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Partially Penitent Pastors – Updates on the Seemingly Endless Driscoll and Furtick Sagas

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” 1 Timothy 6:10

Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte cannot seem to get the controversies they are embroiled in out of the headlines. Still, some of the recent news surrounding these two troubled pastors has reflected a degree of penitence on their part. Unfortunately, the progress made has been significantly less than we would have hoped for and has been accompanied by additional troubling revelations. From the perspective of World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky, these latest developments have capped off what he refers to as “the Second Great Embarrassment” (see Olasky’s article at http://www.worldmag.com/2014/03/the_second_great_embarrassment). This is a sideways reference to the First and Second Great Awakening, two periods of great spiritual growth in the United States. In Olasky’s view, the First Great Embarrassment can be traced to the damage to the church brought on by the Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggert scandals. The Second Great Embarrassment, in his view, began with Ted Haggard’s fall from grace in 2006 and has continued more recently with a seeming avalanche of unfortunate circumstances in ministries ranging from Bill Gotthard and Doug Philips to Driscoll and Furtick.

For Driscoll, after his church first defended his using a church paid consultant to manipulate his book sales – thereby inappropriately getting Driscoll the designation of a “New York Times Bestselling Author” – it quickly reversed course and described the strategy as “unwise”. The “Best Seller” designation was quickly removed from Driscoll’s biography on the Church’s website. The ECFA also weighted in saying using paid consultants to manipulate book sales violated their standards, but this had occurred before Mars Hill Church was an ECFA member (see this post by Warren Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College, for additional details – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2014/03/14/evangelical-council-for-financial-accountability-buying-place-on-best-seller-lists-violates-standards/). Additionally, Driscoll corrected the plagiarism recently discovered in his book “Real Marriage”. Unfortunately, there remains no clarity or transparency about the financial arrangements surrounding the sales of the book, who paid for the consultant that manipulated book sales or how Driscoll himself financially benefits from the sales of the book. Warren Throckmorton has done significant research into all of these developments and some of his comprehensive work can be found at these two links:

Meanwhile, new troubling allegations continue to come to light regarding Driscoll’s authoritarian leadership style and anger management issues. Fired staff have apparently been forced to sign agreements preventing them from both “competing” with Mars Hill Church or even speaking about it. Driscoll is said to have given a speech to Mars Hill’s leaders claiming that he was the “brand” the church was marketing, terminology used more in business than a church setting. Obviously, Christians would agree Jesus is the “brand” a church should be seeking to build. Mars Hill Church has been subject to considerable staff turnover as a result of these problems. At the moment, many former pastors and staff from Mars Hill are coming out and repenting of the sins they committed while on staff at Mars Hill Church. Some of these have posted letters on this website formed specifically for this purpose: http://repentantpastor.com/. A group of 20 former Mars Hill’s pastors has officially approached the church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability seeking reconciliation. In a separate letter to his congregation, Pastor Driscoll also acknowledged some of his shortcomings and the mistake of manipulating book sales via a highly paid consultant (see his letter here: http://www.reddit.com/r/religion/comments/20gg40/mark_driscoll_addresses_mars_hill_church/. It seems clear that Pastor Driscoll and Mars Hill Church are closer to the beginning of this process than the end. There is clearly quite a mess that accumulated over a long period of time which needs to be addressed and corrected. We are hopeful this early stage of repentance will blossom into a fuller version where, in addition to many other important matters of reconciliation, all the financial details surrounding Pastor Driscoll’s compensation from all sources related to his ministry will come out as well. If so, this could trigger important and positive changes at other congregations in the country as well.

One of those other congregations could well be Elevation Church in Charlotte, which is pastored by Steven Furtick. Pastor Furtick has also been partially penitent in the last month. First, his church joined the ECFA and is now therefore subject to a degree of outside accountability. Second, the church released its audited financial statements. While we are pleased to see movements in the direction of greater financial transparency and accountability, we are far from content with the situation. Indeed, many could easily be misled by these two developments to believe Elevation and Furtick have “come clean” when that is not even close to being accurate. Consider the following:

1.) The ECFA’s ability to provide oversight only extends to Elevation Church. Since much of Pastor Furtick’s financial benefits come from entities related to but not legally connected with the church, the ECFA would likely have, at best, limited ability to review transactions at such related entities. We already know Furtick said his book sales paid for his new $3 million home (tax records have recently been released valuing the home and the 10 acres it sits on at $3 million, versus the earlier estimate of $1.7 million). There is no mention of transactions related to Furtick’s books noted in the audited financial statements, indicating his book sales are accounted for in an entity legally separate from the church. Therefore, Furtick can run the church in a manner that passes muster with the ECFA, while still being involved in other activities directly related to his role as pastor of Elevation Church but outside the purview of the ECFA. Without complete voluntary disclosure of all such entities, Elevation church members and outsiders remain in a fog as to how exactly their pastor can afford a $3 million home.

2.) Likewise, payments from outside groups/churches directly to Pastor Furtick for participation in conferences or other events would not typically come under the ECFA’s review either. Accordingly, if Furtick directly received a payment from Perry Noble’s church (Noble is a South Carolina based mega-church pastor who is closely associated with Furtick and sits on Elevation Church’s Board of Overseers), this would likely not be covered as part of an ECFA review nor noted in Elevation Church’s audited financial statements.

3.) The audited financial statements released by Elevation Church only covered 2013. Normally, audited financial statements will cover the past two years. We suspect this is actually the first year Elevation ever had its financial statements audited. For an entity of its size, however, one could have reasonably expected previous years would have been audited as well. While the 2013 does offer far more transparency than was previously available, readers should be aware it only covers one year. There is still little information available about what might have transpired prior to 2013.

4.) Non-profit audited financial statements, unlike for-profit audits, do not include information on salaries and benefits of senior staff. For most non-profits, however, compensation information can be found in IRS form 990 which all non-profits, with the very notable exception of churches, must file. Accordingly, no one still knows what Furtick is being paid. The ECFA has standards that do not allow excessive compensation, but these are hardly specific. For example, Franklin Graham made more than $1 million in compensation from Samaritans Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association several years ago and there is no evidence of the ECFA limiting this or removing their accreditation from either organization. It is also worth remembering the ECFA gets its funding not from donors, but from the ministries it reviews. As a result, it is primarily beholding to ministries and churches, not donors. Not surprisingly, the ECFA does not require its members to disclose compensation of leaders. While we believe the ECFA earnestly seeks to put protections in place to protect donors, we know it has encountered resistance from some of its ministry members when it sought to strengthen safeguards in the area of remuneration. In the case of Elevation Church, the ECFA probably knows what Furtick is paid by the church (but not the other related entities), but members of the church cannot know. Does that make sense? Donors to the church effectively pay the ECFA so the ECFA can know Furtick’s salary and judge its reasonableness, while those same donors remain in the dark – that is just strange.

5.) Elevation’s audited statements reveal $13,000 was paid in honorariums to members of the Church’s Board of Overseers. It does not say which of the board members were paid or how much they were paid. While we found the number to be less than what we had feared, it is still another indication of how Furtick could be paid and circumvent reporting to either church members or the ECFA. For example, Furtick could be paid honorariums from the mega-churches represented on his Board of Overseers and he, in turn, could pay the pastors from Elevation Church’s budget. No one could ever track it and we cannot really know if such things are happening or not. Furthermore, if Furtick was paid honorariums directly from other groups or churches that are not part of Elevation’s Board of Overseers, this also would not ever be revealed. Ideally, all honorariums and any other financial benefits (including royalties from books) would be paid to Elevation Church, whose members or elected elders would decide what an adequate level of compensation for Pastor Furtick might be, Instead, it appears Furtick is operating one or more private, for-profit businesses outside the legal boundaries of Elevation Church thereby avoiding oversight from the ECFA or anyone else. Given these entities are apparently providing him an income sufficient to buy a $3 million home, it goes without saying the financial accountability and transparency shown by Pastor Furtick up to this point has been woefully insufficient.

6.) We find it interesting the notes to audited financial statements do not include any information about Furtick’s book sales. Given how the church was heavily involved in promoting the books, we would have thought some reference would have been made about this in the “Related Party Transaction” section. Since it was not, we can pretty safely assume that, while the church was involved in promoting the book, it was not involved in any legally contracted manner to receive any benefits from the book. In our view, this is an abuse of power by Furtick. The church and its resources were utilized to provide apparently substantial income to Pastor Furtick (remember he claimed he used the proceeds from his books to buy his home) without at least having its costs covered, at a minimum. Pastor Furtick claims to have given a large percentage of his income to the church (we have heard 40%), so perhaps the church has been compensated adequately in that manner. But the point is, we cannot know for sure. Moreover, it is hard to figure how he could have given 40% of his income to the church (perhaps it was to charity generally, not just the church) and still have enough money to purchase a $3 million home. The math just does not work out very easily on this.

More recently, Furtick has come under scrutiny for a coloring book used during Children’s Sunday School at Elevation some time ago that seemingly encouraged children to worship him. Additionally, Furtick was closely associated with Charlotte Mayor Cannon who recently resigned after being caught in an FBI sting that included him allegedly accepting bribes. Some observers found it odd that Furtick and Elevation’s chief financial officer, Chunks Corbett, then visited with Cannon shortly after his arrest since Furtick apparently typically does not normally do pastoral visits. Videos mentioning Cannon were also reportedly quickly removed from Elevation’s website. Reports indicate that Elevation had donated significant sums to a city housing project for the poor (see this report: http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Blogs/Poking-the-Hornets-Nest/March-2014/The-Orange-Ties-That-Bind-Patrick-Cannon-Steven-Furtick/#.UzeO9MinBgw.twitter). None of this suggests any connection to Cannon’s wrongdoing but we will be watching closely as/if developments unfold in this new story.

We confess to being weary of having to report this kind of information. It is troubling to see the church at large going through a “Second Great Embarrassment”. And we remind our readers that, while these churches are getting a lot of attention because of their problems, the vast majority of the churches and ministries in the US continue to do wonderful and sacrificial work. We hope these partially penitent pastors will go even further and remove any and all concerns by being completely transparent with their finances and other issues overhanging their ministries. We believe such transparency would remove any trace of concern anyone might have about their ministries. Moreover, it might even mark the end of the Second Great Embarrassment and help usher in a Third Great Awakening!