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The Case for Accountability and Transparency

How we can help restore credibility to evangelicalism

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Editor’s Note:  The following article is an excerpt from Faith-Based Fraud:  Learning From The Great Religious Scandals of our Time.  The book is now available at Amazon and other on-line booksellers.

In 1993 I took a job that moved me and my family from Georgia, where I had spent most of my life, to North Carolina. 

This job was with a “Big Six” accounting firm, and it was a good job. To be honest, I was surprised to get it. I had spent most of my career working for small companies or as a writer and teacher. So when I landed this job in the up-and-coming Sunbelt city of Charlotte—a job with an expense account, a pension plan, and a corner office on the thirty-fourth floor of the Bank of America Corporate Center—I decided this was probably my last, best shot at corporate respectability. My goal, after getting my family settled in our new home, was to keep my head down, not rock the boat, and try to keep the job long enough to prove that my hiring wasn’t somebody’s idea of a joke.

However, soon after moving to North Carolina, I discovered something about my new home state that disturbed me. North Carolina had an “abortion fund.” It was a fund of about $1.5 million that paid for the abortions of about five thousand low-income women a year. 

I was surprised, even shocked, to learn of this fund. I considered myself pro-life, but I did not know that taxpayer money—my money—paid for abortions. I can’t explain exactly what happened in me, but I awakened to the world around me in ways I had not been awake before. 

As strange as it may seem for a guy with a mortgage and a minivan and a job in corporate America to say, that moment radicalized me.

But what to do? I could stop paying taxes, but that hardly seemed the right approach. Jesus told his followers to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” even though he surely knew the Caesar of his day did things as abhorrent as those of the state of North Carolina.

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Ultimately, I said to myself, “If Christians just knew about this, they would become outraged, too. What we need is a communication tool—a newsletter or newspaper or magazine—that would educate the Christian community.” I now call this the “Field of Dreams” approach to entrepreneurship: “If you build it, they will come.”

I had an undergraduate degree in journalism, and a master’s degree in English. I had been a reporter and editor. Even those jobs outside of journalism, in marketing and public relations, had involved various forms of publication management. So I thought producing this publication could be my unique contribution to the Christian and pro-life cause. It might not be as direct in nature as those involved in the front lines of these battles as pastors, preachers, or evangelists, but I had even then come to believe in the power of words to change minds and lives. It had happened in my own life. 

So in November of 1993 I published an eight-page newsletter: The Charlotte Christian News. Ultimately, we expanded, and by 2000 we had become a weekly tabloid newspaper called The Charlotte World.  By 2003 we had other newspapers around the country. 

I built it, and some came. In our short history, we were twice named Christian newspaper of the year by the Evangelical Press Association. Nonetheless, two recessions, an industry-altering shift in technology, and other factors hurt newspapers. The Charlotte World published for fifteen years, but ultimately became one of thousands of newspapers that closed its doors in the aftermath of the Tech Bust, 911, and the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

But those papers served a powerful purpose in my life.  They helped me discover my true vocation, which was journalism informed by a Christian worldview.  But I also learned – both during that time, and later with WORLD Magazine, where I have served in various editorial and leadership roles for more than a decade, and now here at MinistryWatch — that Christians have a distaste for hard-hitting investigative journalism, especially when it concerns their own.

Touch Not God’s Anointed

Sometimes this distaste gets wrapped in biblical language. When I wrote a story critical of a ministry leader, I would inevitably get emails from people telling me to “touch not God’s anointed.” (see Psalm 105:15.) This verse is so often abused and misused by pastors and ministry leaders that I began to call it a “get out of jail free” card. (“Proof-texting” – or taking a Bible verse out of context to make a point — is the expression for this practice.)  

Those who are more biblically literate might tell me that the person I’ve written about deserves criticism.  However, they say the proper action would have been for me to confront that person face to face, as Matthew 18 instructs, and then follow a biblically prescribed process of reconciliation and restoration.

I have a high regard for these arguments. Indeed, just so you will have no doubt about my own position, let me be clear on this point: I believe that Scripture is the inerrant word of God and is “profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  MinistryWatch’s statement of faith also affirms that belief.

But both a valid interpretation (hermeneutic) and the proper application of Scripture are essential. Those who use these verses to justify the bad behavior of Christian leaders ignore many other, and equally relevant, verses.  For example, what about verses (James 3:1, Titus 1:5-9) that clearly hold teachers and pastors to higher standards?  

Furthermore, even if you accept the admonition to “touch not God’s anointed” as absolute and without exception, by what process do you determine who is “anointed” and who is an imposter?  After all, Scripture also warns us, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).

Then, of course, there are those who may not be servants of Satan, but are imperfect and fallible servants of God. In other words, they’re human beings. 

We all tend to err, and most of us don’t like to put ourselves in situations that expose our errors.  That’s why the rise of the parachurch organization and the nondenominational church are such significant and troublesome developments in our time. The structure of independent churches tends to insulate senior leadership from transparency and accountability.  

Indeed, that is likely one of the reasons they have proliferated.  The nondenominational megachurch has made it easier for charlatans, or those who simply seek autonomy, to shelter themselves from accountability.  

This statement may not seem obvious. In fact, it may even seem counterintuitive.  After all, most pastors of large churches will tell you that they feel they are under a microscope, that they are recognized everywhere they go. But being recognized on television is not the same as living a life characterized by transparency and accountability.  Most megachurch pastors are celebrities; they are recognized everywhere they go. But their very celebrity status tends to insulate them from people who will tell them the truth about themselves.

The legal and financial structures of these churches also tend to stifle efforts of accountability. More and more churches are independent, autonomous. More and more pastors are celebrities. More and more congregations are cults of their pastor’s celebrity.  This now common phenomenon in the 21st century evangelical church damages people, damages congregations, and damages the Gospel message.

The Celebrity Led Church

Consider, for example, Darrin Patrick.  Patrick was a rising star in evangelicalism, especially in Reformed circles.  The church he founded as a young man, Journey Church, grew rapidly.  Patrick became the vice-president of the Acts 29 church planting network.  But he was fired from Journey for what church elders called misconduct including “inappropriate meetings, conversations, and phone calls with two women” and an abuse of power.

Unlike many in his situation, though, Patrick admitted his faults and got counseling. He went through a restoration process that lasted 26 months.  That restoration process included face-to-face meetings with many of the people Patrick had wronged.  “Another very impactful part of the plan was the privilege to sit in front of dozens of people, honestly regarding how I had hurt them, and being able to apologize specifically for my sin,” he said in a 2019 interview. “Though incredibly painful, I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to do that.”

When he returned to ministry, it was not as a senior pastor, but as a teacher and preacher.  He was under the authority of a senior pastor.  

Patrick talked about losing his church in another interview in early in 2020.  He talked about being part of a group of young pastors who became celebrities with book deals, speaking gigs, fame and money but little spiritual maturity.

“It was a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Patrick said his early success led to an obsession with keeping up his image rather than his soul.  “I was spending a lot of energy creating and sustaining my image,” he told podcast host Chris Smith. “It’s so subtle.  I am trying to influence people for the gospel.  You have to have a social media presence, you have to speak at conferences.”

Patrick said he eventually became isolated from many of his friends when he was pastoring Journey Church.  “I stopped pursuing friendships,” he said. “Another way to say that, I stopped being known. And that was the beginning of the end.”

I would like to say that this story had a happy ending, but it does not.  Despite all the sincere efforts Darrin Patrick made, much emotional and spiritual damage had been done.  On May 7, 2020, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Here’s another example:  On the strength of Steven Furtick’s speaking skills, enthusiasm, organizational skills, and personal charisma, all of which are significant, Charlotte’s Elevation Church grew from start-up to more than four thousand in regular attendance in just a few years.  That growth caught my attention, so I went to see him.  In 2008 I interviewed Steven Furtick for an article in The Charlotte World.

What I saw was a sincere and gifted young man. He had a small but enthusiastic staff that was doing all it could just to hold on as Elevation Church’s growth skyrocketed. Furtick, at the time of my interview with him, was twenty-eight, and most of his staff was within a few years of his age. No deacons. No elders. 

“We’re a staff-led church,” he told me.  This structure has become increasingly common in recent years.  It was the model used by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, in Seattle, before its implosion and ultimate dissolution.  When I interviewed Furtick, that experience was still in the future, but it was already obvious to me that this structure had many problems, so I asked:

“Who signs your staff’s paychecks?”

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“I mean, at the end of the day, who has the power to hire and fire these guys?”

“I do,” Furtick said.

I paused for a second to let that answer sink in both with him and with me. Then I asked, “So if push comes to shove—and at some point it will—do you think these guys will put their families’ well-being at risk to bring you bad news about yourself? Some word of instruction, or correction?”

Furtick’s answer was unequivocal: “Absolutely.” 

I have no doubt that Furtick truly believed what he said.  But I also have no doubt that he is walking a very risky high wire. The slightest breeze will upset his delicate balance.   Indeed, in the years since my interview with him in 2008, Furtick has seen his share of controversy, including questions about his theology and his lifestyle.

One of my favorite expressions is from baseball great Yogi Berra, known for his “Yogi-isms.”  One of them is: “Predictions are dangerous, especially predictions about the future.”  With Yogi’s advice duly noted, I am nonetheless willing to predict that Furtick and Elevation Church are headed for crisis.  I pray it is not the kind of spiritual and emotional crisis that afflicted Darrin Patrick.  Though it is now impossible to rule out that possibility for megachurch pastors.  They are, after all, still human and who have enormous stresses placed on them, perhaps greater stresses than should be placed on them.  In recent years, we have seen the suicides of several celebrity pastors, including the 2019 suicide of Jarrid Wilson, the 2020 murder-suicide of Richard Logan, and 2018 suicide of Andrew Stoecklein.

More often, though, the crisis takes the form of a scandal. These scandals are usually either financial or sexual scandals, brought about by the temptations of money and power that fast-growing megachurches create for those in senior leadership, especially when those temptations come to them at an early age, as they often do.  Though we must also admit that the scandals do not happen just to young pastors such as Mark Driscoll and Darrin Patrick.  Money and power, combined by what is usually a lack of strong accountability structures, combine to make a heady but ultimately toxic cocktail for anyone.   

Churches and leaders who are teachable see early warning signs, take them seriously, and make adjustments. Usually, these adjustments involve giving up their own power. They do this by nurturing other leaders, so the focus of the church (or ministry) isn’t focused on one man.  They start new churches. They develop others within their church. They tend their flocks rather than merely entertain them. They, in short, become true pastors. 

They include such men as Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s Mark Dever, in Washington, D.C., who has purposefully planted churches within just a few miles of his current church.  He has intentionally kept the size of his church relatively small, in part by encouraging members to attend these nearby church plants – which are completely autonomous and not in any way under his or his church’s control.

Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has the gifts and success – New York Times Bestselling Books, for example – to have become a celebrity.  But Keller’s notoriety has been a by-product.  Indeed, he often shuns the spotlight.

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, had pioneered the multi-site model of church governance:  One church, many locations, often with the sermon piped in on a video screen.  This is a model that many large evangelical churches have embraced, including Elevation Church, founded by Steven Furtick, and Willow Creek Community Church, founded by Bill Hybels.  However, in 2017, Chandler and The Village Church abandoned that model, and the various sites of the former Village Church embarked on a path toward independence and self-governance.

And they are not alone.  It would be easy to read the stories in Faith-Based Fraud, or the stories that appear every day on the MinistryWatch website, and think that evangelical Christian leaders are luxury-seeking, spotlight-hogging narcissists.  The vast majority of Christian leaders are not.  They serve quietly, faithfully, sacrificially, humbly.

But when the money and people are flowing, it is far too tempting just to ride the wave, to convince yourself that all these people and all this money are signs of God’s anointing. It is easy, in other words, to forget the example of Jesus, who, when the crowds gathered, often drove them away with hard sayings, tough challenges (Mark 10:21, for example). Or he retreated from them, as he did when he left more than five thousand on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee to minister to one demon-possessed man among the tombs on the south shore (Mark 5).

So even though most of this book’s pages are filled with stories about waste, fraud, and abuse—real stories, carefully reported and (I hope) interestingly told—the true message of this book is a spiritual one. That message is this: The problems I recount in this book are not organizational problems that can be solved with new regulations and procedures. The problems are spiritual and theological ones that merely manifest themselves as organizational problems. And just because your organization may not yet be manifesting the symptoms, we should all be mindful of the underlying spiritual pathologies.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.