Guardians of the Gates: Gateway Ministries and the church that wasn’t

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The Tulsa pastor behind Gateway Ministries and its various trade names, Jesse Leon Rodgers, 58, has also used the organization’s status as a church to avoid thousands of dollars in property taxes on his Tulsa home by having it declared a parsonage, Tulsa County Assessor records show. 

The head of a politically influential Tulsa-based group used the organization’s status as a church to obtain property tax exemptions for his family’s house to avoid thousands of dollars in property taxes, though the organization has not had a congregation or held religious services for more than five years, an investigation by The Frontier has found.

Although state and federal records show Gateway Ministries, Inc., is classified as a church, the organization has entered into a compact with a conservative Oklahoma political action committee to endorse and donate to political candidates in the 2020 elections, according to the head of the political action committee.

Federal law prohibits churches and charities from engaging in electioneering and political campaigns, and doing so can jeopardize their tax-exempt status with the IRS, though enforcement of the prohibition on electioneering is often lax, experts say.

The Tulsa pastor behind Gateway Ministries and its various trade names, Jesse Leon Rodgers, 58, has also used the organization’s status as a church to avoid thousands of dollars in property taxes on his Tulsa home by having it declared a parsonage, Tulsa County Assessor records show.

Tulsa County Assessor John A. Wright said it is rare for a church without a formal house of worship or a congregation to obtain a parsonage exemption from property tax on a residential property.

“The general theory about exempt property is that because the community is undertaking these efforts, that it perhaps is relieving a burden that would otherwise fall on government or the taxpayer,” Wright said. “That’s the general theory behind granting the exemption in the first place.”

Rodgers declined numerous interview requests by The Frontier, refused to allow The Frontier to sit in on a Sept. 5 meeting hosted by his organization, and threatened to have a reporter “drug out” by security after being told he could not review the story before publication.

Gateway Ministries was previously known as the Gateway Church of Ada until 2017 and The Freedom Center of Ada before that, incorporation documents show. The church, which has undergone two name changes since 2011, was formed by Rodgers in April 2000 after a bitter feud with church elders at the previous congregation he led Ada, according to public records and interviews.

Rodgers’ congregation in Ada was absorbed by another church in 2014, but the corporate entity remained under Rodgers’ control, according to public records. Land and bank records show the church has been used to purchase two houses in Tulsa for Rodgers and his family, and take out mortgage loans in the church’s name on those houses since 2014.

The documents Rodgers submitted to the Tulsa County Assessor’s office in support of the parsonage exemption — an IRS tax exemption determination letter, a certificate of incorporation and church bylaws — had been generated years before the church’s congregation was disbanded and Rodgers moved to Tulsa.

Rodgers is also head of the Oklahoma chapter of Watchers on the Wall, a nationwide network of more than 13,000 pastors organized by the Family Research Council, an influential fundamentalist Christian organization based in Washington D.C. with a mission to “advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview.”

Since the move to Tulsa, Gateway Ministries has been host to several events featuring politicians such as U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Tulsa, Sen. James Lankford and former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Gateway Ministries is the legal name behind a relatively new group known as City Elders, which was established as a trade name of Gateway’s in June 2018, Secretary of State records show. The group has an outsized influence in Republican politics in the state, but has recently found itself at the center of a dispute within the party.

City Elders’ executive committee consists of 12 members, including Rodgers, who is listed as the organization’s president, Oklahoma State GOP Chairman David McLain and Tulsa County Election Board Vice Chair George Wiland.

McLain’s position on City Elders’ executive committee was one of several points of contention within the state GOP leadership. Sooner Tea Party founder Al Gerhart has criticized McLain as belonging to a “dominion theology” group. Dominionism is a religious political ideology that advocates total or near-total control of civil government by Christians and guided by biblical principles.

Oklahoma GOP Chairman and Skiatook businessman David McLain. Courtesy/FACEBOOK

McLain did not respond to phone messages from The Frontier seeking comment.

Though the group is religious in nature, its aims are decidedly worldly.

City Elders has chapters in 40 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, and members of the group include pastors, legislators, judges, district attorneys, university presidents, mayors, school superintendents and others, Rodgers told the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC) during the group’s Aug. 14 meeting. OCPAC is among the most influential conservative political organizations in the state.

According to public statements by Rodgers, the group seeks out and recruits individuals in “three primary spheres of authority”: religious leaders (referred to as “shepherds”), civil government (referred to as “servants”) and business leaders (referred to as “stewards”).

Pastor Jesse Leon Rodgers, former Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett and Sen. James Lankford. Courtesy/FACEBOOK

The goal is to extend the network nationwide, Rodgers has said, to vet candidates for office and stand as guardians against those who do not hold a biblical worldview. In one Facebook post from May 31, Rodgers said members of the group have a “divine right” to govern based on their position as elders in God’s spiritual governing authority on earth.

“We’ve got to get involved,” Rodgers told the OCPAC group. “Government has become the primary instrument by which the kingdom of darkness uses to take our liberties and freedoms away. And so, enough.”

City Elders is about “men and women who have come to the stature and level of maturity that they can lock arms with brothers and sisters in a county seat and say ‘we’re not going to allow someone who has a perverse worldview or not a biblical worldview ascend to a position of authority in government,” Rodgers said at the August OCPAC  meeting. “We’re going to vet them before they get into office. You can say ‘is that the role of the church?’ You bet that’s the role of the church.”

God will judge the nation, Rodgers said, that “sheds innocent blood and God will judge a nation who becomes so perverse, so depraved, so decadent that we have a Supreme Court that would sanction and try to draw quote-unquote gay marriage. It’s the sodomite union that they’re trying to call gay marriage. There’s no such thing as gay marriage.”

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“This humanistic government — legislators, Senators, representatives — they must be replaced. Yes, we must have a litmus test. If they’re for abortion, killing unborn babies, if they are for gay marriage, we have a litmus test. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the united church, has a litmus test. If you’re not standing for the word of God, we’re not standing behind you.”

Bob Linn, president of OCPAC, told The Frontier that he has had a good working relationship with Rodgers, and that his group has a “formal” agreement with City Elders and the two groups have had several strategy meetings to plan for the 2020 elections. That formal agreement, Linn said, wouldn’t mean the two groups were combining, but would “be a formal relationship where we use the strengths of each group” to achieve their political goals.

“We’re obviously a political action committee. We endorse candidates, raise money for candidates, vet candidates. City Elders is a little bit more broad than that, so we can function for them as that covering for those kinds of issues. That’s a little blank we fill in for them,” Linn said.

“When I see City Elders as the group that’s going to create a large umbrella for many groups to function under,” he said. “For City Elders, OCPAC will be their way of vetting candidates and endorsing candidates.”

At least part of the City Elders’ funds come from its political influence — in April the group hosted a $30-per-ticket dinner in Tulsa featuring U.S. Congressmen Mullin and  Hern, which was designed for “community leaders, pastors, civic government officials, and business leaders.” The group is also hosting a $100-per-plate fundraiser in Tulsa on Oct. 4, to establish City Elders in the 35 Oklahoma counties that do not have a chapter, according to OCPAC’s Sept. 9, 2019 newsletter.

Screen capture of promotion for a City Elders fundraiser scheduled for October, appearing in the Sept. 9, 2019 edition of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee newsletter.

Rodgers declined several requests for an extended interview with The Frontier, but in a brief telephone interview he said the group was not classified as a church for IRS tax purposes, but rather a 501(c)(3) religious organization that can do church planting, form schools and do ministry work, among other things.

However, Rodgers would not provide IRS tax forms for Gateway Ministries to The Frontier, despite multiple requests. While churches are not required to file annual tax forms with the IRS and do not have to make them public if they do file, non-church religious organizations are required to publicly provide their IRS 990 tax forms upon request.

“A church doesn’t even have to officially go and tell the IRS they’re a church and file with them,” said Rusty Leonard, founder and CEO of Ministry Watch, a national watchdog organization that profiles churches, ministries and charities. “You and I could agree today to be the First Church of Greed and Mayhem. That could be our name. We could set up a facility and people could donate to us tax-free and the IRS wouldn’t complain about that. We could take the money people donated and use for vacations or whatever mayhem we wanted to create. And it’s all legal. That’s how crazy it is.”

Rodgers also declined to disclose Gateway Ministries’ major funders or members of its board, though records show that Rodgers is listed as the organization’s president and his wife Tammy Rodgers is the organization’s secretary.

Court records also show that Tammy Rodgers sued a Sapulpa swimming pool company on behalf of Gateway Ministries in 2018 after the pool at their Tulsa home began leaking following work done by the company.

“If the pastor doesn’t have elders or somebody overseeing him and calling him to account and making sure he’s not doing crazy stuff, that’s a huge red flag,” Leonard said. “There are strong Christian leaders who have complete domination over their church who are lovely people and never abuse the power they have. In fact, that’s probably more the norm than not. 

“But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is still the rule you should assume is in operation. There should always be some financial accountability at least to a board.” 

Exempt

Philip Haney, a Tulsa attorney who has practiced nonprofit and charitable organization tax law and consulting for more than 40 years, said there are 14 points the IRS looks at in an application for tax exemption before making a determination. 

Six or seven of those are very important to the process, he said, including whether religious services are being conducted by a qualified person, whether the church has a congregation, whether there is a distinct structure, doctrine and hierarchy, and whether the church as a “public presence” that would allow people to hear about it and attend if they choose.

A church can go dormant for a reasonable period of time as it looks to merge or start another congregation or wind down its affairs, Haney said.

“You can’t sit around with it forever, but frankly you’re under the radar, sort of off the radar in an operation like that, unless someone brings it to the attention of the public or there’s some sort of scandal or some awkward situation,” Haney said.

However, the IRS often does little enforcement against church entities that are not doing things churches normally do, said Leonard, of Ministry Watch.

“You need to be acting like a church, you can’t just say you’re a church,” Leonard said. “Now, does the IRS ever look into this or check up on it? No.” 

Because churches do not have to file annual tax returns, having status as a church is also a way to hide information such as how much money the organization is taking in and spending, how much its leadership is being paid, Leonard said.

“You’ll find, the bad guys in the Christian realm, if they haven’t organized themselves as a church to start off with and they mistakenly organize themselves as a 501(c)(3), they convert themselves to churches in order to avoid some of the oversight,” Leonard said. “They don’t have to put out (IRS Form) 990s. And in the 990s is where you see the remuneration.”

In many states, if an organization is granted status as a church by the IRS, state regulators will also consider the organization a church, Haney said.

“If they can show they have the determination letter and are a church in the eyes of the IRS and answer a few other questions, they might get off the rolls in Tulsa County or Oklahoma County for ad valorem purposes,” Haney said. “Other places like Texas, especially in the Houston area, they look at these so closely, that wouldn’t happen. But they’re not that aggressive in Oklahoma and some other states.”

Haney said a provision in the tax code known as the Johnson Amendment prohibits charitable organizations from intervening or participating in political campaigns.

“Generally speaking, political expenditures and what’s called electioneering are totally off-limits for churches,” Haney said. “Not so much for religious organizations that are not churches.”

But in recent years, Haney said, the IRS’s enforcement against churches that engage in politics has been lax.

“The IRS at this moment has low morale, low employment, low staffing, and a lot of turnover. Frankly, I don’t see a lot of enforcement in this area,” Haney said. “It’s not common now. There is quite a bit of controversy about it and I don’t think the Service is willing to take a real strong position on it. But those are the rules.”

“If you are approved in a certain section of the Internal Revenue Code and not required to file a 990, generally, the states don’t pay any attention to you either. They don’t require any filings or information because they believe the standard that was satisfied with the IRS is high enough so that you probably are a church.” 

Though enforcement by the IRS is often lax, Leonard said it should look into the agreement between OCPAC and City Elders.

“The IRS doesn’t spend a lot of money trying to track down whether churches are behaving well or not. You really have to stand out and become a very obvious problem before the IRS is ever going to catch up with you,” Leonard said. “When is the last time the IRS penalized anybody for it? If they have, it’s very rare. This seems like something they should look into, because it seems dubious on many levels.”

A ‘fairly ludicrous spectacle’

In the late 1990s, Rodgers was named senior pastor at the Evangelistic Temple of Ada, now known as Crosspointe Church, an independent non-denominational church.

But only a few years after being hired as pastor, Rodgers would be at the center of a bitter schism in the church that would eventually work its way into an Ada courtroom and only be resolved after church elders took matters into their own hands.

“In my view, the objective evidence establishes that it was his goal from the day he showed up down here to take over and own this church,” said Ada attorney George W. Braly, who represented three of the church’s elders in a lawsuit against Rodgers for control of the church. “He was basically trying to get the church completely under his control. He was on a very clear path to get rid of all the people who had founded, established and built the church.”

On Jan. 11, 2000, the Evangelistic Temple’s board of elders held a meeting after Rodgers allegedly tried to fire the church’s longtime bookkeeper, Sandy Bates, without approval of the rest of the board, according to court records. Rodgers, who as senior pastor was the church’s president and member of the five-member board of elders, refused to attend the meeting, other church elders stated in court records. The board told Bates to continue preparing routine payroll checks and deposits, court records state.

Around that same time, Ron Bates, Sandy Bates’s husband and a church deacon, had done work on a noisy phone line at the church and left some of his equipment in a closet, according to the elders’ court statements. When Rodgers saw the equipment, he believed that someone was trying to tap one of the church’s phone lines and called police, according to the church elders’ court filings. Police investigated and dismissed the claims, determining the equipment that had been left could not have been used to tap a phone.

The next day, the board of elders met and as its first order of business voted 3-2 (with Rodgers and one other elder voting no) to remove an assistant pastor who was considered one of Rodgers’ allies, according to copies of church meeting minutes obtained by The Frontier.

After the vote, Rodgers began asking elders Hardy Webb and Ken Nessel whether they knew about his phone being bugged and asked both to resign in exchange for Rodgers not pursuing criminal charges against them, according to church meeting minutes and court records. Both said they did not know what he was talking about and refused to resign.

 Rodgers then allegedly called the Ada Police Department and stated that he feared a “riot” at the church that Sunday, and some police officers were sent to keep the peace, according to the lawsuit. During that Sunday’s church service, Rodgers accused Webb, Nessel and Ron Bates of trying to wiretap his phone and attempted to dismiss Webb and Nessel from the board and replace them with two other men of his choosing without the two-thirds board approval required in the church’s bylaws.

“There was some reason that people had to be removed in order for him to accomplish what he set out to do,” Ron Bates told The Frontier. “Let’s just say there were people in place who were keeping him from having access to the finances. That goes back to what his plans were.”

On Jan. 20, 2000, Webb, Nessel and a third elder who remained on the board, John Turner, sent a letter to church members laying out their version of events and warning the congregation that the elders would be filing a lawsuit. The letter also stated that while the elders had been at the church for 20, 15 and 12 years, respectively, Rodgers had been there for less than two.

The following day, the elders filed a civil lawsuit against Rodgers, asking a judge to declare that Webb and Nessel had not properly been removed from the board and were still church elders, ordering an immediate meeting of the board of elders at the courthouse and requiring Rodgers to attend the meeting.

Rodgers, the suit alleged, appointed the two interim elders without the required two-thirds vote of the lawful members of the board, and did so “in order to gain complete and total personal control over the Church Corporation and all of its assets,” the suit states.

Because the church was not part of a denomination with a larger church entity overseeing it, the elders had little recourse but to take the matter to court, their suit states. Failure of the court to act could result in the use of “physical force,” the lawsuit states.

In response, Rodgers’ attorneys stated that the dispute was a purely religious one, and that the court was barred from interfering under the First Amendment, and that the elders did not have standing to bring the suit.

On Feb. 16, 2000, the case was heard by Pontotoc County District Judge Thomas Landrith.

“It was a fairly ludicrous spectacle. The Rev. Rodgers had his faithful gather around the church and march around it and bless it the morning of the trial,” Braly recalled. “In the courtroom, one side was full of Jesse Rodgers supporters and the other side was full of supporters of Webb and Nessel and Turner. It was pretty bizarre.”

After hearing testimony from both sides, Landrith decided that Webb and Nessel had not been properly dismissed, but that the elders did not have standing to bring the suit and the issue was ultimately an internal church matter.

Essentially, the court had told the church to solve its own issues, Braly said.

Shortly after the judge’s order dismissing the case, the elders and some of their supporters showed up at Braly’s office.

“They said ‘we can’t live with this, the judge has not provided us with a remedy,’” Braly said. “I said ‘what have you got in mind?’”

Since the schism, Rodgers had ordered that the church doors be chained and secured with a lock, Braley said. So the elders and around 50 of their supporters planned to meet the following Sunday and wait until services were over and everyone had left the building, then cut the chain on the church door, bring in mattresses to sleep on and physically seize control of the church building.

“I said, ‘Let me tell you this – I’ve never said this to a client before in my life, but I’m saying it to you — I will write you a letter and tell you that given the posture the courts have taken, and that non-violent self-help is an appropriate remedy,’” Braley said.

The following Sunday, the elders and their supporters waited in secret across the street, waiting for all of the cars to leave the church parking lot, Braley said. All did except for one, which belonged to the church’s music director. Eventually, a young man was sent by the elder faction to park at the church to see if he could determine what the hold up was. When he saw the music director leave, he signaled for the others to come to the church, Braley said.

“The group that came over got ready to start bolt-cutting and getting in the door,” Braly said, “and the kid says ‘Wait. Stop. The Lord has provided!’ He then took a key to the lock out from under a flower pot that he had seen the music director put it under before leaving.”

Once inside, the church members gathered Rodgers’ belongings, put them on a blanket outside the church and sent word to Rodgers to come get his things, which he did, Braly said.

“He was removed and then the locks were changed,” Ron Bates said. “All his belongings were stacked up outside and removed, and he was not granted access to the building after that.”

The move allowed the group of elders and their supporters to regain control of their church, Braly said.  

“That was the end of it,” Braly said. “That was the end of his involvement with the church.” 

Rodgers was not through preaching in Ada, though. On April 14, 2000, weeks after being allegedly driven from the Evangelistic Temple, Rodgers and two other former members of the church formed a new nonprofit church corporation known as the Freedom Center of Ada, Inc.

The bylaws of the Freedom Center of Ada had significant differences from the Evangelistic Temple, which centered church governance on the board of elders. Under the Freedom Center’s bylaws, elders could be dismissed or appointed by the pastor (referred to as the President – Chairman of the Board of Directors), the pastor could act on behalf of the corporation without a vote of the board, and the pastor could not be removed except by voluntary resignation or “gross error defined as severe deviation from the teachings of the Bible…” the church’s bylaws show.

On April 9, 2001, the IRS granted the Freedom Center of Ada’s application for tax exempt status as a church, according to IRS records, and about a year later the church entered into an agreement with Chickasaw Nation Industries to lease a building at 400 S. Broadway in Ada to hold services, Pontotoc County records show.

The Freedom Center’s congregation included some who had followed Rodgers after the split from the Evangelistic Temple, Ron Bates said. Mostly, the two sides left each other alone after that, he said.

“He did his and we did ours,” Bates said.

For the next 14 years, Rodgers would serve as Freedom Center of Ada’s senior pastor, president and board chairman.

In 2011, the Freedom Center, which had a congregation of between 50 and 100 people, changed its name to Gateway Church of Ada, Inc., and Rodgers became its registered agent, Secretary of State records show.

But even bigger changes were in the church’s future.

The move to Tulsa

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council president, and Tulsa pastor Jesse Leon Rodgers. Courtesy/FACEBOOK

While preaching in Ada, Rodgers began to interact and network with key pastors in the counties around Pontotoc County, meeting with them monthly for prayer, breakfast and fellowship, according to Rodgers.

During that time, Rodgers said he travelled to Washington D.C. to attend the Family Research Council’s National Pastor’s Briefing. While discussing his efforts to network with other pastors in county seats, Rodgers said he was directed to pitch the idea to Randy Wilson, Family Research Council’s director of men’s ministries and a recruiter for the organization’s Watchmen on the Wall ministry. Watchmen on the Wall is a nationwide network of more than 13,000 pastors who “agree to pray for the nation, preach Christian citizenship messages and partner with at least three other pastors.”

According to Rodgers, Wilson heard his idea and asked him to work for the Family Research Council’s Watchmen on the Wall ministry as its state director in Oklahoma.

“At the same time, God had been dealing with me for some time about transition,” Rodgers said in an Oct. 5, 2015 YouTube video.

In early 2014, the owner of the building Gateway was holding services in sold the property. Rodgers and another Ada pastor, Mickey Keith, began to make plans to “blend” Rodger’s congregation into Keith’s at Life Community Church on June 8, 2014, according to a story in the Ada News.

Gateway Church of Ada’s last official service was held on June 1, 2014, after which its congregation became part of Life Community Church.

Some of the church’s property, such as sound and video equipment, was sold off a few weeks later by Rodgers in a garage sale.

Screengrab of a yard sale notice posted by Rodgers on Facebook two weeks after Gateway Church of Ada’s final service, selling church property.

Though Gateway Church of Ada had lost its congregation, it was still, at least on paper, alive.

About two weeks after the church’s last service, Gateway Church of Ada purchased a 4-bedroom, 4,162 square-foot house on Tulsa’s South Delaware Avenue for $320,000, according to Tulsa County property records.

That house would serve as the Rodgers’ family home for the next three years, after the family sold its home in Stonewall, records show. 

In early 2015, Rodgers changed Gateway Church of Ada’s name to Gateway Ministries, Inc., though the organization still retained its status as a church, according to IRS and Oklahoma Secretary of State records.

During that time, and for the next couple of years, Gateway Ministries would form three trade names or ministries: Training for Reigning, Pastors United and Church United. 

“Training for Reigning” is a curriculum in a seven-book series by Rodgers, who said he was divinely inspired to write the books following a 40- and 21-day fast, he said in a 2015 video on his website, teaching how “God wants to teach us how to rule and reign here and now.”

“I have discovered the pathway to you finding and fulfilling your divine purpose, you’re prophetic purpose. I call it your ‘reigning role,’” Rodgers said in the video. “I’ve also discovered some Biblical patterns that show us the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s training ground for teaching us how to rule and reign with Christ in this life.”

In a series of YouTube videos in 2015, Rodgers recounted how he and his wife both had a vision while driving a church van, showing “God showed us both the barriers and the hindrances of the adversary for the church to advance and enter into its prophetic purpose and its, what I call, ‘reigning role.’

“You see, God has destined for us, the people of God, to be the leaders and the influencers and to have dominion,” Rodgers said. “Not to be subjugated, but to rule. That doesn’t mean rule over, it simply means to have the transcendent influence, to be the influencers, to be the policy-makers.”

The stated mission of the two new “ministries” of Gateway Ministries, Inc., is to form a network of churches, pastors and elders in each county in the nation under the idea that there is only one “church” in each geographic location made up of all Christians in that area.

Rodgers said in a March 19, 2015, YouTube video that the Pastors United ministry started in Oklahoma and was intended to spread nationwide and also help raise funds to send pastors to the annual National Pastor’s Briefing by the Family Research Council, while the Church United ministry was to help bring churches together overseas.

The purpose of the pastor network, Rodgers said in one video, is to “turn this nation around” by rolling back laws and court rulings that Rodgers said conflicts with biblical values and principles, such as gay marriage and abortion and to take a stand against “radical Islam.”

And that, Rodgers said in another video, must be done by uniting believers to wield political power and influence.

To accomplish this Rodgers solicited individuals and churches to provide prayer and financial assistance to help his ministries grow.

Growing influence

President Donald Trump and Tulsa Pastor Jesse Leon Rodgers. Courtesy/FACEBOOK

In November 2016, Rodgers, as state head of the Watchmen on the Wall group and the Church United, hosted a State of Oklahoma Pastor’s Briefing in Tulsa, with speakers including then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Sen. James Lankford, Gen. Jerry Boykin and others, including Rodgers.

Rodgers’ position with the Family Research Council also allowed him to meet with other powerful politicians.

In a video posted online by the Tulsa 9/12 Project in August 2018, Rodgers recounts meeting several times with President Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York. 

Rodgers said the City Elders group is somewhat like Watchmen on the Wall — pointing out the direction society is heading and the course corrections that need made — except that, with City Elders, “the concept is get in the gates of the city and influence for the sake of the kingdom of God. So, what we’re doing is bringing in spiritual leaders, pastors who are not just shepherds over the flock but who are elders in the city,” Rodgers told the 9/12 group. “They see trends and movements and they’re guards of the city. They have a heart that goes beyond their congregation. Bringing those spiritual leaders to the table, and then brining civil government leaders to the table then brining three sectors of culture, the other sector is business leaders.”

But despite hosting the large events, having access to national-level politicians and robust sales of Rodgers’ books during overseas trips, by early 2017, Gateway Ministries was having financial difficulties, according to Rodgers. 

In April 2016, Gateway took out a $70,000 mortgage, under the name Gateway Church of Ada and signed by Rodgers, from Arvest Bank on the Tulsa house, Tulsa county records show. On Jan. 4, 2017, Rodgers applied to the Tulsa County Assessor’s office to have the house declared exempt from property taxes as a parsonage. Records show the church was paying more than $4,000 per year on property taxes.

“I apologize for not having sought tax exemption status for the property at an earlier date,” Rodgers wrote in a Jan. 4, 2017 letter to the Tulsa County Assessor’s Office. “Our present budget deficit was sufficient motivation for us to fill out the requisite paperwork. I would deeply appreciate your consideration for nullifying the 2016 taxes if that is at all possible. That would be very helpful.”

Rodgers wrote in the letter to the assessor’s office that he had renovated the property and was attempting to sell it and liquidate the equity to underwrite the ministry.

In a separate email from Rodgers to the assessor’s office, Rodgers stated the idea had always been to purchase the house and flip it to generate ministry funds, according to documents obtained by The Frontier.

As part of the application for property tax exemption, Rodgers submitted Gateway Church of Ada’s certificate of incorporation, a copy of the Freedom Center of Ada’s bylaws from 2002, and the Freedom Center’s IRS determination letter from 2001 which states the organization is classified as a church, records show.

In February 2017, the Tulsa County Assessor’s office approved Gateway’s application, county records show. Meanwhile, Rodgers, through Gateway Church of Ada, continued to draw a series of loans from Arvest Bank, according to mortgage documents. By April 2017, the house had a $210,000 mortgage, according to bank records.

On July 17, 2017, Gateway Church of Ada sold the house for $342,490, according to county land records, but a few weeks later purchased a 3-bedroom, 3,172 square-foot house on Tulsa’s East 65th Street as Gateway Ministries for $140,000 from a sheriff’s sale.

At the end of 2017, Gateway Ministries applied for and was granted a parsonage exemption for the house, which was listed as “housing for ministry family” in the application. The same IRS determination and church bylaws documents used for the previous exemption were submitted.

Tulsa County Assessor John Wright said his office gathers as much information as possible about an organization applying for tax exempt status, such as usage of the property, IRS determination letters and bylaws. Sometimes, an employee will even attend one of the applying organizations’ services or look for a public presence advertising religious services, he said. But a lot of “grey area” exists in determining whether an entity should qualify, he said.

“In order for the community as a whole to continue to have any confidence in granting anyone an exemption, there has to be some confidence on behalf of the taxpayers that we’re fully analyzing and examining each of these parcels as they come up for review,” Wright said. “We consider this a very important role of the office, that there be integrity in this.”

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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