Highlighting Some of the Key Issues With Pastor Steven Furtick's $1.7 Million Home
Financial Accountability and Transparency, Along With Church Governance, Are the Problem
November 2, 2013
"Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'" Hebrews 13:5 (NIV)
Pastor Steven Furtick's construction of a new $1.7 million home as well as his and his congregation's first response to the controversy, continues to attract scrutiny from the press and the general public. As a result, we were recently interviewed by the Charlotte reporter who broke the story on Pastor Furtick's home. As is typical in any interview, time constraints mean you never quite say everything you would have liked to, you don't always say things exactly the way you wanted to say them and you don't always directly answer the questions asked because you go off on a related important aspect of the situation while never getting back to the main point. So here are more in-depth thoughts regarding this story which we hope will help readers to better understand the often hard to understand key issues. Pastors can take advantage of general congregational ignorance of these points in order to appear like they are operating with integrity when they are not. These comments will also be relevant to those struggling with financial accountability issues in other churches. Additionally we offer some preliminary thoughts on what Elevation and Furtick need to do to get this mess straightened out:
1.) Dealing with situations like this is hard for everyone involved. MinistryWatch.com is saddened by this development. We take no joy in having to analyze this situation and have only done so because we have been asked and because the issues are important. Normally, we focus on parachurch Christian ministries. We feel badly for Elevation Church members, for Pastor Furtick and his family and for the church at large, which also suffers when a prominent leader makes a high profile mistake. Sadly, unbelievers also are negatively impacted when a Christian leader acts in a manner such as this as it helps them to more easily justify their skepticism. Moreover, we are all sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God. Pastor Furtick's mistakes are just more visible than any of ours. Speaking the truth in love is not easy in this or any similar situation as we at MinsitryWatch.com have learned over our 15 years of existence. Frankly, we don't even like doing it, but we believe we have been called to do so. While it is never fun, we know good can come from this and the Lord can be glorified if corrective actions are taken.
We hope the end result of this episode includes:
a.) Pastor Furtick backing out of this new home purchase and buying a very nice, but far less extravagant, home so he will not be a stumbling block to anyone's faith. Even if he has obtained the funds for the larger house in a completely legitimate manner, it would be wise for him not to move into this unusually large home.
b.) Elevation Church members calling for and seeing completed a comprehensive investigation into the finances of the church as well as related entities.
c.) Elevation Church embracing financial transparency and Biblically-based church governance principles so that such failings can be avoided in the future.
d.) Elevation Church members appropriately disciplining Pastor Furtick if transgressions are found and eventually restoring him to ministry, while acknowledging their own complicity in allowing Pastor Furtick to go astray by failing to provide the proper accountability that every human being/sinner needs.
2.) Admitting the truth in these situations is hard for all those involved to do. Unfortunately, if history is an accurate guide, Pastor Furtick and Elevation Church members will likely not face the truth because it is much easier to ignore it than deal with it. Initial indications also suggest there is currently little hope for a favorable outcome. Pastor Furtick addressed the congregation last weekend about this controversy, but either avoided the real issues or distorted the facts. He stated he had committed to creating a "ministry of integrity" when he started Elevation. While Elevation Church may have lived up to that standard in many aspects of its operations, it is clearly comes up well short with regard to is financial transparency and church governance. This is a fact which cannot be avoided no matter what Pastor Furtick claims to the contrary or what the congregation wishes to believe. The church does not maintain high standards of integrity in financial accountability and transparency. Pastor Furtick also mentioned the church is audited each year and members are able to view the audited income statement and balance sheet. Indeed this information is easily available for anyone to see but Pastor Furtick deceived his congregation by suggesting the availability of this information confirmed his integrity. Unfortunately, what is available falls below a standard of integrity as it leaves members of the church in the dark on many key issues, not the least of which is compensation. Consider the following:
a.) The full audited financial statements of the church should be made available, not just selected portions of the audit. Important elements containing key information are contained in the notes to the audited financial statements. If any financial misconduct is going on, evidence of it may be revealed in the notes (particularly the note on "Related Party Transactions"), but it could be easily covered up in the data the church has released so far. Full audits, including the notes, are the standard of financial transparency required by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) as well as for public companies and many government entities. It is the norm, not the exception. It is odd a church the size of Elevation would not make this information fully available and this does not reflect the commitment to integrity Pastor Furtick made to his congregation. Indeed, it only raises suspicions when a church will not come clean with all of its financial data, particularly when there appear to be many related entities in which financial misdeeds could be hidden.
b.) Elevation should be willing to make its full audited financial statement available to anyone who asks for it, not just church members. If the church wants to maintain a reputation of integrity in the community, it should have no issue with anyone being able to review its finances. Clearly, given the size and influence of Elevation, it would be reasonable for outsiders to want to know that nothing untoward is going on at the church. Such transparency is a fair exchange with society for the tax free status the church enjoys. Moreover, financial transparency is a strong testimony to those who lack faith in the church because of the many transgressions in the body of Christ in this area over the years. If Elevation really wants to win souls, and clearly it does, why let this issue get in the way? It is easy to fix - release all the financial records to any who ask for it. Again, this is the standard the ECFA maintains and there is really no reasonable explanation for why this information could not be made public. If the administration of the gifts and other revenue the church receives is being handled properly, there is nothing to fear from sharing this information with others. Indeed, our Lord would be glorified in the community if Elevation willingly opened its books to anyone who asked and all was found to be accounted for properly. As things stand right now, however, we are not even sure if any of Elevation's members have ever seen the full audited financial statements, let alone outsiders.
c.) Elevation needs complete transparency in related entities as well as in the church itself. Even if the church releases its full audited financial statements, it still is easy to obscure misdeeds. Accordingly, Elevation should open every facet of its finances - even beyond its audited financial statements - to anyone who asks. If an investigative news reporter comes to a church with an accountant in tow and asks to review the ministry's finances, they should be allowed to do so. What a great testimony that would be, assuming everything was found to be in order. Because of the ease in which other related organizations, which may not fall under the purview of the Elevation audit, can be easily set up to hide financial transactions, church membership should insist on complete financial transparency from its leaders. There is evidence such other entities exist at Elevation and this is why financial transparency even beyond the release of the church's audited financial statements is required in order to fully confirm Pastor Furitck and his staff are appropriately administering the gifts given to them to carry out the Lord's work.
d.) All ministry-related compensation Pastor Furtick receives should be disclosed. One of the central issues in this case is Pastor Furtick's compensation. The concern is he is more highly compensated than most would have thought reasonable if he can afford such an expensive home. Unfortunately, even audited financial statements do not reveal information on a leader's compensation. Even if they did, they would only reveal the compensation coming directly from Elevation Church and not the related entities. In order to be able to claim he is living up to his commitment to integrity, Pastor Furtick needs to reveal all his sources of income related to ministry. He initially stated the funds for his large home came from books he has written, as well as advances he received on books he will yet write, not from his church salary. However, it appears he has used the church to boost his book sales. Using church members gifts to essentially buy the notoriety and platform needed to generate strong book sales, while retaining the royalties from those sales personally, is one of the oldest tricks used by wayward pastors to enhance their income in a manner that cannot be tracked without voluntary disclosure by the pastor. The proper way of dealing with book sales in these situations is for the royalties to be the property of the ministry, not the pastor, since the ministry is providing the launching pad for his book. This is how credible ministries who are fully committed to integrity handle these situations and it is the way Furtick and Elevation should as well. Furtick indicated some of the royalties he received were donated to the church by him and his wife. That sounds good on the surface but donors/church members should realize this is actually backwards. The church should receive the royalties and Furtick should receive appropriate, but not excessive, compensation from the church so that the IRS or anyone else would never question if he using his position as the leader of a tax free institution to benefit himself in a questionable manner.
3.) Elevation's church governance is dubious at best. Pastor Furtick's compensation is apparently determined by a board of overseers made up of pastors from other, similar congregations from other areas in the country which also seem to share other money-making activities with one another. Clearly, Elevation Church's members should not be excluded from the process of setting their own pastor's compensation. Moreover, the conflict of interest arising with the joint financial interests with the other pastors is a recipe for bad behavior. Elevation needs to seriously improve its governance so such temptations for diverting excessive funds to its leaders cannot exist. Even if it is found that no misconduct was discovered as a result of the present unhealthy system of church governance, Elevation should quickly adopt a program of church governance which protects its leaders in the future from going astray as the current system is deeply flawed. We suspect there are many areas in need of improvement in Elevation Church's governance, going well beyond those mentioned here.
4.) Elevation's congregation needs to set aside their understandably strong emotional ties to Pastor Furtick and deal with reality. Pastor Furtick's congregation gave him a standing ovation last weekend as he addressed this situation with them. Given Elevation's great success and how it has effectively ministered to its 14,000 members, it was not a surprising reaction. When one of your own is "under attack", the knee-jerk reaction is to circle the wagons. In fact, if you are a member of Elevation and are reading this, I suspect you are unhappy with MinistryWatch.com right now for pointing out these obvious flaws in some aspects of your church. We understand and probably would initially react in a similar fashion if we were you. For Pastor Furtick's sake, for Elevation Church's sake and for the sake of the gospel, however, we hope members of the Church will take some time to reflect on the information above and quickly organize an appropriate response. There is a high probability any investigation and full financial transparency would entail considerable pain for the church as it comes to terms with the consequences of its sub-standard transparency and governance, which may have allowed their pastor to succumb to the allure of riches. It would be easy to avoid these hard issues and get back to "normal". After all, the issues are hard for the average member to understand and the church is doing great work. Members see a beloved pastor under attack from outsiders while outsiders see a slick salesman who just used his congregation's money to buy a colossal mansion and bizarrely got a standing ovation from them for doing it! Naturally, news stories burn out after a period of time and the pressure to do the right thing will likely quickly wane. Pastor Furtick, whom the congregation deeply admires for the positive impact he has had in their lives, will almost certainly not lead the way in getting this all fixed based on his initial effort to avoid the hard facts and deceive his congregation about the extent of the church's financial transparency. But it would be in everyone's interest if Pastor Furtick was held to his standard of integrity in financial transparency and church governance. Perhaps Elevation can put together a model for both dealing with these difficult issues and putting in place structures to prevent such things from happening in the future. Sadly, the body of Christ has suffered greatly through the centuries due to financial misdeeds. Perhaps Elevation can turn this lemon into lemonade while providing a true standard of complete integrity others can follow in the future. If the church is interested in getting this right and MinistryWatch.com can help, let us know. We would be happy to do whatever we can to help put things right so that Elevation's testimony, and that of the church generally, would not be diminished.