"Bishop Bling" is Not Alone - Some US Church Leaders Also Go Astray
October 26, 2013
It brings us no pleasure at all to report that "Bishop Bling" is hardly an isolated situation. Just in the past week we have heard reports on several US church leaders who are engaging in questionable financial activity. These leaders are not the standard prosperity preachers who regularly and intentionally surround themselves with wealth accumulated with donor funds, but rather from more mainstream evangelical churches and ministries. In each case, had donors and church members insisted upon greater financial transparency and good church governance from the start, they would have likely been able to protect these gifted church leaders from falling into the traps we are all susceptible to when success or trials come.
Pastor Steven Furtick
"We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man." 2 Corinthians 8:20-21
In Charlotte, NC, Elevation Church has experienced extremely rapid growth since its founding with the help of the Southern Baptist Convention eight years ago. It now has multiple campuses and about 14,000 members in the Charlotte area, by far the biggest church in the city. Again, however, there is a disturbing lack of financial accountability and transparency. Pastor Steven Furtick has led the church since its beginning and is, by all accounts, an engaging and impressive teacher of the Word. Moreover, the church has generously supported its community in a variety of ways. Recently, however, it became known that Furtick is building a 16,000 square foot, seven bathroom home worth at least $1.7 million for his family of five. While not as expensive as "Bishop Bling's" home, it was opulent enough for observers to wonder where the money came from to purchase such a huge home. Not surprisingly, no one, including local news station investigative reporter Stuart Watson from NBC station WCNC, can get answers regarding the pastor's remuneration from the church and other sources of income he receives. Furtick claims the money for the huge home comes from the undisclosed profits from book sales, but these are essentially underwritten by donors to the church who have provided the funds to obtain Furtick his notoriety. Further, Furtick's compensation is not set by church leadership by a small board of overseers made up of pastors of other churches with whom Furtick regularly has business dealings through conferences they sponsor. Suspicions were only heightened when it was discovered the new home is legally owned by a trust so that Furtick's name would not be on the deed (and perhaps for other reasons among which Furtick claims security as one) and when it was revealed employees and volunteers of the church have to sign a document that included wording restricting them from commenting on church finances. Until this church mends its ways, it will be operating under a cloud of suspicion that will undermine its Christian witness. This is why many churches purposely choose to embrace financial accountability and transparency, including revealing all sources of leadership's income. Elevation would be wise to do so as well. In this case, there is no Pope who can suspend Furtick until a complete investigation is completed. It is up to church members themselves to demand change and we hope they do for the Kingdom's sake.
"Now the overseer is to be above reproach" 1 Timothy 3:2
Historically, gambling has been considered a sin by the church. Christian groups are regularly among the most vocal opponents to lotteries being established in their states or casinos being constructed in their areas. And there is good reason for this concern about gambling as most, if not all, pastors have had to help members of their congregations sort through the rubble of their families' lives as a result of gambling addictions. Casinos are also known to go hand-in-hand with a rise in crime and prostitution. So it was sad to hear from World Magazine that the author of the massively successful "Left Behind" book series and chairman of the Moody Bible Institute's board of directors, Jerry Jenkins, was listed on a public website highlighting winnings from poker tournaments taking place in at least two casinos. Moreover, Jenkins has one son who serves as media director of Harvest Bible Fellowship based in Chicago who is also listed on the site, and has another son who is actually employed as a dealer at a casino. According to the interview in World Magazine, Jenkins claims his poker is a simply a hobby involving relatively small amounts of money. While a recent policy change allows gambling (as well as drinking and smoking) by Moody Bible Institute's directors, students of the institute are banned from these practices. It may be that Jenkins' activity is minor and not at all addictive for him, but who can know for sure? Even if his gambling hobby is just that, it still is disappointing to see a church and ministry leader engaging in a hobby that has led so many families to ruin. Would Jenkins not be a better witness for Christ if he took the small amounts of money he purportedly gambles and gave them to ministries that are helping the poor and needy? What he considers a "small amount of money" would no doubt be a huge blessing to those far less fortunate than himself. There are no shortage of ministries helping the poor to be found at www.MinistryWatch.com. Would it not be best for the both him and the cause of Christ for him to never frequent a casino again? Is frequenting a casino wise stewardship of the wealth the Lord entrusted to him? By going there, is he helping sustain an organization proven to bring ruin to the lives of many, including innocent family members of those addicted to gambling? By his own admission, he has stopped going to a casino near Chicago in order to not bring harm to Moody's reputation. Why not just stop altogether? And why not hold the Moody board accountable in the same manner as are Moody students? Moreover, with his wealth and position, Mr. Jenkins may be lacking in effective accountability himself, which is an environment where a "hobby" could turn out to be the first step on a slippery slope into bigger personal problems. We hope donors to Moody Bible Institute will make their voice known on this subject, demand the recent changes allowing board members to gamble be reversed and potentially save Mr. Jenkins and his family from future heartache. Other than this blemish, we have no reason to believe Jenkins' life is not above reproach. Hopefully, he will now choose to eradicate even this small blemish so that no one would question his work or the work of Jesus in his life.
Pastor James MacDonald
"So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" 1 Corinthians 10:12
One of Jenkins' gambling buddies was apparently Pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Fellowship. After coming under fire for his poker playing, Pastor MacDonald made the wise choice to give up gambling as of 2012. Unfortunately, Pastor MacDonald is facing other problems in his congregation at the moment. His megachurch has been bleeding members in recent years as past financial excesses have come home to roost. His churches currently carry more than $56 million in debt which may be hard to service and ultimately pay off if attendance keeps dwindling. Sadly, many church members have left because a lack of financial accountability at the church. A blog going by the name of "The Elephant Debt" has chronicled the questionable financial activity of Harvest Bible Fellowship and Pastor MacDonald's reported $500,000 salary. Elders who asked for an accounting of the church's finances were denied access and rebuked with a threat of removal from the elder board. Two elders were even excommunicated for reportedly questioning the church's finances. In light of this reaction, it is not too hard to imagine there may be something in the church's finances that is unpleasant. Members of the church should insist on full financial accountability and transparency immediately so the church's reputation can be restored and the flight of members can be reversed. Church members could have spared Pastor MacDonald the temptations of wealth by instituting from the start proper church governance that would not have allowed the pastor to amass such an unhealthy degree of power and influence in the church. It is time for church members to get a full accounting and for church leadership to take any remedial action required.