POSTED ON OCTOBER 17, 2007:
Lifestyles of the Rich Evangelists
In wake of former ORU professors' suit against Richard Roberts, an inventory of the way some churches handle fiduciary responsibility
Doing God's Work? When there isn't that accountability it becomes easier for pastors and flocks alike to rationalize a charismatic leader's self-indulgence at the expense of followers, says Asbury United Methodist pastor Tom Harrison.
You don't have to be a Christian to relate to the biblical story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.
According to the Gospel writers' accounts, before the launch of his career as the Savior of the World, the young rabbi from Nazareth got a motivation check from his archrival for the souls of humanity.
"The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 'All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me,'" the Tempter told him.
As we all know, Jesus rather forcefully declined the offer and went on to teach and model a way of life that eschewed the popular thinking of the day, which was that wealth and worldly means are proof of God's approval and favor: "If you're rich, God must like you; if you're poor, he must not," they reasoned.
Instead, he taught that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Fast-forwarding 2,000 years, some Christians and Christian leaders are taking their chances on that being either a really small camel or a huge needle Jesus was talking about.
Christianity is big business in some corners. There are mega-millions to be made if a preacher has the talent and charisma to make it big in the world of mega-churches, and it's hard not to envy and covet the bling-bling, cash, benefits and influence enjoyed by high-rolling holy rollers like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn and others who act as the public faces of Christianity.
With the lure of power and wealth so conspicuous for those lucky, clever or "blessed" with enough charisma and believers to carry themselves on the throne of a religious empire, it's easy to take recent allegations against Oral Roberts University President Richard Roberts as, well, gospel.
According to the lawsuit against the heir of the Roberts dynasty by former professors Drs. Tim and Paulita Brooker and Dr. John Swails, on top of allegedly using the university as a tool to serve his own personal political preferences by appointing himself as a local would-be king-maker, he also fired the plaintiffs in retaliation for giving the school's Board of Regents a report documenting "substantial acts of misconduct and improprieties" in the use of ORU and Oral Roberts Ministries' resources by Roberts and his family.
A summary of that report is included in the lawsuit, sans "some of the more salacious entries," documenting numerous instances in which the Roberts family helped themselves to various benefits at the expense of ORU/ORM, essentially using school and ministry resources as their own personal bank account, and they allegedly threatened to fire anyone with anything bad to say about it.
The list of the perks they reportedly claimed include: using the housing benefits from the university to remodel their home 11 times in the past 14 years and furnishing it with high-end appliances and furniture; using the university jet for vacations, at least one of which cost almost $30,000, billed to the school as an "Evangelistic function of the President"; sending university security personnel on personal errands for the family; maintaining a private stable on ORU/ORM property at the university's expense; disbursing scholarships to academically and financially unqualified friends; and hiring a professional chef to prepare meals for the family at the expense of the ministry's television cost center.
On and on and on, the report goes.
Roberts has denied the accusations, both to local news outlets and on CNN's Larry King Live, but if the allegations are true, it's obviously not the first time the head of a business has helped himself to some perks, and it's by far not the first time a religious leader has indulged himself at the expense of his followers.
All the way back in the Old Testament an account is given of the two "wicked sons of Eli the priest," who were eventually struck down by God for greedily helping themselves to the lion's share of the sacrifices and for using their priestly influence to seduce women who came to worship.
Among a veritable rogues' gallery of modern examples is TV evangelist and self-proclaimed healer Benny Hinn, who is infamous for amassing a vast personal fortune from the "love gifts" of credulous supporters of his dubious "ministry" of supernaturally "healing" people with otherwise incurable disabilities and terminal illnesses--healings that are, by an overwhelming number of accounts, fake.
By Whose Authority Do You Do These Things?
As both ancient and more recent history teach, the fear of God and the love of man aren't always enough for spiritual shepherds to ward off the temptation to cash in their sheep's tithes and trust for worldly riches, thereby accepting the devil's deal for "the kingdoms of the world and their splendor."
Given the considerable and conspicuous waves they create in the news media when they fall from that "very high mountain," it might look to the world like religious leaders yield to that temptation more often than not.
"There's another crooked Bible-thumper who's just in it for the money," people often say when such scandals are exposed.
According to most local church leaders, though, greedy, money-grubbing evangelists are the exception, not the norm.
"For every Benny Hinn out there, there are 100 people in little country churches making a meager living. Most pastors in most churches make a very meager living," said Deron Spoo, pastor of downtown Tulsa's First Baptist Church.
Jim Parris, associate pastor of Tulsa's Fellowship Bible Church, concurred.
He said he's known numerous church leaders, especially in rural areas, whose time is divided between their pastoral duties and their paying jobs.
"There's a great deal of volunteer ministry. It's a pretty common phenomenon for rural pastors to be bi-vocational. We've got people there for the calling, not the perks," said Parris.
But even in thriving urban and suburban churches that can more than afford to pay full-time pastors, assistant pastors, youth pastors, musicians, administrators and other staff, the front men of those churches aren't driving home from Sunday services in Italian sports cars to swim in piles of money collected from the hundreds or thousands of churchgoers filling their pews.
Compared to the aforementioned evangelical moguls, Spoo himself lives pretty modestly, despite the $3.5 million annual budget his church has at its disposal.
He estimated that the average church in America today has 70 members and a pastor who makes $40,000 a year--hardly a life of luxury lived on the backs of poor widows who put their last penny in the offering plate.
On the other hand, Simeon May of the National Association of Church Business Administration, said, according to a recent survey conducted by his organization of 884 member churches, the average pastor's yearly salary is $101,000, and the median salary is $94,900, with an average weekend attendance at their church of 1,171.
According to other surveys, in churches with members numbering 299 or fewer, the average pastor's salary is $66,600 a year.
For churches with 300-699 members, pastors make an average $86,500 a year.
For 700-1,499-member churches, they make $102,100; and for 1,500 or more, they typically make $126,600.
Despite the apparent discrepancy between his figures and Spoo's, May said the pastor made a pretty accurate ballpark estimate.
"The thing that's different is that we don't take that many smaller churches into consideration, which he probably did," May said.
He said the NACBA only surveys member churches and, "It takes a pretty good-sized church to have a church administrator."
All that only speaks to the income pastors earn above the table, though. It doesn't speak to what liberties they might be taking with other resources.
Built-In Checks and Balances
But, even with such a fortune flowing through his church's coffers, Spoo still doesn't get to help himself to the innumerable perks that money could potentially buy.
"I've isolated myself from the financial aspects of the church. I don't have the combo to the safe. I can't even sign a check," he said.
The only money he exercises any control over is his personal income, which is set by an independent committee drawn from his church's 54 deacons, who use a handbook published by the aforementioned NACBA to set his and other church employees' salaries.
Rather than Spoo exercising any direct control over the finances of First Baptist Church, an operations manager and treasurer are jointly responsible for directing the money flow, and they're pretty frugal in how they do it, he explained.
At the church's regular finance meeting, he said the treasurer routinely brings up "30 or so items" on the expenditure list that are "out of the ordinary," asking for an explanation/justification from the responsible party.
An example of an "out of the ordinary" expenditure would be $8,000 spent on a recent youth retreat.
"If somebody goes over-budget, they're held accountable. It's done in a loving way, but they're held accountable," Spoo said.
"The litmus test is--Could I get up in front of the whole church and say, 'I spent $50 on this.'?" he added.
On top of holding each other and the rest of the church's staff accountable for responsible spending, the ops manager and treasurer also issue monthly financial statements accessible by any member of the church.
They're also accountable to the deacons, who also collectively decide who stays on staff, who goes and why, and are themselves answerable to the congregation for how they exercise that authority.
In other words, even if he wanted to, Spoo couldn't fire a church employee at will, unlike the front men of some other Christian ministries. So, the chances are pretty remote of him getting his hands on all that money by leaning on the treasurer or operations manager, threatening, "Sign this check, or else..."
He said First Baptist's system of checks and balances and financial accountability is "pretty typical" of a Southern Baptist church, but it's not dictated by the denomination.
However, many denominations do lay down firm rules for how the finances of member churches are to be managed, who can manage them, and how they're held accountable.
"That's part of the advantage of being in a denomination," said Tom Harrison, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church.
"Not that there aren't also disadvantages, but that's definitely one of the advantages: there are checks and balances and nepotism policies in place that govern our life," he added.
The United Methodist Church's organizational structure and financial accountability measures are outlined in its "Book of Discipline," the purpose of which is the same effect seen in Spoo's church of preventing any one person from taking control of the organization's resources, turning it into a personal empire.
"We have a very thorough process, and we're audited regularly. We have all these boards and committees within Asbury and within the denomination," explained Harrison.
Even in some of the more non-traditional arrangements of church organization, they still take a few cues from the Baptists, Methodists and other denominations with their long-standing systems of checks and balances.
It doesn't get more non-traditional than the setup of Life Church TV.
Since its start in 1996 as a small gathering of Christians in a rented dance studio in Edmond, it has since grown into 12 campuses spanning six states, including one in Tulsa, Stillwater, three in Oklahoma City, its original congregation in Edmond, and others in Florida, New York, Tennessee and Texas.
"One Church, Multiple Locations" is the church's marketing slogan.
Despite the distance separating its dozen congregations, founding Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel still provides the spiritual leadership for the entire organization by taking the "televangist"-niche to a new level, preaching via video each week before his flock of about 20,000.
He also gets his message out through web casting and TV broadcasts.
Cathi Lynch, Life Church TV's Central Group Leader over Financial Operations, said they received $30 million last year in offerings, with $27 million in expenses.
If those numbers are any measure of success, Groeschel is among the most wildly successful preachers in the world.
(Of course, that only speaks to his success from a business standpoint. From a spiritual standpoint, many would argue, his success might not be so easily measured.)
That doesn't mean he or other pastors under his wing are living the high life (from a material standpoint, that is).
"We don't have private jets and nobody drives a Mercedes," said Chris Johnson, pastor of Life Church TV's Tulsa campus.
Instead, he and his wife each drive Honda Accords--the 2002 and 1997 models, respectively.
"We're all pretty down to earth. I'm not starving to death, but I'm not raking in the money," said Johnson.
Lynch explained that a four-person board of church members set salaries, based on the recommendations of an independent consultant.
The people comprising the board, she said, are not themselves employees of the church, but typically have some background and expertise in business and human resources.
But, the founding pastor's goal is to remove himself from that process.
"Craig's actually working toward the church not paying him anything, and all of his resources are already free," said Johnson, explaining that "we have thousands of churches who use his resources for free."
Also, Lynch said all expenditures by any church employee must be submitted to a request and approval process, applied by a five-member finance board.
"Craig doesn't even have access to the check book," she said.
"When Craig goes somewhere, we carpool and share hotel rooms," said Johnson.
"We take the issue of using donated assets for personal use very seriously," added Lynch.
The reason being "we get hit so hard with things anyway, and misuse of money is just another hurdle for us to reach non-churched people," said Johnson.
"I've been doing ministry for 20 years now," he continued.
"A pastor shouldn't starve, but if I'm doing this for the money, I can go do something else," the pastor said.
Concerning the accountability measures in use at Asbury, Harrison said, "I'm not saying our way is the 'right way,' but it really scares me--the folks that don't have that, when the pastor runs the whole show."
When there isn't that accountability, he said, it becomes easier for pastors and flocks alike to rationalize a charismatic leader's self-indulgence at the expense of followers.
"We all rationalize things, but in the Church we're more likely to layer a spiritual context over things," he said.
As a specific example of such rationalization, the pastor from Fellowship Bible Church pointed to the teachings of popular televangist and author Joel Osteen.
Osteen is known as the "Smiling Preacher" and leads the enormous Houston-based Lakewood Church, which is the largest mega-church in the nation.
Critics regard him as the embodiment and poster boy of the so-called "prosperity gospel."
He teaches that, as "God's children," Christians should rightfully expect to prosper materially, and that material prosperity is included in the "ticket price to heaven," purchased with Christ's death on the cross.
Parris is among many who apply the term "Christianity Lite" to Osteen's teachings, arguing that his preoccupation with material possessions stands in stark contrast to the self-denial and sacrifice taught and modeled by Christ himself.
Asbury's head shepherd noted that Osteen happened to have delivered ORU's commencement speech in May, and said, "ORU has pulled away from developing relationships with mainline denominations in recent years" in favor of emphasis on teachings more aligned with the so-called "prosperity gospel."
Harrison, who is an ORU graduate, said, "You used to be able to go as a United Methodist and other denominations, but that's no longer the case."
"I love ORU. I met my wife there," he said, but added that the recent allegations against Roberts "gives Christianity a huge black eye, if there's merit to this, and I hope there's not."
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