How did a Texas megachurch make off with millions of dollars?

One of Joel Osteen’s hundreds of churches is hauling in large sums of money. The Houston megachurch that services a TV audience and an increasingly unruly church membership that often coalesces around the pastor’s conservative social views began streaming $700,000 in monthly donations online this month. But what began as a well-meaning exhortation to Osteen, the mega-church pastor, came as a revelation to some because of the unusual way the church did it: Had the Church of God in Christ traveled millions of miles and prayed for more than 50 years with no luck, is this the right time to hit up more generous donors?

Now, people eager to give are coming forward to boost the generous reward the Church of God in Christ offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the men who were so successful in their subterfuge that it led Osteen’s Lakewood Church to release a statement confirming the theft.

But nearly two weeks after this unlikely scam erupted, it remains a mystery to many who find themselves at the center of an investigation that is far from over. And what’s even more baffling is that, two weeks later, most of the reward money has still not been paid out. The Church of God in Christ said in a statement on July 2 that they had held onto the money because they’re “still trying to figure out how that all happened.”

Calls for comment to the Dallas-based religious group, which is affiliated with the Church of God and World Outreach Center in Houston, weren’t returned. The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Texas-based Christian university which along with The King’s College co-hosted Osteen’s lakewood church in the 1990s, said Osteen’s speech there, many years ago, had been funded by large donations from a corporate sponsor.

The hidden stash of money is estimated to be worth anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000, although who’s to say how much actual money that is. Because of the labyrinthine reason behind the theft, that could come into question, leaving many who just want to give back in the shadows.

Osteen himself has so far been relatively mum on the matter. (In his weekly show on Sunday, he said he had spoken about the case in a call with his kids, saying it has been “a mess” and “something that’s really tough for all of us to deal with, but we’re sticking with it.”) As is typical of pastors who get a bit too close to accusations of misdeeds, Osteen and his massive megachurch have been assiduously guarded of any official statement on the situation. On the Church of God in Christ website, there’s an exhaustive explanation of the case: “Tricky” words like “scheme”, “insider trading” and “unauthorized investors” have been quoted, but no information, including photographs of the money, has been provided. Instead, the website says, anyone who has been “shamed into coming forward” with information about the theft is encouraged to contact the Dallas Police Department and they will provide all of the necessary details.

A spokeswoman for the department told Texas on the Potomac that they were aware of the case and that “[h]is office is open and working to ensure the people of Dallas know about what has occurred,” but she did not have additional information about the investigation.

Those involved in the swindle could also face theft and money laundering charges. District Attorney Craig Watkins, who is leading a separate investigation, told reporters last week that some of the money might have been stolen by a woman who attended Lakewood and had funneled the donations to her son who then apparently sold it off. Many are wondering where the investigation will end.

It could be longer for all involved.

“This investigation is ongoing and I am asking for patience on behalf of those involved as our agency goes through all of the information to identify the people who were involved,” Watkins said.

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