatch and The Trinity Foundation are now working together to make that project better known to the public.  We have worked together to produce the list you see below. It identifies the number of flights by ministries and pastors during the month of January. We have also included the type of airplane and its estimated hourly operating cost.  For those of you who are “planespotters” and enjoy using such services as FlightAware to do tracking of your own, we have also included the tail number of the planes.

It’s important to name a couple of important caveats regarding this list:

  • Estimating operating costs is, at best, a rough art.  Fuel costs vary widely, and fixed costs per hour vary depending on the amount of time in the air.  We used a variety of publicly available sources to arrive at the operating costs lists, using the assumption that the plane would fly 200 hours per year.
  • A takeoff and landing is considered one flight. Half flights usually indicate an overnight flight in which the plane took off on one day and landed on another – or, in the case of this chart – it took off on the last day of the month and landed on the first day of the next month.
  • We can’t be sure who is using these planes, or for what purpose. It’s possible that the ministries are leasing or chartering the flights to others to generate income. However, if that’s the case, the ministry would normally have to declare that income as “unrelated business income.”  We can find no evidence that any of these ministries are doing that, though it’s also important to note that most of the ministries on this list do not file Form 990s.

It’s also important to note that this list does not include ministries who use “fractional ownership” services such as NetJets. Neither does this list indicate if the aircraft is for ministry or personal use. Using ministry resources for personal use is not strictly prohibited by IRS regulations, but the use of the aircraft would have to be counted as income.  The IRS almost never investigates tax-exempt organizations. Of the more than 1-million tax-exempt organizations in the country, less than 10,000 get audited each year – that’s one-tenth of one percent.  And the number audited in many years is closer to 5,000. 

It is also important to note that some Christian ministries – especially disaster relief and missionary organizations – have legitimate uses for airplanes, but the planes they’re using are not luxury jets that can go literally around the world at nearly the speed of sound. We have not included these cargo planes on this list.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.