Last month, Pastor John Gray drew national attention when he presented his wife, Aventer, with a Lamborghini that starts at $200,000 as an anniversary present. The Relentless Church pastor deflected criticism in part by emphasizing that the car was not paid for with any church money.
At the time, Gray was living in a $1.8 million home that was bought by the church in October. Church leaders said the Relentless-owned home was needed to attract a leader of Gray’s caliber.
The house in the Southampton community in Simpsonville is 7,247 square feet, consistent with the size and value of about 25 homes in the community.
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The existence of the church-owned residence was brought to The Greenville News’ attention through a tip from a reader. The News verified the ownership of the home through property records and real estate transactions.
The residence shines light on housing arrangements that some churches include as part of the compensation packages for their pastors.
Pastor John Gray during the installation of pastors service at Relentless Church on Sunday, June 3, 2018.
"This is not anything new," Travis Hayes, chief financial officer for Relentless, said. "This is a practice that is done with every denomination in the nation. That’s what this is. This is an asset that belongs to the church."
Gray, through his marketing director, declined a request for comment regarding his church-funded home when The News contacted a spokeswoman.
In mid-December, Hayes and Gray promised newspaper editors that he would sit down for an interview after Christmas. Gray has since declined repeated requests to do so.
In an email, his spokeswoman, Holly Baird, said that "due to his schedule and prior obligations, (Gray) will not be available to sit down."
Gray also would not speak with a reporter before or in-between services at Relentless on Sunday, Jan. 6.
Relentless bought the property in the gated subdivision to serve as the church parsonage, meaning the house is a church asset and stays with the church if Gray were to leave, Hayes said.
Hayes said it’s common for churches to provide housing for pastors and referenced a 200-member Baptist church in his neighborhood that owns a small house next to the church where its pastor lives.
Gray’s house in Simpsonville is about 10 miles from Relentless Church.
The Greenville megachurch has about 15,000 members, and more than 200,000 people viewed the sermon online during a recent Sunday, Hayes said.
Controversies over how some pastors use their income and status has become more common in recent years.
Georgia televangelist Creflo Dollar made headlines in 2018 when he asked his congregation of 200,000 to donate $300 dollars each to pay for a Gulfstream G650 jet. He told his congregation he needed the new jet to bring his ministry to all parts of the world, according to USA TODAY.
Controversial Atlanta-based megachurch pastor Eddie Long, who died in 2017, also had a private jet and drove a $350,000 Bentley, according to media reports.
Joel Osteen, notably one of the richest pastors in America, owns a $10.5 million mansion in a gated community in the Houston area, according to media reports.
According to property records, Hayes himself lives in a home that is owned by Redemption World Outreach, the church that became Relentless when Gray took over. Relentless confirmed through a spokesperson that Hayes lives in a Redemption-owned home, but Hayes has not returned calls or emails seeking comment about the arrangement.
On Jan. 6, when Gray again refused to speak with a reporter who was at his church that day, he referenced recent media coverage during his sermon.
"It occurred to me that many people still do not know me, don’t know my heart, don’t know me and my wife and because many news outlets are trying to define who we are, may God bless them. I’m going to take the power back and let y’all know who we are. We love Jesus. We serve Jesus,” Gray said at the start of his message titled "Through the Fire."
In Gray’s livestream video on social media in response to the Lamborghini news last month, he spoke about growing up wanting to live in the suburbs and enduring hardship by living out of hotels when first coming to Greenville. He told his followers, "Nobody knows the sacrifices that go with ministry."
"We were staying in different hotels in Greenville for months, preaching the gospel, so that everybody else could get established, because we believed in the vision," he said in his social media video.
Baird did not respond to questions about who paid for the hotel and Airbnb expenses when Gray first relocated to Greenville. She also did not respond to questions about the amount of Gray’s salary or the church’s operating budget.
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The ‘caliber’ of John Gray
Hayes said the board agreed to buy the $1.8 million home because it was needed to entice a pastor of Gray’s "caliber" to relocate to Greenville. The cost of the home is more than 10 times the $165,600 median home value in Greenville County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"With anything, it’s about offering and attracting a senior pastor of Pastor John’s caliber with his presence on the world stage," Hayes said. "This was a board decision that was made at the highest level and absolutely in line with bringing in a John Gray-level pastor to come and minister and work here and live here."
People who have attended Relentless have differing opinions on the house in Simpsonville.
"I’m not concerned about how much someone else’s house cost," said Sarah Giwa, a Relentless Church member. "I hope no one is concerned about how much mine cost. I think they have a right to live among their peers. People in their own income bracket."
Jazzi Bush attended Relentless Church for about two months after moving to Greenville from Georgia. She said she moved to escape a domestic violence situation and became homeless in Greenville with her 8-year-old daughter. She’s now being helped by a Greenville-area nonprofit but said she didn’t feel comforted by the church when she asked for help. She no longer attends Relentless.
Relentless leadership doesn’t remember Bush and couldn’t speak to her situation, Baird, the Relentless spokeswoman, said. She said typically when someone comes to them homeless, the church purchases a week’s stay for them in an extended-stay hotel next to Relentless while assisting them with food and clothing or finds housing accommodations at a shelter.
The outreach ministry for Relentless services hundreds of people per month through food and clothing distributions, Baird said in an email. Relentless has served more than 5,000 people in various ways since forming, Baird said, and recently provided more than 1,000 children in the community with Christmas toys and supplies.
Bush said she got the sense the church was more interested in bringing celebrities to Greenville rather than helping those within the community.
Bush said she was shocked to hear about Gray’s parsonage after already feeling uneasy with his Lamborghini purchase.
"You’re supposed to be helping people, not to be all about yourself and into material things," she said. "I’m not saying they can’t live the way they should, but I’d have more respect for them if it was people in community that they would reach out to and help."
Gray was an associate pastor at Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston before coming to Greenville. He is also the focus of the reality TV series "The Book of John Gray," in its fourth season on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Gray, who has published two books, has been touring nationwide to promote his second book, "Win from Within."
He also maintains a role as a teaching pastor at Lakewood. The church’s website shows him on the speaking schedule regularly, primarily for Wednesday services.
Elizabeth Jemison, an assistant professor of American religious history at Clemson University, said church-funded homes for pastors have been common historically, but primarily for housing pastors next to their congregations as a means to offset their cost of living.
"It’s provided in a way for them to live in an area," she said. "That’s still sort of the case today with a variety of denominations, but most historically with more established churches, not evangelical, independent megachurches."
She said recently some have been more open to the "prosperity gospel," or at least a broader movement that sees displays of wealth or being established as evidence of God’s favor.
"That broader set of ideas has become very popular in American evangelicalism," she said. "If some see that a church is doing the right thing, is growing, is building a church and is providing housing for a pastor, it’s further evidence of being in the right line."
Gray, his wife and his two children moved to Greenville to start Relentless before the church "found the right home" for the family, Hayes said. There were no pre-agreements made as to Gray’s housing prior to him moving, Baird said in an email, contradicting Hayes’ initial comments regarding needing a certain quality of home to attract a Gray-caliber pastor.
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Ron Carpenter, who moved his ministry to California, asked Gray to succeed him as head pastor to lead the Greenville congregation. The church ceased as Redemption and reformed under Gray’s Relentless using the same building, Baird said.
Carpenter founded Redemption Outreach Center in 1991, using a small warehouse for a gathering place for a few people. By 1994, he built a 300-seat sanctuary near Greenville Downtown Airport and a few years later began broadcasting services, renaming the ministry to Redemption World Outreach Center.
The church grew through the years and by 2018, the church operated five campuses with roughly 22,000 active members before Carpenter said he felt called to move his ministry to California.
Property records list the taxable market value of the Relentless parsonage Gray lives in at $1.1 million but as a church-owned home, the parsonage is eligible to be exempt from property tax, according to the South Carolina Department of Revenue.
Redemption to Relentless
While some church leaders say Relentless is a different entity from Redemption, property tax records are less clear about whether that’s the case.
Hayes, the CFO of Relentless, currently lives in a home owned by Redemption World Outreach, even though Hayes has said Relentless has no stake in those properties.
Hayes was the CFO of Redemption while Redemption was still in Greenville. Hayes’ home is one of three in Greenville County owned by Redemption and valued at a total of around $1.3 million.
In 2013, Redemption World Outreach bought one home in the gated Plantation on Pelham subdivision in Greenville for $750,000, property records show.
That same year, Redemption bought another home in the Chandler Lake subdivision in Simpsonville for $401,000. That is the home where Hayes lives, according to property records. Baird confirmed that Redemption bought the home for Hayes in 2013 and still has ownership of the property.
In 2016, a third property, a vacant 3.4-acre residential lot in The Cliffs community in Landrum, sold to Redemption for $189,500.
A fourth property sold to Redemption for $217,900 in 2012 in the Pennbrooke At Ashby Park subdivision in Simpsonville. That home was sold to a private owner last year, according to property records, while the others are still listed as being owned by Redemption.
Property records show Redemption also still owns a warehouse and other buildings on the Relentless church property that cost Redemption $950,000.
Hayes said Relentless owns no other properties apart from Gray’s $1.8 million parsonage and the church building on Haywood Road.
Carpenter has not responded to multiple requests for comment via phone messages, emails and Facebook messages.
Baird, the spokeswoman for Relentless, said in an email that the homes still owned by Redemption in Greenville County are for the Carpenters’ "personal use."
When Gray came to Greenville, Carpenter left the congregation in Gray’s hands, though the name change — Redemption to Relentless — signified two separate churches.
"Pastor John never ‘took over’ Redemption. Most likely it was meant in a way to state Pastor Ron was leaving the community he established in Pastor John’s care," Baird said in an email. "Pastors Ron and Hope Carpenter completely picked up Redemption and moved to San Jose."
Charitable organizations must register with the South Carolina Secretary of State and provide annual financial reports through IRS 990 forms, which are public documents. Churches, however, are exempt from having to file 990s based on their religious classification.
A charity search through the Secretary of State shows that neither Relentless nor Redemption has filed 990s, which would show salaries of church leadership.
Not all churches have parsonages
In Cincinnati, Crossroads Church is one of the largest congregations in the metro area with about 30,000 attendees. Pastor Brian Tome, the Crossroads pastor who baptized Gray, wrote an opinion column in The News defending Gray’s purchase of the Lamborghini for his wife.
Rather than parsonages, Tome and the rest of the church’s 30 commissioned pastors are eligible for a housing allowance in accordance with IRS rules, said church spokeswoman Jenn Sperry.
According to property records, Tome lives in a housing community valued at $2 million, but the properties are split into about 27 different homes and each is owned by a different family, Sperry said.
No money from Crossroads is specifically given to pastors for housing, Sperry said. The IRS rule that applies to ministers essentially allows the yearly cost of a minister’s housing to be exempt from income tax.
According to Al Hodges, a Greenville-based accountant, the IRS has not established a maximum amount. However, compensation must be "reasonable" and the housing allowance exclusion is limited to "the smallest of the following: The amount actually used to provide a home, the amount officially designated as a rental allowance or the fair rental value of the home."
At Brookwood Church in Simpsonville, there are about 3,800 weekly attendees, according to its website. The church does not own a parsonage for its senior pastor, said Lora Catoe, a spokeswoman for the church. She said Brookwood’s senior pastor is eligible to exempt housing from income tax filings.
"The church works with the pastor according to the IRS guidelines to determine their housing allowance based on past expenses, expected expenses, and/or the fair market rental value of the home," Brookwood’s human resources director, Nina Mitchell, said in an email. "So, as there is no flat percentage or amount dictated by the IRS, the housing allowance number may change from year to year depending on housing costs."
NewSpring is the largest church in South Carolina with about 20,000 weekly attendees across 15 campuses. The church does not own any parsonages for its pastors, said NewSpring spokeswoman Suzanne Swift, nor does it provide additional housing allowances for pastors outside of salary.
No set standard
Many churches operate autonomously so there are no set rules or guidelines as to how churches should accommodate or pay their pastors.
Bert Ross, of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, said the convention does not provide oversight or approval for such issues.
He’s found more recently that fewer churches have parsonages, he said.
"There is not a set standard for cost, size (or) proximity for the housing of pastors," he said. "What churches do with their pastors is a local church decision, we do not weigh in if it is normal or understandable."
In an interview with The News in December 2017, Gray defended pastors with large houses and nice cars.
"My thing is this: If you work hard and pay your taxes, then you should be able to live where you are able to afford. I think that pastors do have a responsibility to be wise with the things that they have," he said in 2017.
Relentless is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
However, the convention suggests that churches should designate their housing allowances in writing before the beginning of the calendar year. For pastors living rent-free in parsonages, the convention suggests that churches can still designate housing allowances if pastors pay for utilities, repairs, furniture or other housing expenses.
"We don’t mandate these procedures; SBC churches are autonomous and so the actual implementing of the housing allowance is at the local church level," said Roy Hayhurst, a spokesman for GuideStone, a financial service company that works with the Convention.
Follow Daniel J. Gross on Twitter: @DanieljGross