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CHARLOTTE, N.C.—By the numbers, Steven Furtick and his Charlotte, N.C., megachurch, Elevation, are roaring successes. More than 14,000 people attend Elevation’s six campuses each weekend. The budget for the church will likely top $25 million this year. Most significantly, the church says it has baptized more than 11,000 people since it began in 2006.
The problem, though, is that the good Elevation and churches like it do may be undone by financial and organizational controversies.
One involves lifestyle. When a local TV news reporter started looking into the details of a new home being built by Furtick, the Elevation pastor launched what he thought would be a pre-emptive strike against what he anticipated would be a negative story. During a service he told his congregation the station had flown a helicopter over the house, suggesting the helicopter was an excessive measure since “it isn’t even that big a house, really.”
But then the truth started coming out. Furtick’s house will be more than 8,500 square feet of heated space, with nearly that many more feet of porches, pavilions, and garages. It has five bedrooms and seven bathrooms. The station needed a helicopter because the house sits on a 19-acre lot surrounded by gated communities and similarly sized mansions, posted with no trespassing signs: A helicopter is the only way to get close enough to see it.
Neither Furtick nor Elevation Church spokesperson Tonia Bendickson would discuss the house or Elevation salaries—but the limited information available provides a glimpse into not just Elevation’s finances but also some organizational and financial trends likely to harm Christian witness in a secular world ready to pounce. (In November a federal judge in Wisconsin struck down a law that gives clergy tax-free housing allowances, a ruling that could have wider ramifications.)
Elevation, for example, has neither deacons nor elders. Furtick’s salary is set by a Board of Overseers made up of other megachurch pastors. According to Elevation’s 2011 Annual Report, the board includes “Pastor Dino Rizzo (Healing Place Church—Baton Rouge, LA), Dr. Jack Graham (Prestonwood Baptist Church—Plano, TX), Pastor Perry Noble (Newspring Church—Anderson, SC), Pastor Kevin Gerald (Champions Centre—Seattle, WA), Pastor Stovall Weems (Celebration Church—Jacksonville, FL.), [and] Pastor Steven also serves on the Board, but does not vote on his salary.”
Many of these pastors have similar compensation arrangements, and some are engaged in questionable behavior of their own. Dino Rizzo, for example, resigned as pastor of Healing Place Church in 2012 after an inappropriate relationship with a female friend. Weems, Noble, and Gerald all were paid speakers at Elevation Church’s Code Orange event that drew thousands to the church and tens of thousands to an internet simulcast.
One thing no one disputes is Furtick’s media savvy. In 2009 he posed for a “style file” article in The Charlotte Observer fashion section. According to the article, “Steven Furtick’s accessories include Robert Wayne leather boots, a Diesel watch, and custom jewelry.” Regular features in the local media earned Furtick the nickname “the peacock of the pulpit.”
In the aftermath of the controversies regarding his home, though, he has refused media interviews, including repeated requests from WORLD. Several years ago, though, before Furtick’s media blackout and before his rise to what radio talk show host and church watchdog Chris Rosebrough calls “rock star” status, I sat down with Furtick for an hour-long interview in which he talked about a “staff-led church,” one with no deacons, elders, or independent accountability.
He answered my questions then about a lack of oversight by describing the intimate relationship he had with his then small staff, a relationship characterized by “openness and accountability.” Today, however, Elevation’s staff totals more than 100 people, and the payroll is approximately $8 million.
Furtick’s claim that his multimillion-dollar mansion is paid for by book and speaking fees and not his church salary is plausible, but impossible to verify. Even if true, it raises ethical questions. Should Furtick keep money from books sold in the church’s bookstore, promoted in sermon series from the church’s pulpit, and promoted by the church’s television broadcasts?
MinistryWatch’s Rusty Leonard says no: “Pastor Furtick could not sell books and earn royalties if donors to his church did not provide the financial resources to allow him to purchase the notoriety needed to sell his books.” Leonard says Billy Graham and Charles Colson, who “always had their book royalties go directly to their ministries and not into their own pockets”—provided good examples for other Christian leaders to follow.
John Piper also follows this pattern. Piper, the recently retired pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and author of more than 20 books, formed the Desiring God Foundation in 2001 and transferred all intellectual property from his books to the foundation. All of Piper’s royalties and speaking engagement fees go into this foundation.
Furtick and Elevation have numerous advocates. All the money in the church’s $25 million budget came from thousands of willing donors, and the church claimed to give away about 12 percent of its 2012 budget—about $2.5 million—in “outreach” activities. But that number is not independently verifiable, and some of the money Elevation says it gives away appears to have been to Elevation’s own expansion efforts.
Furtick, for his part, remains unbowed. In November the church launched a campaign highlighting the stories of lives the church claims to have changed, and in a 2008 sermon posted on the Elevation Church website, Furtick said, “We’ve got to become more comfortable with controversy. We’ve learned how to tolerate it and move past it. Now it’s time for us to learn to view it as a gift, and use it to our advantage. Controversy is a precursor to promotion, and a training ground for greater things.”