Lavish lifestyles at odds with pastor's calls for the faithful to sacrifice

Johnston and his family travel abroad, live in big houses and drive church-owned SUVs.

The Kansas City Star/March 11, 2007
By Judy L. Thomas

Expensive trips. New homes. An elite credit card.

The lifestyle of the Rev. Jerry Johnston's family has raised eyebrows among former members of First Family Church.

"Everything is extravagant," said Melisa Gingrich, who left the church last year. "That's the way the Johnstons live."

Johnston and the church board will not reveal his compensation, nor how much he makes from his for-profit corporation that handles his books, videos and speaking engagements.

The Johnstons go on several "Christian tours" each year. Last year, Jerry and Christie Johnston went to Hawaii, the Holy Land and Rome. Last month, the Johnstons spent six days in Hawaii. They plan to visit England in May and Germany in July.

The advertisements for their trips are enticing: "Join Pastor Jerry and Christie on Waikiki Beach," says one. "Travel with Pastor Jerry and Christie to Rome," says another.

Johnston said he started the trips to show appreciation to the church's television sponsors and others who had made substantial donations to the church. But now the church offers them to anybody who pays for them.

"They go on these trips, and we minister to them, and then I preach on many different continents on planet Earth," he said. "So when I go anywhere, I'm engaged in ministry."

Johnston told The Kansas City Star that the church did not pay his family's expenses on the trips, but a board member said that the fees charged to other participants covered the costs for church staff members. After The Star raised questions about the trips, all references to them were removed from the church's Web site.

Critics say the trips are just another example of Johnston's lavish lifestyle — and one they say contradicts his teachings of sacrifice and stewardship. In a series of sermons on compact disc titled "God's Way to Financial Success," for example, Johnston stresses to church members the importance of tithing.

"Maybe we're going to decide to wear the same pair of pants for a year because we're going to honor God with our finances and we're going to get it right," he said. "Lordship means I seize the moment regardless of the inconvenience."

But former members want to know how Johnston is sacrificing. He lives in southern Johnson County, and his property is appraised at $586,400. The house, with an in-ground swimming pool and high-tech security system, was built in 1999.

Johnston's three children are all living in new homes. Records show that Jeremy Johnston's Overland Park house is appraised at $430,600.

Jerry Johnston said the church did not pay for any of the homes. But he was vague when asked whether he and his children all received housing allowances.

"IRS rules are any ordained minister can exercise the privilege of housing allowance," Johnston said.

When later asked to clarify whether that meant the children were receiving the allowances, Johnston's spokesman responded: "Salaries and housing allowances are approved by the Church's board of directors. Ordained ministers are eligible to receive a partial allocation of their total salary as a housing allowance, in accordance with IRS regulations."

Former members also complain that Johnston's family members drive expensive sport utility vehicles owned by the church.

And then there's the black American Express card. Church members said they were surprised when the Johnstons used it to pay for lunch.

Known as the Centurion card, it is offered only to "a small but affluent group of card members for whom individual attention and access to previously unavailable elite travel benefits was of great interest," according to American Express. The annual fee alone is $2,500.

Johnston, however, declined to answer questions about whether he had such a card.

"The credit cards used by Pastor Johnston and the other employees of the church," his spokesman said, "are a personal matter."

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