Money, Media & a Megapastor’s Megahouse

Money, Media & a Megapastor’s Megahouse

December 2, 2013 by

Steven Furtick is the pastor of the nearly 12,000-strong Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. He’s the author of the bestsellers Greater and Sun Stand Still. But lately what’s been making headlines isn’t his church or his books, it’s his house. The resulting media storm raises questions of money, integrity and transparency—as well as plenty of lessons for your church.

The Story
NBC Charlotte started the investigation, which included flying a helicopter over Furtick’s secluded home to take a peek. What they found is a $1.4 million, 16,000-square-foot home. They also raised questions about Furtick’s undisclosed salary: his own congregation doesn’t know how much they pay him, nor does the congregation have a say in the salary. It’s determined by a board of other megachurch pastors. There were more questions about Elevation’s finances, which aren’t completely disclosed to the congregation. The lack of transparency raises even more questions, but we’ll spare you the details.

The Preliminaries
First up, let’s dismiss the distractions. We’re not here to lynch Furtick or Elevation, but we’re not here to pardon them either. We want to find lessons to help other churches.

We’re also not here to pass judgment on Furtick’s house. A Christian with a giant house? Gasp. Everyone has their opinions about how high-profile Christians spend their money. That’s nothing new. But it’s not the issue we want to talk about.

3 Lessons on Money & Media:

1. Talking About Money Sucks
It’s hard to talk about money. People take it personally. They’re easily offended. You have to be so careful. Whenever your church talks about money, tread lightly. Give yourself more time to make sure the copy won’t be misconstrued. It can also help to keep avenues for conversation open. Welcome questions, concerns or complaints.

2. The Media Is Not the Enemy
The best thing Furtick did in this whole story was to defuse any tension with the media.

“This is a news story and the media is not our enemy,” Furtick told his congregation, after apologizing for the controversy. “They have the right to run any story they choose to run and people have the right to have any opinion they choose to have. That’s OK.”

It’s refreshing to a see a pastor in the hot seat not lash out at the critics. It’s legitimate to ask questions like these, and it’s important for pastors and churches in similar situations not to blame it on the media. The media is going to look for a story. If things aren’t completely transparent, you’re giving them a story. Don’t pick a fight about it. Deal with it.

3. Be Transparent
Churches, more than any other organization, need to go above and beyond to prove their finances are ethical. The irregularities and apparent lack of transparency at Elevation Church simply invite questions. Maybe they have good answers to all those questions, but it’s hard to tell without total transparency.

Churches need to approach money with integrity, transparency and accountability. It’s the only way. Don’t hide numbers behind slick annual reports. Don’t expect people to trust that you have integrity, prove it with transparency and accountability. Include the footnotes that show your work. Anticipate questions and put people at ease.

Photo by FunnyBiz. And no, that's not Steven's house. We don't have a helicopter.
Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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10 Responses to “Money, Media & a Megapastor’s Megahouse”

  • Christian
    December 2, 2013

    “It’s refreshing to a see a pastor in the hot seat not lash out at the critics.”

    Let’s not be too laudatory; Furtick might have said the right thing in one case, but he mishandled nearly every other step along the way.

    What’s missing here is an important—if difficult—discussion about handling crisis communication and big personalities. When things go this wrong, who’s the person in a church who can stand up to the big personality and say, frankly, “You need to go.” The best communication in the world can’t overcome the outsized problem of a leader with a tainted reputation.

    (Speaking of tainted reputations: Is CMS going to cover the death of Paul Crouch of TBN?)

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      December 2, 2013

      Christian, I think the “tainted reputation” of Steven Furtick is probably up for debate (not that I’m inviting that debate). Doesn’t seem like his congregation sees it that way.

      And I’m not sure I can bring myself to cover TBN. ;-) Seriously though, we generally stick to local church marketing. Might be an angle with Paul Crouch’s broadcaster past, but I’m not sure we’ll want to go there.

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  • Paul Prins
    December 2, 2013

    While it has been interesting watching the community respond to this story in particular it raising a different question for me. Juxtaposing the response that the Pope is receiving for his approach to worldly things with that of the response to Furtick.

    It isn’t that as christian leaders we cannot have nice things, it is just a question of living above reproach. I wonder why there isn’t greater transparency for the pastor here. If he has made a couple million on his books I think the outrage would be far less then if he was creating his secluded palace away from his flock. When becoming a leader we accept a greater number of eyes and critical voices looking at us. I believe that our pastors are examples for us to emulate and follow. It is hard to follow someone who lives in the shadows. Because of this I don’t see this is a simply a transparency issue, but a cultural/expectation issue where those outside of his church seem to expect different things from religious leaders.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      December 3, 2013

      I wonder if it’s possible to live above reproach in today’s world. ;-)

      Everyone pries and has their own opinion and is more than willing to share it. And who’s reproach do you have to worry about? Haters are going to hate.

      But I do agree that transparency seems to be the bigger issue here. A lot of this wouldn’t be an issue if they simply disclosed things.

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  • Dave Shrein
    December 3, 2013

    This is a little bit more practical than it is theoretical, but I think it still applies to the conversation as a whole.

    I have struggled with how much pastors should make from their congregation. (this does not include book sales, although I think Rick Warren is a good lead to follow).

    Someone shared that they believe it is reasonable that a pastor make the median salary for the area he is pastoring. So, while a pastor in Beverly Hills may make well over six figures, if it is within that median income and enables the pastor to live where he is doing work, then it is a reasonable salary.

    This, of course, isn’t anything hard or rigid, but rather, I believe it makes sense given all of the unique living expenses throughout the globe. I personally have adopted this philosophy until I hear something better.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      December 3, 2013

      I don’t think it’s an issue of how much money a pastor makes. That’s what everyone gets riled up about, but whatever. People always freak out about that. I think the bigger issue is the lack of transparency. I think the fact that congregation doesn’t know and doesn’t control his salary is kind of weird. Pair that kind of set up with an extravagant house and you’re going to get lots of questions.

      Another interesting question here is the internal vs. external response, which is kind of getting at your comment, Dave. You’re saying a salary should fit in with the locals. From what I’ve seen, it seems like Elevation’s approach is fitting in with their locals, i.e., their own congregation. They seem to be rallying around their pastor. But it’s grating with the external community.

      As a church that’s so focused on outreach, and rightly so, I wonder how that works. So much of what Elevation does is about reaching out to people. But here’s a case where how they operate is causing problems with the people they reach out to. Now maybe the people freaking out about this would never come to Elevation anyway so it doesn’t matter, but it seems like an interesting question.

      I wonder what they gain from the lack of transparency that makes it worth the potential alienation of the people they want to reach?

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  • Chris
    December 3, 2013

    These are heart issues and I think if we communicated that it would be better in the long run for both sides.

    People cry for “transparency” when it’s really a way to get into someones business and see if it’s “approved” by those crying “transparency”. “Let us see what you make and we will tell you if its ok.” Well gee, thanks. Can I do that for you as well?

    People want “control”. People want to know who’s “controlling” what “X” person gets paid then that gives those people a chance to say “Oh well its ok” or “Oh well I don’t like them so its too much”.

    Do we trust these other Christian family members to take care of this in a way that glorifies Christ?
    Do we pile on and rip on them for not handling it well?
    Do we debate on “whats the right amount a pastor should be paid” endlessly?
    Do we use this as a way to learn something about ourselves and how we could avoid these problems for ourselves in our future and pray for Christ to be glorified through this situation?

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      December 3, 2013

      I get the importance of not ripping each other apart, and that’s why I tried not to make this an indictment of Steven Furtick or focused on how much his house costs.

      But I think transparency is important. That’s why nonprofits are required to make some tax forms public. That’s how we have some checks and balances to make sure no one is committing fraud. The church has a sad history of financial mismanagement that makes that transparency necessary (going back to Acts).

      I don’t think ‘transparency’ is an excuse to stick our nose where it doesn’t belong. I think it’s an important measure of accountability.

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  • Steven Fogg
    December 4, 2013

    This is a really interesting story. Thanks Kevin for writing it.

    Perception is everything when it comes to communications. The signals we send by how we live are just as important as any vocal response we give.

    I don’t know about the context of the area where Pastor Steven lives, but in Australia here we only see houses like that in the richest of rich neighbourhoods. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation.

    That plus the fact that Elevation Church manages their church the way they do leaves room for unresolved questions which the media love.

    For his internal audience I’m sure his response was fine, but for those from the outside the church who are either neutrally postured towards the church they need to do more to ‘prove’ their stewardship. It’s a shame, but that is the reality.

    Words like ‘independently audited accounts’, governance policies, comply with the national non-profit standards (If the US has one) help send a message of reassurance.

    Again, I want to stress that I’m not having a crack at Elevation, Pastor Steven or their staff, if I was in the Communications chair there I would be very ‘noisy’ right now.

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  • Marcus A. Cylar
    May 4, 2016

    Thanks, Kevin, for this article, which I’m just reading for the first time because of your link to it from your recent book on quitting (which is very good, by the way–I plan to leave a review shortly). I only became familiar with Elevation Church in the second half of 2015, so I don’t have much context for this story other than what you’ve written. What I do know is that they published an annual report early this year on their website, disclosing their 2015 revenue, where it came from, and how it was used. I do recall seeing an amount raised that was well into eight figures, but don’t remember seeing a pastor’s salary line item. For what they bring in, though, I honestly wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if he was pulling in $1M/yr. But that’s just me speculating.

    Is this a new practice for them, or have they published their annual reports in the past, too? Was the angst here over the fact that the church’s finances in general weren’t publicized, or was it simply that Furtick’s salary in particular wasn’t? I know CEO’s salaries are typically made public, but that’s only because they head public companies. The burden to disclose only falls upon public companies or churches within denominations that require it.

    I’m certainly all for transparency and accountability, but my only issue here is it appears the only reason these two words even come up is because we believe Pastor Furtick’s house is too big. If the house were a quarter or even half this size, would we even have had a conversation about transparency? It seems like pastors (and maybe teachers) are the only professionals in the world for whom we the general public has a preconceived notion of just how much they should be making, and if that unwritten mark is exceeded, public outcry is soon to ensue.

    I wish this was an issue on which we in the body of Christ could achieve unity. This is definitely a church communications issue we should try to attack together, once and for all.

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