Joel Osteen, a celebrity preacher of the country’s biggest megachurches, will refund $4.4 million in COVID-19 catastrophe loans intended for small firms in PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans.

In December 2020, the church’s expenditures were scrutinized—Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, has 368 full-time and part-time staffers, making it the country’s most prominent megachurch.

Some civil liberties groups questioned the big payouts, believing that churches should be fiscally independent of government plans, the New York Post reported.

Shutting down in-person service during COVID-19 resulted in a revenue loss, said Lakewood officials.

In response to the Houston Chronicle, Lakewood backed its choice to ask help from the Paycheck Protection Program, insisting that neither Osteen nor his wife received any of the payment.

“Like many organizations temporarily shuttered by the pandemic, this loan provided Lakewood Church short-term financial assistance in 2020 ensuring that its approximately 350 employees and their families would continue to receive a paycheck and full health care benefits,” a church spokesperson said on Friday, October 8.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person services were halted from March 15 to October 18 and affected “its ability to collect substantial donations during those services,” according to spokesman Donald Iloff, reports the New York Post.

“It is important to note that, since 2004, Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen have not received salaries from Lakewood Church, and the PPP funds do not provide any personal financial benefit to them, whatsoever,” he went on to say.

Osteen’s sermons are reported to be worth $100 million, based on their popularity over the world. After his father, founding pastor John Osteen, died in 1999, he assumed leadership of Lakewood Church.

Under the $525 billion project, which terminated in August, the Small Business Administration claimed more than 5 million loans were authorized.

Thousands of churches and other religious groups, as well as independent institutions, were among the beneficiaries.

According to the Houston Business Journal, around 1,500 religious institutions in the Houston region were accepted for PPP loans, with 20 getting over $1 million.

Shake Shack, news website Axios, and more than a dozen publicly traded businesses are among the enterprises that have returned PPP loans, which were intended to help small companies stay afloat.

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