Just west of Bixby in south Tulsa County, an opulent 7,030-square-foot, two-story brick and stone mansion rises above the surrounding hay meadows and pastures.

Valued at $1.7 million, the Mounds luxury home sits on 10 acres of land, includes seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, a salt water pool, a pool house, a four-car garage, five fireplaces, a gated driveway and three large metal shops on the property.

Down the street, less than a mile east on 171st Street South, sits a 912-square foot house built in 1972 situated on a one-acre lot valued at just $43,400. 

Yet, when it comes time to pay property taxes, the owner of the small house will owe the county more for that residence than the other owner will for the mansion and the 50 acres of land surrounding it, which are fully exempted from property taxes.

That’s because the mansion’s owner is a church.

Blue Flame 47 bought the mansion and the 50 acres nearby for $2.5 million in February 2018, property records show. The Bixby-based church applied for and was granted a religious exemption from property taxes for the properties last summer. Since it bought the mansion, the church has purchased an additional 20 acres around the mansion for $578,000, and an additional hundred acres nearby for $1.6 million, though those properties do not yet have a property tax exemption.

The Frontier reviewed hundreds of religious exempt properties using data from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wagoner, Cleveland, Canadian, Osage, Washington, Craig and Garfield counties to find the state’s most expensive parsonages, as well as unusual cases of other properties that have been granted a religious property tax exemption. Rogers County Assessor Scott Marsh did not respond to an open records request from The Frontier seeking parsonage data from that  county.

In addition to several relatively expensive houses and properties, the review of data also turned up religious exempt properties that included cattle ranches, airplane hangars, radio broadcast towers, religious organizations with multiple parsonages and hundreds of acres of land in south Tulsa County belonging to one church and exempted from taxes.

The data reviewed by The Frontier also showed that several churches and religious organizations have multiple parsonages. The Salvation Army claimed 12 different parsonages in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties worth an average of around $208,000, while St. John Building Corp., a title holding company for St. John Health System in Tulsa, owns nine parsonages around the hospital, worth an average of around $145,000.

State law grants tax exemption to properties “used exclusively and directly for fraternal or religious purposes,” but the process for determining whether a property is eligible for tax exemption is a patchwork of policies and practices formed by each county’s tax assessor and local district attorney determinations, said Paula Ross, director of communications for the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

For instance, while the Tulsa County Assessor’s Office said non-government- owned radio and television broadcast towers in almost all cases would be subject to property taxes, at least three broadcast towers owned by Creative Educational Media Corp. in Wagoner County are exempt under religious use.

State law contains no standard for what kind of property qualifies for a religious tax exemption. The law doesn’t even require a property to be owned by a church or a religious group to qualify for a tax-exempt status. The pastor of a church can own a home in his or her name and have it declared a parsonage, which allows for a property tax exemption of up to $250,000 of its fair cash value.

“Anytime you do it long enough you see it go both ways. I’ve seen counties deny exemptions I thought were pretty clear religious uses for various reasons,” Carter said. “Sometimes, it’s a valuable piece of property and they wanted the tax revenue, sometimes they just saw it differently or didn’t think it was a religious use. I’ve seen some people try to take advantage of the system. Sometimes, you have bad actors who try exempt property that’s questionable.”

In Oklahoma, property taxes are used to fund city and county governments, roads and streets, police and fire protection and school districts. Though Oklahoma has one of the lowest overall property tax rates in the nation, it is still the state’s biggest source of revenue for local services.  

Most of the ministry and church leaders and tax experts who spoke to The Frontier said the exempt properties are legitimately used for exempt purposes. However, what constitutes a religious use can vary between Oklahoma’s 77 counties.

“What is a religious use? It’s a hard standard to put a definition on. If I open it up for a polling place, is that a religious use?” said Wes Carter, an attorney who specializes in nonprofit law at the Winters King law firm in Tulsa.

“People get creative. That’s why I think it’s left to the individual county, because the county is going to know its local business better than someone at the state level, and they’re making that determination at a local level after looking at all the facts and circumstances of whether it is a religious use.”

The rules for exempting property under religious use also varies between states, said Philip Haney, a Tulsa-based attorney who specializes in nonprofit law. Oklahoma has few restrictions on the size or value of the property that can be exempted, Haney said, or the number of parsonages a church can have.

“In Oklahoma if a church or para-church organization (such as a ministry) can show it owns the property and that property is lived in… then the property is usually taken off the tax rolls,” Haney said. “It’s almost a presumption that that property is being properly used by a church or religious ministry and can be taken off the rolls.” 

In September, The Frontier reported on Gateway Ministries, an organization now based in Tulsa classified by the IRS as a church which had partnered with an Oklahoma political action committee to support candidates in the 2020 elections. Though the church’s congregation had been absorbed by another church years ago and held no formal worship services in at least five years, its president and pastor had his Tulsa home declared a parsonage.

The driving philosophy behind why religious and charitable-owned properties are often exempted from property and other taxes is essentially that the organization is providing a service that would otherwise fall to the government, said John A. Wright, Tulsa County Assessor.

And because those types of organizations are given special tax breaks that would otherwise go toward public coffers, it is important that any application for tax exemption go through a thorough vetting process, Wright said.

“In order for the community to have any sense of support for anybody being exempt, there has to be a confidence on the part of the public that our office is being thorough in the vetting and review of the exemption process,” Wright said. “If there is a perception on the part of the public that our office has not been thorough or complete in determining who is not lawfully qualified, it will undermine the public support for anyone getting an exemption.”

Multiple parsonages

The Frontier requested parsonage records from 10 counties, nine of which responded to the request. However, most counties, with the exception of Tulsa County, were unable to separate parsonages from other properties with religious exemptions.

Of the approximately 270,000 parcels in Tulsa County, 16,728 (or about 6 percent) have some form of full or partial property tax exemption. The vast majority — 70 percent — of those exempt properties are government-owned, while a little more than 8 percent are exempted on religious grounds.

Of Tulsa County’s 1,392 religious exempt parcels, less than 200 are designated as parsonages — single family residences that house a member of the clergy. And many of those parsonages are located on the same property or an adjacent property to the church’s sanctuary.

“Given the number of churches in town and in the county, I don’t think that’s a very large number,” Wright said.

Though there are relatively few exempt parsonages in Tulsa County, some churches and religious organizations own multiple parsonages, the data shows.

The parsonage and religious exempt properties data reviewed by the The Frontier showed several churches that had numerous parsonages across the nine counties.

By far, the group with the largest number of exempt residential properties was the Catholic Church with 48, though most were not listed as parsonages and the average listed value of the houses was less than $100,000.

Next, the Salvation Army owns 12 parsonages in Oklahoma, Tulsa, Canadian and Cleveland counties, with an average home value of around $208,000.

The Salvation Army parsonages are occupied by local officers, such as area commanders in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, as well as the organization’s church pastors, social services program officers, and administrative officers and pastors who provide program, development, legal, human resources, and financial oversight and support, said Thomas McWilliams, spokesman for the Salvation Army of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Having ownership of the parsonages allows the Salvation Army to more easily and efficiently rotate in new area commanders, which happens every three to five years, McWilliams said.

“As officers we’re given six weeks to make the full transition and to be working at full capacity in our new appointment,” McWilliams said. “The parsonage system allows for that type of quick transition. The organizational expectation is that a parsonage will last a minimum of 25 years, with many lasting longer than that. At the time when it comes time to sell a parsonage, all of the funds are placed back into the endowment which is used to purchase the new home.”

The funding used to purchase and maintain the officer parsonages comes from donor endowments left in bequests or wills, McWilliams said, and no “appeal monies,” such as mail or kettle donations go toward property matters. The purchases and any major maintenance expenditures are decided on by local community advisory boards, he said.

St. John Building Corp. in Tulsa owns nine parsonages, and its ministry organization owns one, all located near St. John Hospital on Wheeling and Xanthus avenues, with an average value of around $145,000.

St. John Building Corp is not a church, but a nonprofit title holding company established in 2012 by the hospital system, which itself was founded by the Sisters of the Sorrowful mother. St. John Health System merged with Ascension Health in 2013, and is now the largest nonprofit Catholic health care provider in the county. According to St. John Building Corporation’s tax returns from 2018, the nonprofit organization had nearly $23.9 million in revenue, $21.2 million in total expenses and nearly $240 million in assets. About $17.8 million of the organization’s revenue came from rental income, according to its tax form.

According to Tulsa County Assessor records, in addition to the 10 parsonages around St. John Medical Center, the organization also owns other houses in the same area that are not classified as parsonages.

The Frontier visited each of the parsonages in November to try and determine who lived in them. Only two individuals answered their doors — one who is a Catholic priest employed by the hospital, and one who said they were not a priest and had only been renting the house for a month.

Caitlin Pond, a spokeswoman for St. John Health System, did not return phone messages from The Frontier.

The parsonage data also showed that Solace Church has six parsonages in Tulsa County, though all of those houses are owned by individuals associated with the church, with an average value of more than $218,000. Similarly, The Bridge Church claims five parsonages in Tulsa County, all of which are owned by individuals, with an average value of around $233,000. Rhema Bible Church in Broken Arrow also claims five parsonages in Tulsa County, as does Jesus Inn Ministries, though the average value of the Jesus Inn parsonages is just shy of $79,000, while the average value of the Rhema parsonages is a little more than $66,000, according to assessor records.

Airplane hangars and a cattle ranch

In 2003, Annette Capps Ministry Inc., purchased an airplane hangar at the small Hefner-Easley Airport, located just outside Wagoner. That hangar was sold in 2015, but the ministry had purchased another hanger at the airport in 2012. Both airplane hangers were given property tax exemptions, county assessor records show.

In addition to the airplane hangar, the 120-acre ranch owned by the ministry and one of its subsidiaries valued at more than $1 million, is also exempt from property taxes, records show.

Annette Capps, who formed her own ministry in 1988, is the daughter of the late Word of Faith evangelist Charles Capps, who died in 2014.

Born in England, Ark., in 1934, Charles Emmitt Capps worked in his early life as a cotton, rice and soybean farmer, and in the mid-1960s, began to do lay ministry. He later became a pilot as part of the “Flying Farmers,” and flew across the country and to the Bahamas as a minister.

Capps is considered one of the pioneers of the “Word of Faith” movement, authored 24 books and had a radio and television show called “Concepts of Faith.” Both of Capps’ daughters, Annette and Beverly Capps, were involved in their father’s ministry and eventually formed ministries of their own.

Annette Capps, president of Annette Capps Ministries Inc.

Annette Capps continues to host Concepts of Faith, is an author of several books and is a licensed pilot.

In 2017, the latest year that tax information for the ministry is publicly available, Annette Capps’s ministry had nearly $2.6 million in revenue, and $1.6 million in expenses, with the bulk of expenses going toward television and broadcast expenses, the organization’s tax records show. At the end of 2017, Capps ministry had $4.9 million in assets, tax records show.

Capps’ ministry purchased her Broken Arrow home and the 40 acres surrounding it in 1993 and successfully applied to have it deemed a parsonage in 1999, property records show. Later, in a renewal application, Capps would state the property was being used for ministry accounting offices, parsonage and animal adoption.

According to the application, use of the house and land was “Worship, education, offices, parsonage, storage and distribution of religious materials including environmental emphasis on animals, habitat and spirituality.” A later renewal application also listed “animal adoption” as a use of the land.

Entry gate to the Annette Capps Ministries, Inc., parsonage and property in rural Broken Arrow. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

A Dec. 2, 1999, memo from the Oklahoma Tax Commission to the Wagoner County Assessor’s Office discussing whether the property should be exempted stated that the property’s usage, not ownership, determined whether it should be exempted.

“It is certainly your judgment call regarding the lady who claims she is a church and uses her house to fold mail-outs,” the memo states before advising that Capps present her Secretary of State paperwork to prove the organization’s charitable status. 

In 2011, Capps formed a limited liability company named Creation Sanctuary Ranch under her ministry, and through the LLC purchased two parcels adjacent to her home — 10 acres with a house on it and 70 acres of unimproved land. The following year, she applied for and was granted a religious exemption to property taxes on both parcels, records show.

In the application for exemption for the 10-acre parcel with the house, Capps stated the property would be used as a “parsonage for minister and visiting workers from Ark. ministry” and as a “warehouse for ministry.” In the application for exemption on the 70-acre parcel, Capps stated the property would be used as a “potential office headquarters and meditation park” and “proposed building site and prayer & meditation center.”

The ministry’s tax records also mention the land owned by Creation Sanctuary Ranch. It estimates the value of the ranch is around $1.1 million, according to the ministry’s IRS tax form, and the land is “non-income producing land used for meditation and prayer.”

Capps’ 86-year-old mother Peggy is living in the most recently acquired house, she said. Peggy Capps is also listed in tax documents as the vice president of Charles Capps Ministries.

In an interview with The Frontier, Capps said the 70 acres were purchased in the hopes of building a new headquarters for her ministry, but there have been problems with getting good internet service in that area, she said. And that’s vitally important to the ministry, since much of it relies on the Internet to reach its audiences.

“We bought it for expansion purposes and right now we really need to expand out there,” Capps said. “I get excited just thinking about it. I think it would be a tremendous opportunity for expansion if we can get out there.”

Though the property has cattle running on it, Capps told The Frontier that the land and houses were being used for “tax exempt purposes, not profit.”

A cow grazes on pasture land owned by Creation Sanctuary Ranch, a limited liability company wholly owned by Annette Capps Ministries, Inc. The land has been exempted from property taxes for religious purposes. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

“There are cows out there, but they are pets,” Capps said. “When you have a lot of land like that, you’ve got to mow it, Brush Hog it, or put animals out there to keep it mowed down. So we put cows out there. There’s no way I’m going to kill a cow and eat it. Everybody looks and want to know how much money we’re making off those cows. We don’t make anything. We don’t have a bull. We’re just using them to mow the yard.”

The unimproved land helps fulfill the mission of the ministry because it is a place Capps and other ministers can relax and meditate, she said, though the plans for a fully-operational meditation park have yet to come to fruition.

As for the airplane hangar, Capps said the ministry of her late father, of which she is now president, has its offices in England, Ark., and she often flew her airplane from Wagoner County to those offices.

Capps said all of the exemptions that have been approved over the years for her ministry operations are legitimate, and absolutely not for personal gain.

“My family’s name has always been linked to integrity. If my attorney tells me not to do something, I’m not going to do it,” Capps said. “I can’t even pick up a pencil without asking ‘is that a ministry pencil or mine?’

“I’m sure there are people out there who try to slip by and do things they’re not supposed to do, but the law is the law and the tax exempt purposes are clearly stated,” Capps said.

The process of getting the ministry properties exempted was a relatively easy one, Capps said, though others she knows have had issues with it.

“It’s just a matter of knowing what the laws are. Make sure what you’re doing with the property conforms to what law states,” Capps said. “I wasn’t extremely difficult for me. I know other people right now who actually are paying taxes that, according to the laws, they shouldn’t have to. But it just so scares them, they’re so freaked out about dealing with that sort of thing, they won’t go do it.”

Hundreds of acres and a mansion

Few churches in Tulsa County own more than 40 acres of land fully or partially removed from the tax rolls, according to the assessor’s office.

However, there are some exceptions to that.

The largest land-owning religious entity in Tulsa County is Blue Flame 47, which also owns the $1.7 million mansion in Mounds.

A seven bedroom, five-and-a-half bathroom, 7,030 square-foot home on 10 acres purchased in February 2018 for $1.7 million by Bixby church Blue Flame 47. Courtesy realtor.com

With a small local congregation of between 100 and 200 people, but with thousands of followers worldwide, the church owns more than 460 acres of land in the Bixby area. When nearby land recently purchased by the church’s leadership is included, the group owns more than 500 acres, according to property records.

Most of the land owned by the church is exempt from property taxes for religious purposes. And, unlike most other residential properties owned by churches, Blue Flame’s mansion in Mounds is fully exempt from taxes and not subject to the $250,000 parsonage fair cash value cap. That’s because it is not considered a parsonage.

In May 2007, Scott J. Norvell and his wife Shari Norvell felt called by God to quit their jobs in the corporate world. Scott Norvell left his job as senior vice president and director of marketing and sales at Bank of Oklahoma’s Transfund system to work full time at an unpaid position training prayer team volunteers at the Tulsa Healing Center, a healing room prayer ministry. Two years later, he and his wife Shari founded their own church, Blue Flame 47, Inc.

Shari and Scott Norvell, founders of the Blue Flame 47 church in Bixby. Courtesy Blue Flame 47.

It was a huge leap of faith for the Norvells and their five children, but one he says was worth it.

“I look at it from the standpoint of I used to have a life where I took for myself and now I have a life where we get to give back to others,” Norvell said. “I had a great job, I had a great career, I have an MBA, I had a great resume, and I gave it all away to help people. For six years we were poor, and then God did something different. We’re not going to live rich, we’re just going to have more resources to give away. That’s the way we look at it.”

In 2010, the Norvells formed Blue Flame 47, and Scott Norvell published a book inspired by revelations from God — “Terraforming for the Kingdom.”

Norvell said Blue Flame is a Christian church (though it holds its services on Tuesdays) that believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but is also a global ministry that trains teams of individuals, other churches and ministries how to pray over people, things, land, cities, states and nations to ask for spiritual healing and forgiveness. 

“We travel literally every place you can think of on planet Earth, throughout the United States and Oklahoma,” Norvell said. “One of the things we do is we train churches on how to pray over land. We train them on how to pray over their cities or states. Some of those nations are out of country, some are not, some are very safe, some are not.”

The idea of praying over land is based in asking for forgiveness for those who have done harm — from environmental degradation to genocide and mass murder — in and around the locations being prayed over, Norvell said. By praying over the land to forgive those who have transgressed against it, a demonic hold that influence everything in the vicinity is released, Norvell said

“When we pray over the land, we’re forgiving corporations that abuse the natural resources of the land,” Norvell said, adding that the group is politically neutral. “We believe there’s power when we forgive people who do things that harm. We teach churches to instead of judging people or judging actions or blindly agreeing with things asking God whether harm is taking place and if harm is taking place, to forgive those people.

“We have seen incredible testimonies of radical changes in cities, states and nations after God calls people to go on the land and forgive people.”

On Dec. 31, 2013, Blue Flame 47 purchased more than 300 acres of land with a pecan orchard on it located in the 11000 block of U.S. Highway 64, southeast of Bixby. The goal, Norvell said, was to build a church at the location and have enough land to train others to pray over land and to preserve the land from being developed.

“We believe in preserving land, preserving trees, preserving the natural landscape,” Norvell said. “There’s a lot of interest in cutting down trees to put up retail. We’re not going to pay their guys to put up a parking lot. That’s not us.”

The church refers to the land as “Arubbah,” which comes from Hebrew and means “floodgate” or “window to heaven.”

Since then, Blue Flame and its leadership have spent millions of dollars on land purchases, buying hundreds of acres of land in south Tulsa County, according to Tulsa County property records. By itself, the church has spent $7.9 million on property acquisitions since 2017, and Scott and Shari Norvell have spent an additional $2 million on their own property acquisitions in the last few years, assessor records show. 

One of those real estate purchases, in February 2018, was the 7,030-square foot mansion in Mounds, as well as 70 acres around the home.

The mansion was later approved for a religious exemption, though it is not considered a parsonage. That’s because no one lives there full time, and it is used to host people who come to Blue Flame from out of town for trainings or meetings, Norvell said, making it a “pseudo-parsonage.”

The back of a seven bedroom, five-and-a-half bathroom, 7,030 square-foot home on 10 acres purchased in February 2018 for $1.7 million by Bixby church Blue Flame 47. Courtesy/realtor.com

“If we had a pastor living there full time, I would have an ethical issue with that,” Norvell said. “We have people coming in from all over the world, all walks of life, in large quantities and small quantities. It’s a place for people to come in where they may need healing or they are getting training or whatever the case might be. We bring in someone to host them and we take care of them for free. To us, that’s the God part of giving. It’s a place you take care of others and you do so with a lot of people. A large property like that – that makes sense.”

In Blue Flame’s application for exemption for the property, and two other tracts of land totaling 40 acres, the church states that it purchased the property to serve as its “camp grounds” to host small retreats and small events relating to its mission, such as youth camps, marriage retreats and personal growth retreats. 

Norvell said the group recently made a donation of $200,000 to the City of Bixby in 2019, designating the money to go toward police, fire and streets, in an effort to give back to the city.

“We just felt like we need to step up and help these guys,” Norvell said. “We don’t want to be takers in our community, we want to be givers.”

Norvell said the process of getting properties declared exempt in Tulsa County is not too cumbersome, but it is thorough.

“My understanding is the county does a very good job of asking thorough questions and we do have to present a pretty complete understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Norvell said.

Wright, the Tulsa County Assessor, said his workers requested more information about how Blue Flame’s mansion was being used before granting an exemption.

“As a government entity, we need to be fair and equitable in the way we treat people. We shouldn’t try to make one entity beholden to a different standard than others. However, we did request additional information from that entity, specifically renting information related to that property,” Wright said. “We’re doing our best to vet that one on behalf of the taxpayer.”

Before an exemption is granted, Wright said, inspectors collect information about the entity requesting the exemption and the property. Sometimes, if a property is used for both exempt and non-exempt purposes, a partial exemption will be granted, Wright said.

Part of the process is obtaining documents such as incorporation records, charters, statements of faith — anything to confirm that the organization is indeed legitimate. Sometimes, Wright said, the office even searches the organization’s social media pages to verify their legitimacy.

“If the public is going to continue to acquiesce to anyone having an exemption there has to be a conviction that our office is doing a thorough review.”

Tulsa County also does an assessment and review on exempt properties every four years, a practice that began in 2013, Wright said.

Doing reviews of exempt properties has been a conversation among tax assessors throughout the country, Wright said, because, while the properties may not bring in any tax dollars, they often undergo modifications that affect the value, or their usage could be changed in a way that does not qualify for a religious exemption.

“There’s been a debate within taxing jurisdictions throughout the country about whether or not it is worthwhile to review the exempt parcels,” Wright said, “because unless you find a few that should be changed, there’s not going to be any realization of tax dollars.”

Exempt radio towers

One of the properties up for review by the Tulsa County Assessor’s office next year is also one of the most expensive parsonages in Tulsa County — a 4,652-square-foot home in a gated community in the 4900 block of West Utica Street in Broken Arrow with a fair cash value of $760,000.

David Ingles Ministries, Inc., parsonage in Broken Arrow. Courtesy Tulsa County Assessor’s Office.

The house was built in 2008 and is owned by David Ingles Ministries, Inc., according to property records. The ministry also owns a parsonage in Wagoner County in the 19000 block of East 114th Street in Broken Arrow valued at $185,000.

David Ingles, born in Cleveland, Okla., in 1934, made a career as a Southern Gospel singer and songwriter, and is head pastor at Walnut Grove Church in Broken Arrow. Ingles also owns a radio network known as the Oasis Radio Network under the name Creative Educational Media Corp. He has released numerous gospel albums and appeared on shows hosted by notable televangelists such as Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker and Kenneth Hagin.

Musician and minister David Ingles. Courtesy Youtube

Ingles formed his ministry in 1976. Though the IRS first rejected his application for tax-exempt status, stating the organization was being operated for a mostly commercial purpose and owed taxes for its first two years of existence, in 1980 it would recognize David Ingles Ministries Inc. as a nonprofit organization.

Six years later, Ingles established Creative Educational Media Corporation, which was classified as a nonprofit educational organization by the IRS. The organization’s purpose, according to its articles of incorporation was to obtain and operate radio stations “to be utilized exclusively for educational purposes,” to establish an educational radio station and broadcasting school.

In 2018, the organization had nearly $1.6 million in revenue and spent $1.5 million on expenses, according to tax records. It also reported a little more than $8 million in net assets.

Though Creative Educational Media Corp. is classified as an educational rather than religious one, its Wagoner County broadcast towers are exempt from property taxes under a religious use, according to the Wagoner County Assessor’s Office.

The radio broadcast tower site near Haskell in Wagoner County owned by Creative Educational Media. The tower and surrounding land is exempted from property taxes under a religious exemption. Courtesy/Wagoner County Assessor’s Office.

The current governing body of both David Ingles Ministries and Creative Educational Media Corp consists of David Ingles, his wife and son and daughter, who lives in the Wagoner County parsonage.

In March, Creative Educational Media Corp transferred all six of its Federal Communications Commission licenses to David Ingles Ministries, Inc., FCC records show. The transfer was considered a “pro forma assignment” since “the officers, directors and voting power percentage are identical in each ministry,” FCC records show.

Neither David Ingles nor Norwood responded to phone messages from The Frontier seeking an interview.

Most expensive parsonages

Seven years ago, the Tulsa-based Sanctuary Evangelistic Church was in dire financial straits.

The church, which owned a church building at 1228 E. 5th St., just east of downtown Tulsa, was facing foreclosure after it failed to pay on its $263,000 mortgage to Bank of Oklahoma. A day before the sheriff’s sale of the property, on Sept. 24, 2012, the church filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy application, halting the sale.

Now, the church owns one of the most expensive stand-alone parsonages in Tulsa County.

The parsonage, located in a gated community in Bixby on a hill overlooking the Arkansas River, is a 6,415-square-foot, four-bedroom, six-bathroom luxury home valued at $930,000.

Front view of the 6,415-square-foot Bixby parsonage purchased by Sanctuary Evangelistic Church, Inc., in Tulsa. Courtesy realtor.com

The posh trappings of this north Bixby luxury home, located in the 6000 block of 140th Street South, include 10- to 18-foot vaulted ceilings, two master suites, a theater and game room on the second floor, an elevator and safe room, among other amenities.

The fair market value of the parsonage, purchased by the church in September 2018 for $600,000, is more than twice the value of its new church building, 601 E. Apache St. North, which was purchased less than a month later, according to Tulsa County Assessor records.

Interior living room of the 6,415-square-foot Bixby parsonage purchased by Sanctuary Evangelistic Church, Inc., in Tulsa. Courtesy realtor.com

So how did a relatively small church go from nearly losing everything to owning its own mansion?

The church’s president and senior pastor, Milford Carter, Sr., who lives in the parsonage with his wife (who is also vice president of the church), did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Frontier. However, property records show that in April 2018 — a few months before the church purchased the parsonage, new church building and other property — Sanctuary Evangelistic Church sold its main church building at 1228 E. 5th St. in Tulsa to Indian Health Care Resource Center for $2.5 million.

On the application for parsonage status, submitted on July 25, 2019, Carter wrote that the house would be used as both a parsonage and a meeting facility.

Milford Carter, Sr., pastor of Sanctuary Evangelistic Church in Tulsa. Courtesy Linkedin

Tax records from 2018 show Carter also lists the parsonage as the business address for another nonprofit he the founder and chairman of — Tulsa Renaissance Development Corp., a community development organization.

Property records show Tulsa Renaissance Development corporation obtained five Tulsa residential properties in June 2018. All five were acquired at a Tulsa County Treasurer’s tax sale, after the former owners failed to pay their property taxes.

Another relatively expensive parsonage that appeared in the data was a two-story, 5,697-square-foot, five-bedroom, four bathroom luxury home on 8 acres in southwest Oklahoma City.. The house, estimated to be worth between $459,000 and $556,000, overlooks a lake in the 10000 block of S. Western Ave., and is owned by Templo de Alabanza, a Spanish language church in Oklahoma City with radio and television outreach as well as missions.

The house was purchased by Templo de Alabanza in May 2003 for $399,000 and is home to head pastor Chano Najera and his family.

A Sept. 24, 2003 photograph of the parsonage owned by the Oklahoma City church Templo de Alabanza, home to head pastor Chano Najera. Courtesy Cleveland County Assessor’s Office

In 2017, Templo de Alabanza reported revenue of $1.1 million, $990,000 in expenses and nearly $2.7 million in assets, according to IRS tax records.

Najera did not respond to phone messages left by The Frontier.

Parsonages can be a good investment by a church, said Haney, who has practiced nonprofit and charitable organization tax law and consulting for more than 40 years, and is often part of an overall compensation package for the minister or pastor. The property can be home to a new minister if the church’s minister leaves, or it can be sold or mortgaged and used as a source of credit if the church needs money, he said.

However, depending on the parsonage, it can also have a negative impact on public perception of the church.

“If it is luxurious or excessive, it has to be part of a large overall compensation package. In most cases, it shouldn’t be the predominant part of it,” Haney said. “For stewardship purposes, and optics and public perception, usually the parsonage’s value is much less than the cash compensation. It’s not always, and it doesn’t have to be, but usually it is.”

Sometimes, in cases of nondenominational churches, the head pastor who would be living in the parsonage may have a large amount of influence on a church board’s vote on whether to buy a parsonage, Haney said. In those cases, the church should set up an outside board to review compensation and eliminate conflicts of interest, he said.

“Most churches that are nondenominational, and in situations where the vote of the board of directors is substantially influenced or event controlled by the senior pastor, the church, if it is planning properly, creates an outside compensation committee made up of persons who are independent of the church,” Haney said.

In addition to a reduction in property taxes on a parsonage, IRS rules allow ministers to not pay income taxes on parsonage housing supplied by their churches. That rule was recently challenged in federal court by The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which alleged the rule violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

A federal court in Wisconsin ruled in favor of Freedom From Religion, and the case was appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In April last year, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter joined 17 other states in requesting that the appeals court overturn the decision.

“The parsonage allowance dates back to the founding of the country and is supported by the Constitution,” Hunter said in a media release. “If upheld, the ruling stands to place a financial burden on religious organizations, which will harm outreach and charitable services provided to worthy causes and our most needy, vulnerable citizens.

“My colleagues and I stand by all faiths in defending this important resource and against the attack from this atheist group,” he said. “We encourage the court to follow centuries of law and custom and reverse this ruling.”

This year, the Seventh Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation chose not to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Further Reading: https://www.readfrontier.org/stories/guardians-of-the-gates-gateway-ministries-and-the-church-that-wasnt/

Update: An earlier version of this story contained a photograph of a broadcast tower that incorrectly identified it as belonging to Creative Educational Media.