Skip to main content

Features

The house that Steven built

A Charlotte megachurch pastor’s megamansion raises eyebrows and critical questions

The house that Steven built

OPERATION BUILD: Furtick’s home under construction; Furtick. (House: Charlotte Observer/MCT/Landov; Furtick: Handout)

Charlotte Observer/MCT/Landov

HTB Church

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.”

Warren Cole Smith

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

Comments

  • heartafterGod's picture
    heartafterGod
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    I agree 100% with Neil Evans!

  • Daughter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    My worry is the church's judgment of their own is doing more to harm the Lord's work than a large house ever could. Surely the enemy is enjoying this trend I see in World (see also the article; Signs and wonders: why did pastors accusers back down?...follow the links, special pages > signs and wonders, to find article) We are eating our own.Could World writers take a moment and ponder Acts 5: 33-42. Even the Pharisee Gamaliel had the discernment to tell the accusers to stand down. He counsels, ..."keep away from these men and leave them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!"

  • Tall Family
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    I've heard him preach as a visitor at my home church.  It was sound, biblical preaching and I don't recall him doing any kind of 'dig deep into your pockets" kind of message.   But what do you see when you look at his mansion?  Do you see Jesus or do you see the ways of the world?I don't live in a Christian bubble and I've heard the secular world say countless times that the church, and specifically mega churches, are a means to gain power and wealth.  It hurts and angers me to hear this and for many years I denied it.  But it seems to be happening to Furtick and  to my pastor as well.I don't have all of the facts so please don't read this as me passing judgment.  On the contrary, I am wrought with feelings of anger, confusion and deep sadness at what is going on.  I see this also as a failure on my part to pray for protection for these leaders in the church. This is a sickness in the church that requires us all to get on our knees and pray...

  • Daughter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    ..."do as they say not as they do"? I do not attend Steven's
    church so I must have missed the sermon where he outlined the tenet for the
    maximum square footage allowable for a home. I also must have missed the sermon
    where he required all to take a vow of poverty. Certainly, this was not
    required of Abraham (Genesis 24:34, 35). "Hypocrite"is an ugly accusation for a
    man who faithfully lifts up the name of Jesus to thousands.

  • Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    It is indeed possible for people to hear and respond to Truth from hypocrites. (i.e.: "do as they say, not as they do.")But that does not restrain Jesus from recognizing and describing the hypocrisy of the proud leaders.  Of course this is an important lesson and warning to all who would desire to represent Jesus accurately.

  • Daughter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    What square footage would be considered "spiritual?" Should these books be sold with warning labels?Worse than criticizing Stephen, however, is judging those who have raised a hand to respond to Christ's salvation message and entered the waters of baptism. Having attended "traditional" churches all my life, where at best a handful of unbelievers find Christ every couple years, I am thrilled to see the church finally reaching the lost. If one would like to judge the sincerity of the new converts by their height on your spiritual growth chart, be sure to take your measurement also. Don't forget to factor in the number of years as a believer when doing the math.Come on church, we are better than this. People are perishing, time is short and we are quibbling over square footage. Have you ever heard these young preachers speak? They preach Christ crucified with power and conviction. Put your faith in Christ and the power of His Holy Spirit to nurture the faith that is being born in the hearts of these precious new converts (Ephesians 1:13,14).

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    Do we really believe it's OK to take the "widows mites" and use that money to built an 8,000 sq. ft. mansion for oneself?  People are sacrificing to make a lavish lifestyle possible and maybe even being told:  "If you give money to me God will give money to you."  We have to speak out.  By the way, book sales generated by this type of supply and demand should not be exempt.  It's money generated by a "you need to do this" arm-twisting approach.  

  • Loren
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    "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"How can 11,000 people being baptized by a false prophet be considered "good" by any stretch of that word, or by their twisting of THE Word?

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    What is it about his books that make them such a sensation? Surely he hasn't cornered the market on proclaiming sound Biblical teaching?  Countless men and women through the centuries have received little to no recognition for their service to the King, not because they aren't articulate or charming enough, but because the truth isn't always glamorous. 

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    I kind of agree with Neil.  I think these guys have a lot of "followers" but that doesn't mean the followers are in the Kingdom.  I have worked through my employment with people in similar churches and they are definitely caught up in the glamour of what their churches portray, but they don't have much appetite for servanthood unless they get recognition for it..  I hope I'm not reacting just to the lack of the traditional which feels like "real" church to me.   

  • Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    "Woe to you brood of vipers ... blind leaders of the blind ... white washed sepulchers ..."I am not convinced that the claimed "thousands" are being brought into the real Kingdom of God.  I am very suspicious that they are tragically being blinded by the kingdom of the world.  The natural mind fatally misunderstands "blessing" as Jesus described it in Matthew 5.Ignoring the blessings (of: being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful and pure in heart, and being peacemakers,) these hypocrites claim to be persecuted (but hardly for righteousness sake) and to be reviled falsely (certainly not for representing Jesus accurately).  They surely have their reward, but only temporarily here and not in heaven.  May God graciously rescue them and their followers from their blindness.  May God grant His followers His Grace to accurately and humbly represent His Power to transform our lives.  May God sovereignly open the eyes of observers to see and know His Good News accurately, in spite of the imperfections of His followers.

  • Daughter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (Romans 14:19). These young preachers are bringing many into the Kingdom. Let's not drag down the message by dragging down each other. For a moment I thought I was reading Time or Newsweek.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:11 pm

    Doing good in the world while living modestly has long been a hallmark of the Christian world view.  Living in a nice house is probably not sin but the horrible excesses of some are undermining that message.