Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of the world’s largest Christian media empire, walk a little slower these days. But that hasn’t slowed down the whirlwind transformation of their newest acquisition: Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park.
When their Trinity Broadcasting Network purchased Holy Land for $37 million in June, longtime employees and supporters hoped the takeover would usher in a new era of financial stability for the park. However, once the first family of old-school American televangelism settled in, they began reshaping it.
More than 50 employees — or a quarter of the work force — were fired or laid off. Scores of trees buffering the re-creation of first-century Jerusalem from I-4 traffic were cut down. The cavelike interior of the biblically themed Oasis Café was painted purple. Furnishings left behind by the previous owners were dumped, and then replaced by opulent and expensive new pieces.
Such staff reductions are common in corporate takeovers, and religious organizations are no exception, said Trinity’s attorney, Colby May. (Paul and Jan Crouch declined interview requests from the Orlando Sentinel.)
But for many of the longtime Holy Land workers let go since Trinity took the reins, the Crouches have been more like a wrecking crew. Paul, Jan and their management team have acted like “a cross between the Sopranos and the Beverly Hillbillies,” said Keith Wright, Holy Land’s former security chief.
A gospel of prosperity
Since Holy Land passed into the control of the Crouches, it also has undergone a theological shift — from its founder’s Baptist roots to a branch of Pentecostal Protestantism.
The Crouches are proponents of what is known as the “prosperity gospel.” It is based on the precept of “sacrificial giving by faith,” which encourages followers to donate to their financial limits — and in some cases beyond — believing the contribution will miraculously multiply.
While Baptists, such as Holy Land’s founder, the Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, do not subscribe to the prosperity gospel, the doctrine has worked for Trinity and the Crouches. They drive luxury cars, occupy 30 houses across the country and fly on a 19-seat corporate turbojet — all owned by Trinity.
Trinity Broadcasting Network took in more than $194 million in 2005, mostly from on-air telethons, and spent more than $129 million, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Today, the network’s net assets are estimated at more than $1 billion. Paul Crouch, Sr.’s compensation in 2005 was $419,500; Jan’s was $361,000. That puts the couple among the highest-paid chief executives of religious nonprofits, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
And since the hand-over, the Crouches and their associates say the park is in better financial health.
“Trinity has not only dramatically increased the number of visitors — by more than 30 percent — it has also reduced operating costs by over 20 percent, without a loss of service,” said May, the attorney. “Bottom line, things are working better, and many more people are enjoying Holy Land.
“For better or worse, change is part of life.”
But some recently fired and laid-off employees said in their view the changes at Holy Land have been for the worse. They claim that nearly 100 employees were cut from the payroll. All security, landscaping and custodial services were outsourced as well.
“It was a very tense atmosphere,” said Bonni Lepic, 27, of Orlando, who worked at the park for five years before leaving last month. “If you said something that was taken the wrong way, you were gone the next day.”
A bit of razzle-dazzle
If anyone can turn Holy Land around, it may be Trinity and the Crouches, who are no strangers to show business razzle-dazzle.
The network’s headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif., include a replica of the Via Dolorosa, a street in old Jerusalem believed to be the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion. Their studio in Dallas is a replica of the White House.
In their inaugural broadcast from Holy Land, the couple introduced the park to Trinity Broadcasting Network’s audience. Taping their signature Praise the Lord talk and variety show, 69-year-old Jan was resplendent beneath her blond coif. Frequent tears during her 10-minute appearance caused mascara to run down her cheeks.
“Holy Land Experience is our latest and most recent miracle,” said Paul Crouch, 73. “And we love you with all of our hearts.”
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Such emotional appeals put the spotlight directly on Holy Land.
“We are going to use the marketing power of Trinity to bring individuals not only to our park, but to Orlando as a whole,” Paul Crouch Jr. said earlier this month.
This is not the first time Trinity has taken over a financially ailing entertainment venue.
In 1995, the network purchased the estate of the late country music artist Conway Twitty outside of Nashville. Trinity paid $2.75 million for Twitty City, and spent an additional $10 million turning the spread into a Christian-music entertainment park called Trinity Music City USA. That venture appears to be thriving, according to news reports.
Supporters display their loyalty
Blessed with a virtually unshakable base of loyal supporters, members of the Crouch family have been quintessential survivors, weathering numerous scandals and personal crises in the past three decades.
Trinity and its founders have been the subject of more than a dozen journalistic investigations focusing on their lavish personal lifestyle. None has slowed the network’s growth.
“Within conservative media ministries, criticism from outsiders often is seen as a badge of honor that validates a ministry’s righteousness,” said Quentin Schultze, author of Christianity and the Mass Media in America.
During the televangelism scandals of the 1980s, Paul and Jan Crouch often were confused with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, with whom they were once partners in a ministry called “Praise the Lord.” In fact, the two young couples came to an acrimonious parting of the ways.
Immediate and extended Crouch family members control the boards of all Trinity network entities, including Holy Land. The board arrangement made Trinity ineligible to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a Christian self-regulating group.
Because it has been less than forthcoming about reporting its financial dealings, Trinity was downgraded from a “C” to an “F” this year by the Christian watchdog organization ministrywatch.com.
But that hasn’t shaken their fans and followers.
“The people who watch Trinity are emotionally tied to the Crouches, and they cannot see the reality of the situation,” said Rusty Leonard, founder of ministrywatch.com. “We admire their faith, but we are alarmed at their lack of discernment.”
SIDEDBAR: Holy Land at a glance
Feb. 5, 2001: Holy Land Experience, $16million theme park, opens on 15acres on Conroy Road at I-4, to a barrage of national and international publicity.
Aug. 19, 2002: Scriptorium, $8million, multimedia biblical-antiquities museum opens.
July 20, 2005: Holy Land founder, the Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, steps down as head of the financially troubled park.
June 6, 2006: Gov. Jeb Bush signs a law exempting Holy Land from Orange County property taxes.
June 6, 2007: Trinity Broadcasting Network acquires Holy Land in a $37million deal.
SOURCE: Sentinel research
Sentinel researcher Susan Thompson assisted with this report.
Oct. 21, 2007
Mark I. Pinsky