Conventions, Kingdom Halls, Relief Funds, and Other Financial Scams and Schemes of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Jehovah’s Witnesses often note that at their meetings (like church services), they don’t pass a collection plate. Their Kingdom Halls have contribution boxes in the back where a person might voluntarily and privately contribute money. They also don’t send out individual letters and envelopes to congregation members, asking for donations every month.
If this makes you think that they’re a pious religion with a sincere interest in their followers and not some large profiteering corporation disguised as a religion, think again. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own moneymaking schemes and scams that rake in literally hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars for their leaders every single year. This is despite their not practicing any official charitable works or giving that money back to their congregants in all but the worst of situations.
DISTRICT CONVENTIONS, CIRCUIT ASSEMBLIES
Conventions and assemblies of Jehovah’s Witnesses are scheduled a few times throughout the year. They include a number of nearby congregations that make up a “circuit,” and a few circuits make up a “district.” A circuit might be a dozen congregations with perhaps 1,500 to some 6,000 congregants, and a district might be some 40,000 congregants, give or take, just to give you an idea of their size and how they’re organized.
Circuit assemblies are usually held at buildings owned by JWs that have been built by donated funds and by volunteer labor from local congregations; more on that below. They are rarely held in rented facilities. This means there are no costs to use these buildings except for utilities and minor incidentals like cleaning supplies. Despite this, during every assembly I ever attended, an accounts report was always read on Sunday with a note of how much had been contributed versus the expenses, and there was always a “deficit” of many thousands of dollars. The encouragement was given that more contributions be made to make up for this.
District conventions are a bit different; because of their size, they do require the renting of a stadium or sports arena. This may seem prohibitive, but note that stadiums can’t charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for their rental or they would never be rented. According to one man I’m in touch with who worked as an auditing and accounting overseer when he was a JW, the expenses they had during a 3-day district convention at Dodger Stadium, with some 40,000 in attendance, was $90,000 total. Not daily, but total for the entire weekend. That included rental of the facility and everything they needed for their stage, lettering on the field, and so on. The amount they took in at every convention, according to him, was some $500,000.
This leaves an average of $400,000 profit per district convention, and note that there are probably a good 50 district conventions held in the U.S. every year, if not more. I did the math for you; that’s $20 million in profit, and that’s just the U.S. and just the district conventions. I would assume circuit assemblies have an even higher profit margin, since there are no rental costs for facilities or items purchased for use on the stage. Of course these numbers will vary but you get my point; conventions and assemblies are huge moneymakers for the JW leadership.
What’s the Real Purpose?
While some JWs might argue that these gatherings are for the encouragement of their members, I would argue right back that I never knew one JW, not one, who enjoyed going to these. A circuit assembly is both Saturday and Sunday, and means a long drive to that one facility for your circuit. You need to dress up in a suit and tie or a dress, and have your children do the same. You need to pack a lunch, sit and listen to day-long sermons, and then make that long drive back home.
District conventions are even worse, as they mean getting all dressed up to sit in a sports arena which may not even be air-conditioned despite the summer heat. These too mean a long drive, agitated and bored children, packing a lunch for everyone for those days, and for some, a hotel bill for the entire trip.
The elderly and those with health concerns no doubt have it the worse, as no one with arthritis should be sitting in stadium seats all day. I also remember many fainting episodes at the conventions I attended because of the heat and the crowds. Single parents also struggled to attend; one woman I know, back when district conventions were four days long (they’re now three), had three daughters. She spent the night before the convention ironing 12 dresses, and then each night also making and packing four lunches for herself and her girls.
All of this is done for sermons that are simply repeated in Watchtower magazines a few months later. There really wasn’t time to “fellowship” as some might say, and everyone I knew personally was so exhausted that they were usually in no mood for socializing anyway.
I’m sure there are some JWs who enjoy the district conventions, as a way to meet up with friends from other areas and to receive newly released publications. I certainly don’t mean to speak for every JW at every convention in this column, however, the vast majority of JWs I knew personally found these conventions to be downright difficult to attend, especially the elderly and those with health problems, single parents and families with babies and young children who got bored easily, and those who found it financially challenging to drive to other cities and pay for hotel rooms. The small handful who may enjoy the conventions don’t seem to justify how they are arranged, especially when you consider the vast sums of money they take in for JW leadership.
After initial publication of this column, the following forum post on the site Jehovahs-Witness.com was brought to my attention. I cannot confirm the statements made but you can read the thread for yourself here. It certainly does show that questions about the validity of convention costs have been around for years, as this post was made in 2010.
These screen captures were also sent to me after initial publication of this column. I cannot verify the information, as the Tacoma Reporter magazine in which this appeared apparently folded in 2003. I will say that I remember being told to buy a “parking ticket” when attending district conventions, although I don’t remember there being any types of restrictions against getting onto the grounds without one. However, those too can be added to the profits taken in during these conventions as the vast majority of vehicles parked onsite sported one.
KINGDOM HALLS AND OTHER BUILDINGS
How are Kingdom Halls and other buildings owned by the Watchtower Society just moneymaking scams? Simply put, property flipping and fleeced funds.
Fleeced Funds and Forced Donations
In times past, when a congregation needed a new Kingdom Hall they would set up a special contribution box that was designated for this expense, or they could get a loan from the JW headquarters, which was paid back with interest. In May 2014 however, an announcement was made that this arrangement was scrapped for something entirely new. Congregations are now allowed to keep up to $5000 in their general accounts to pay for operating their Kingdom Halls, but all other funds they had accumulated, for any reason, were to be sent to their headquarters. Even if there were hundreds of thousands of dollars they had saved for a new building, this suddenly went to their headquarters.
Now, if a congregation wants to renovate, remodel, or do major repairs outside this small amount, or build a new Kingdom Hall altogether, they would need to apply for funds through their branch office, an extension of their headquarters in New York. The branch office will determine if they actually need to do the work and if they will receive the funds.
In addition to sending in all cash on hand, congregations were told that from now on, they needed to make a monthly donation to the funds for building and renovating Kingdom Halls. This fixed amount was to be at least equal to the amount they were already sending in to pay back any loans they may had received previously, and it would continue even after that loan amount was repaid.
Think seriously about this; a congregation could have just had tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars seized by their headquarters, after months of the local congregants contributing these funds specifically for the building of a new Kingdom Hall. Then, even after those funds are basically pilfered from them, congregations need to keep sending in a fixed donation every month. On top of this, they may or may not get help from this pool of funds in the future.
On a side note, you’ll see above that the letter read publicly to the congregations regarding this new arrangement stated that they no longer needed to repay the funds they had borrowed for Kingdom Halls. It was in a P.S. section, to be read only by elders, that stated that the amount they would donate every month should be equal or greater than the amount they were already using to repay those funds.
Who Pays, Who Owns
Keep in mind that no matter how the buildings are funded and built, they belong to the Watchtower Society, not the local congregants. This was emphasized in their July 15, 2015, Watchtower, which stated that all Kingdom Halls are “dedicated to Jehovah” and so they don’t belong to any individual or congregation, “whatever its legal title may indicate.” When a Kingdom Hall is sold, the money it earns goes to the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to pay back the local congregants who funded its construction, not even if they need a new building.
This is also true of branch offices, assembly halls, and all other buildings built by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Local congregations may pay for them and volunteer their time and effort in their construction, but once they’re sold, the profits go to their headquarters, even if the local congregations need new buildings. Over the past few years, many branch offices have been shuttered; JWs have gone from 116 to 98 such offices around the world. These monies are not kept by the local congregations but any and all profits go to headquarters.
Accusations of Outright Scams and Theft
This pilfering of monies from local coffers is not all that new for the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses; a few years back, there was a very disturbing case in Menlo Park, California, that involved their leaders actually dispersing a congregation in order to seize their funds. They also disfellowshipped (excommunicated) elders who disagreed with them doing this. Note the site Jehovahs-Witness.com and their links with legal paperwork involving the case here, and which says in part:
In 2010 the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York seized control of millions of dollars of prime real estate assets belonging to the Menlo Park Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, California, by forcefully removing the body of elders and dispersing the congregation. Money invested by the congregation was also removed from their bank accounts by Watchtower representatives. Those within the congregation that objected to this were threatened with disfellowshipping. Those congregation members who actually spoke up against the scandal were later disfellowshipped.
Allegations of corruption, collusion, banking fraud, and a “money laundering scheme” have since been leveled against the Watchtower Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, their lawyers, and their banker.
How Much Money Do You Need for a Glorified Tinderbox?
Jehovah’s Witnesses have said that this arrangement of collecting all funds for building and then dispersing them is their way of “equalizing” the building work that must take place in poorer countries, where members cannot contribute toward new buildings. I can respect that, but why did they then discontinue the practice of setting up boxes that are designated for each type of contributing? One box was for their “worldwide work” or general funds, one box was set up when a congregation needed to save for a new Kingdom Hall or serious renovations for themselves, and one was designated to be sent to their headquarters for Kingdom Halls in other areas. For some reason this not only stopped in 2014, but all extra funds in a congregation’s accounts were collected, save that $5000 reserve. They now have the branch office decide if a local congregation can remodel or even have repairs performed if they’re beyond this small amount.
It’s also worth noting that Kingdom Halls in these poorer areas cannot be so expensive that they justify this money grab and demand for regular monthly donations. Remember, we’re talking about countries in Africa or the poverty-stricken areas of island nations, as well as very rural areas, not prime real estate in lower Manhattan. The buildings are also very simple and plain so that they’re not expensive; this was actually brought out in a presentation made by the headquarters to all elders in a special 2014 meeting. It noted how Kingdom Hall designs will now be standard, and these new designs save some 40% on the cost of their construction.
Speaking of the special meeting noted above, another reason for the change in design of Kingdom Halls, according to their presentation, is that they need to have a “commercial” design. According to them, past Kingdom Hall designs resembled residential homes, with sloped roofs and wood entry doors. New, standard designs are to look more like commercial buildings, as you can see from this mock-up that was included as part of their presentation:
This new commercial design for Kingdom Halls raises many red flags; while their official statements say that they’re meant to streamline and standardize the buildings, I would outright question if it doesn’t just make reselling them easier. Older designs of Kingdom Halls were probably a tough sell to the public; the outside looks like a mix between a house and civic center and not really a church, but the inside is just an auditorium with perhaps one or two separate rooms and restrooms. What would be the use for new owners? Other small churches might be interested in the building if they could add their own touches, but other than them, Kingdom Halls probably didn’t appeal to a wide range of buyers.
This design above, however, just screams “credit union.” I can see it being used as any type of bank, small office, civic center, and even as a police substation.
This may seem like a petty point, but remember the purpose of Kingdom Halls. Supposedly people go there to learn about god and the bible and the purpose of life, to get comfort for their trials and tribulations in this world, and to receive spiritual support. Kingdom Halls are also used for weddings and funerals. Yet, there is no comforting, regal, natural, spiritual, or even welcoming look to these buildings. This design above doesn’t say, “Come in to get filled spiritually and celebrate the joys of god’s holy spirit.” It says, “Ask about our great line of affordable home equity loans!”
Some might also argue that being able to resell a Kingdom Hall quickly is very good, as it helps no one to have these buildings sitting empty. I can understand that, but again, whom does this benefit? The money doesn’t go back to the local congregations who paid and worked to have it built. Congregations need to make their pledged, fixed monthly donation whether or not the building sells. Being able to get it off the market quickly helps no one but those at their headquarters who collect that money.
Speaking of property flipping, it became quite the news topic back in 2012 when JWs announced that they were selling their properties in Brooklyn, New York, and moving to a new facility in the city of Wallkill. According to this news story, their buildings in Brooklyn are worth some $1 billion. The costs to build their new facilities are minimal, with one news story stating that a new location in the city of Warwick will cost them a mere $11 million.
I must ask, where are the other hundreds of millions of dollars going? Why do they need all the money from their congregations along with a fixed monthly donation as well as hundreds of millions of earnings from these buildings in order to build tiny structures in underdeveloped countries? Wouldn’t the price of these property sales alone pay for hundreds of thousands of simple Kingdom Halls around the world? I’m no property developer, but even I can see that far too much money is being taken in for the small amount being spent on these new, simple buildings, if that’s where it’s being spent at all. Since the leaders of the religion see no need to account for their finances publicly, no one really knows where the money trail leads.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have at times talked about their work for relief after natural disasters. They may bring in food and water and other immediate physical needs of their congregants, as well as repair their homes and Kingdom Halls. This may seem very charitable on the outset, but once you pick it apart, you realize that it’s not everything it’s made out to be.
First note that JWs are legally obligated to use any funds sent in specifically for a Disaster Relief Fund for this work alone. They are not allowed to use it to pay bills, buy property, or just keep for their “officers.” That may explain this letter, sent out in 2013:
So they outright say, and have been saying since 2005, that they appreciate it if you could just send in funds without telling them how to use it. This allows them to use the monies you send after hearing about a disaster for anything they so desire.
Not a Lot of Relief Work Going On, or Money Needed
Chances are some Jehovah’s Witnesses will say that JWs do assist when disasters strike, so they’re not keeping the money for themselves. To which I say, hogwash. Note the June 1, 2003, Watchtower which talked about flooding that happened in Houston, Texas (U.S.A.) and how JWs moved in to help repair the homes of 723 JWs. The article states that funds were allocated for this, but that, “Willing volunteers from neighboring congregations performed all the work.” I’m sure that it costs some money to buy the materials to repair 723 homes, but without having to pay labor, how much could that have been?
The article even openly admits that one woman received money from her insurance carrier for repairs, and she donated that money to the fund. So not only are they making money from these ones they’re supposedly helping, but how is this not insurance fraud? If the materials were bought by their fund and the labor donated by volunteers, for what was she reimbursed?
Using volunteer labor and buying meager provisions after a disaster is not uncommon, as this article shows in talking about a typhoon that hit the Philippines in late 2013. The article states that the people they’ve helped are living in tents and that “volunteers” are helping with the rebuilding work. Yes, they’ve brought in “tons” of food and other supplies, but at what cost? How expensive is food and water and tents in the Philippines that JWs justify bragging about the sporadic times they offer this assistance? This article states that two days after the typhoon, ten vans had arrived with supplies. Ten vans. The graduation party I had for my sister, which fed some 250 guests, needed two vans for the food delivered and it only cost me a few hundred dollars. I can’t see their relief efforts here, performed with volunteer labor, running into the millions of dollars.
Really, if they were paying so much for their disaster relief efforts, why would they ask their followers to not send their donations for this fund in particular? If they had to dip into their general fund to provide relief during these disasters, wouldn’t they encourage their followers to contribute more money toward that fund itself?
FOLLOW THE MONEY
It may be true that Jehovah’s Witnesses use funds donated to them to update and build Kingdom Halls in underdeveloped areas and provide some relief here and there when disaster strikes; I can respect that. However, the bottom line is that the governing body and those working at their headquarters take in far too much money for the little bit they use for the sake of their congregants.
Remember, there are no organized charitable works performed by Jehovah’s Witnesses; as I bring out in this post, they expect the poor to somehow “clean up their lives” and help themselves, and then maybe, just maybe, some local JWs will do some random act of kindness to help them find a job and a home. JWs have no soup kitchens or food pantries, no shelters, no counseling services, nothing. The disaster relief work mentioned above is sporadic and typically limited to other Jehovah’s Witnesses; they’re not like the Red Cross, which goes into an area that needs relief and provides it to whomever is there.
Anyone and everyone who has ever contributed a dime to the religion has the right to question these things, and to have reasonable answers. After all, it’s your money. The governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have secular jobs that earn them money they can contribute, and neither does anyone else at headquarters where these decisions are made. If these funds are pilfered and demanded of congregants, if conventions are just moneymaking schemes, if buildings that you paid for and built with your own two hands are taken right out from underneath you, how are Jehovah’s Witnesses different than any other abusive, high-control, moneymaking cult?
Added March 27, 2016; the YouTube contributor “Spike Raynor” and his thoughts on the Watchtower and money:
Many thanks to everyone in the Facebook Group “Resources for Exposing Watchtower and Jehovah’s Witnesses” for their help and copies of the documents above. Please consider joining that group for access to other vital information needed to understand the real truth about this religion.
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