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The House That Steven Built

A Charlotte pastor’s mansion generates critics – and supporters

When a local TV news reporter started looking into the details of a new home being built by Steven Furtick, the Charlotte, N.C., pastor of Elevation, one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the nation, Furtick launched what he thought would be a pre-emptive strike against what he anticipated would be a negative story.  He said 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 of porches, pavilions, and garages.  It has 5 bedrooms and 7 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.  Total price of the house:  $1.7-million.

Where did all that money come from?  It’s hard to know.  Furtick won’t disclose his salary. When WORLD asked directly, Elevation Church spokesperson Tonia Bendickson said, “We are choosing to decline interviews regarding salaries at Elevation.” In fact, Bendickson refused to do any interviews for WORLD for this story, and would not make available any Elevation staff.

But a look at the limited information available provides a glimpse into not just their finances, but also a look at a growing and troubling trends in some megachurches.

Elevation, for example, has neither deacons nor elders. Furtick’s salary is set by a Board of Overseeers made up of other megachurch pastors.  According to Elevation’s 2011 Annual Report, the board includes Pastor Dino Rizzo (Healing Place Church – Baton Rough, 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.”

It is unlikely that those on the Board of Overseers will provide any serious level of accountability, since many of them have similar compensation arrangements and some of them 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 came to light.  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 more to an Internet simulcast.

“These guys scratch each other’s backs,” said Chris Rosebrough, a blogger and radio talk show host long critical of Furtick, Noble, and other megachurch pastors.  “That’s not accountability.”

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 church watchdog Chris Rosebrough called “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.  At staff meetings, Furtick often enters last, the staff often stands and applauds.  It seems unlikely that such an adoring staff would offer much in the way of oversight and accountability.

Furtick’s claim that his multi-million dollar mansion is paid for by book and speaking fees and not his church salary is plausible, but a lack of transparency makes the claim 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 said.  “Christian leaders such as Billy Graham and Chuck Colson, always had their book royalties go directly to their ministries and not into their own pockets.”

Of course, neither Graham nor Colson were local church pastors.  However, John Piper spent nearly his entire career as a pastor until recently retiring from Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.  He is also a popular conference speaker and the author of the best-selling Desiring God and more than 20 other books.  He 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.  According to the David Mathis, executive director of the foundation, the money then goes to various charities, including Bethlehem Baptist Church and Bethlehem Seminary.  Mathis said these contributions vary depending on the year, but usually exceed $300,000 per year.  “Over the years,” he said, “it’s well into the millions of dollars.”  Piper, until his retirement, received a salary set by the church.  Since his retirement, he does receive a salary set by Desiring God Ministries.

Despite these critics, Furtick and Elevation have numerous advocates.  More than 14,000 people attend Elevation’s six campuses each weekend.  The budget for the church will likely top $25-million this year, all from willing donors, and the church claimed to give away about 12 percent of its 2012 budget – about $2.5-million — in “outreach” activities.  More significantly, the church claims to have baptized more than 11,000 people since beginning in 2006.

But none of these numbers is independently verifiable, and in context they tell a somewhat different story than the one Elevation wants people to hear.  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 highlighing 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 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.