January 27, 2021

Megachurch Money Machine


As I have said on a few occasions, I’m terrible with money. I don’t really care about it (sometimes until it’s too late!) and I have never been ambitious to have a lot of it. I simply assumed that God would take care of me and my family when I went into ministry, and he has proven faithful, in spite of my laissez faire mentality and sometimes slipshod financial management approach.

That has caused me some regrets over time:

  • I wish I had been able to be more available to my children at times when I could have helped them.
  • I wish I had been able to support our churches and friends in mission work more generously.
  • I wish our family had had enough resources to have a retreat somewhere where we could have gone for rest, recreation, and building memories.
  • I wish I could do a lot of my ministry work gratis and never have to talk to my church or employer about my salary.

I have a couple of illustrations from other pastors that I always come back to.

When I read A.W. Tozer’s biography, I learned that he never had an automobile. There came a time in his ministry when the church wanted to honor him for all his years of service, and they presented him with a car. Never one to worry about offending sensibilities, Tozer immediately and publicly refused to accept the gift, handing the keys back to the presenter. He didn’t need it, didn’t want it, didn’t care to have it. He thought it an extravagance and a waste of the congregation’s money. He probably could have been more polite, but he certainly held his ground against materialism!

W.A. Criswell, the well-known pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a megachurch before there were megachurches, gave back every penny of the salary he earned in over thirty years of ministry. This was a theme from the beginning of his career. When he preached his first sermon, the deacons took up a collection and gave him $10. He handed it back and told them he didn’t preach for money. Then, at the end of his career, having made money through writing books (in a much different publishing world than we have today) and wise investments, he paid back the congregation more than $600,000 as a testimony to them that he had preached the Gospel freely and not for reward.

This freedom from the love of money and a generous spirit is something I admire in a more contemporary Southern Baptist pastor, Rick Warren. He did the same thing as Criswell, adding up what he had received from Saddleback and giving back to the congregation. He has always been committed to frugal living and giving away a large portion of the money that comes to him through various ministry efforts.

And then there’s Stephen Furtick, who represents many of today’s megachurch pastors (we’ve mentioned James MacDonald on this site too, as another example). He has fallen under scrutiny for a 1.7 million dollar home he is building in Charlotte, NC, where he pastors Elevation Church.

Christian Post spoke to Ole Anthony, the president and one of the founders of the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that monitors and investigates religious fraud. Anthony detailed the money-making operation that preaching in a megachurch and selling books and videos has become.

“What happens is these pastors are on television or on radio and they write a book, and it’s based on their sermons,” Anthony told The Christian Post on Thursday. “But then what happens is the church is paying for the time and the place to write the book, and then the church is paying for the airtime to advertise the book. And it’s just unseemly.”

He continued: “There are a lot of pastors like him (Furtick), who have an assembly of like-minded pastors. They are on each other’s board of directors and they all speak at each other’s churches for big speakers’ fees. And it’s a situation in which there’s no oversight, there’s no transparency. And it becomes just another secret money-making option for the pastors who are supposed to be the servants.”

You can read more about Furtick and the situation in Charlotte in several posts over at The Wartburg Watch.

The evangelical industrial complex rolls on.

Dr. Tozer, where are you when we need you?


  1. James the Mad says

    Ouch. Looks like I’ll be spending much of my evening over at Wartburg Watch.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And then there’s Stephen Furtick, who represents many of today’s megachurch pastors (we’ve mentioned James MacDonald on this site too, as another example). He has fallen under scrutiny for a 1.7 million dollar home he is building in Charlotte, NC, where he pastors Elevation Church.

    16,000 sq ft, on nine acres (five hectares) of forested land with view blocks along the property line. A proper Big House for Massa Furtick’s plantation.

    He continued: “There are a lot of pastors like him (Furtick), who have an assembly of like-minded pastors. They are on each other’s board of directors and they all speak at each other’s churches for big speakers’ fees.”

    “Five kings rule o’er the Amorite,
    Mighty as fear and old as night;
    Swathed with unguent and gold and jewel,
    Waxed they merry and fat and cruel.

    These five kings said one to another,
    ‘King unto king o’er the world is brother…'”
    — G.K.Chesterton, “Ballad of the Battle of Gibeon”

  3. “No law, no divinity; gold; force, and Venus rule.” – Eugenio Viterbo, general of the Augustinian order, describing the Vatican under Pope Alexander VI (the Borgia pope), over five centuries ago.

    Plus ça change, plus ça meme chose …

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Don’t Fundagelicals like these Megachurch Mini-Popes point fingers and gloat over that Romish Papist corruption and wealth, using the same Borgia Popes as type examples? “Why doesn’t the Filthy Rich Romanist Religion sell all that and give the money to the poor? HUH?? HUH??? HUH????”

  4. I always had a soft spot for Tozer. Hadn’t heard this story about him before, but it just makes me admire him more.

    It may be fictional, but the first time I was really challenged on this subject was years ago reading Les Miserables. Though it never makes it into any of the adaptations, the Bishop of Digne is introduced in detail and, for the first 100 pages, one would be forgiven for thinking he will be the main character. When he first takes up his ministry, they’re showing him around the bishop’s palace, and then they point out the little hospital next door. He asks how many beds the hospital has, and it’s not that many. He muses that the bishop’s palace is pretty big by comparison, and before you know it, he’s converted the bishop’s palace into a hospital and moved into the old hospital building instead. Later, Hugo gives us details of his salary, and then we see his expenses sheet- every penny is going to one charity or another. His sister, who is living with him, is annoyed that he’s so generous, thinking they need more to live on, so she sends off a request to the Church explaining the situation and asking for a bit more. A month later, Hugo shows us the bishop’s updated expenses sheet, and there are a few more charities on it than before.

    It may be fictional, but when I first read this, it was like a light going on in my mind. It had never occurred to me before that a Christian leader could or would behave with such generosity. After reading it, it seemed obvious these were very Christian things to do. Yet I knew no Christian leaders remotely like that, and, at the time, had never heard such things talked about in sermons. If money was mentioned, it was about giving to the ministry or to missions. Not about the ministry giving to others (well, not money anyway- Bibles perhaps, or tracts, sure) and the poor, the sick, or the homeless were not really on the radar.

  5. Adam Tauno Williams says

    These churches need better law firms. American corporate law is very clear. Mr. Warren and friends worked on their books on the church’s time while employed by the church…. whatever he and friends wrote is the intellectual property of the church, it is not their books. The church should get *all* the money, they already paid a salary to have the product developed.

    • I think you meant Mr. Furtick, Adam. It’s my impression that Rick Warren has been above board in his dealings.

    • I believe that intellectual property rights can vary dependent upon employer policy. I’m sure it’d be hard to argue against if it was your sermon series turned into a book, but many prospective employees negotiate to have such leeway in their contracts.

    • Adam, you make some good points. Actually, my take is these pastors have lots of legal advice. For this reason, they are usually treated as independent contractors, and not employees of the church. I have seen this practice in lots of churches. I find the practice questionable when reading IRS rules, but it seems to be widely practiced.

      Sore subject for me, I always fought that per IRS guidelines, pastors should be employees and not contractors. I always lost that battle.

      • I agree with you about IRS guidelines. If you’re taking the various deductions allowed to clergy, it seems to me that you need to be an employee of an organization larger than yourself.

    • Actually unless the law changed in the last few years copyright belongs to the individual unless specifically stated via agreement.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Not in my experience. In several recent cases regarding IT students a work developed by a student has been deemed property of the university as it was related to a course.

        Anything developed or written on a computer or device owned by a corporation is property of that corporation.

        If you access your personal e-mail account from a corporate premise or using a corporate issued device – they have the legal right to access that e-mail account.

        If you bring computer or recording devices onto the property of a corporation that corporation has the right to seize and inspect the entirely of the data contained on the device [a right my employer has exercised to seize employees personal laptops, etc…]

        The law is heavily weighed in the favor of the corporation.

  6. Christian Post spoke to Ole Anthony, the president and one of the founders of the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that monitors and investigates religious fraud. Anthony detailed the money-making operation that preaching in a megachurch and selling books and videos has become.

    Why the media and Christian magazines continue to go to or rely on or cite Ole Anthony is beyond me.

    Ole Anthony is apparently a liar about his life and background, as well as being an authoritarian cult-like leader. My personal friends Doug and Wendy Duncan were in his group for many, many years – Doug was almost Ole’s right-hand man for a time. After leaving, they formed an ex-cult ministry and support group (they have degrees in the field) and Wendy wrote what I think is one of the best first-person accounts of being in a cult. She exposes Anthony’s methods and deceptions and is not afraid to name names and state facts. The Dallas Observer has covered this, too. Wendy’s book is called I CAN’T HEAR GOD ANYMORE and you can read about the Duncans as well as Wendy’s book at their web site. http://dallascult.com/

    Buy and read Wendy’s book. It’s well worth your time and money, especially if you are a pastor and might have persons in your congregation who have been in authoritarian cults.

    People need to drop Anthony like a hot potato.

    • Thanks Eric. We’ll check it out.

    • I haven’t kept up with Ole too much since the heady days of Robert Tilton and the Benny Hinn videos (which, the latter at least, was pretty good for explaining to the uninitiated why he is a farce). But whatever they did to drive The Door into the ground didn’t help their reputation with me.

      That said, it doesn’t take Ole Anthony to tell you something is amiss here.

    • @ EricW.
      Yep, I mentioned that on TWW blog too, that Ole Anthony is a danger, too (since they linked to some article citing Anthony as a source about Furtick).

      I agree with some of the things he says about greedy preachers, but I read an expose about Anthony on some site (it was several pages long), and the guy came off like a total cult leader, perverted, control freak. I think this was the material I read:

      The Cult of Ole

  7. 1 Timothy 6:10
    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.

    Hebrews 13:5
    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.”

    It’s nice to have Tozer and Criswell as counter-examples to Furtick and MacDonald.

  8. My grandfather is the smartest and most worldly-successful man I know, and a while ago he told me the creed that he and his world-moving ivy-leaguer circles lived by: money doesn’t matter, it’s just how you keep score. This really struck home with me, because I see this same kind of attitude in many of the mega-preachers around America. And I think it is a horribly unchristian attitude. But it does seem as if what we see from the wealth-builders is not a greed for money, nor fear of insufficient material means, but rather a peacockish desire to keep very public score.

    • From your grandfather’s point of view, I believe this approach can have a good side. Christians often confuse the modern notion of money with New Testament notions of money. In NT, money was a fixed number of stamped coins issued by the Roman government. If one person has extra coins, others had less. In modern economies, money is a concept more than a thing. If the economy runs short of money, the Federal Reserve just has someone on a computer type in some more. Just because one person has more, doesn’t necessarily mean others have less. This is an important distinction, because in our society someone with lots of money may have done it in a way that thousands of people have good jobs.

      Now, I agree it is a problem when applied to mega-pastors. They aren’t using it in a way to improve lives, they are only keeping score.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In NT, money was a fixed number of stamped coins issued by the Roman government. If one person has extra coins, others had less.

        The Zero-Sum Game.
        Where the only way to get more for Me is to take it away from You.
        By force if necessary.

      • Allen, good points. My grandfather’s statement is objectively true re: fractional reserve banking.

  9. Anonymously Yours says

    …if I were a rich man…

  10. Wow. I don’t really no what else to say. Ministry should never be about making big bucks, and as soon as you start to make it you better give it away. At least the Pope is doing the right thing when it comes to holding his Bishops accountable for living large…sadly these Protestant megachurch pastors seem to answer to no one and so they can have 1.7 million dollar palaces.

    Thankfully the days of the OT Prophets are over or we might actually have some sermons on gluttony being preached from the pulpit…instead we’ve got just the opposite…prosperity from the pulpit, perhaps not always verbally but the actions scream it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The shtick of the grossly fat preacher screaming from the pulpit about some other (usually sexual) SIN has a strong basis in reality. Probably a lot of RL examples on YouTube.

  11. I’m just amazed as to how much money has become a corrupting issues in parts of evangelicalism. My jaw dropped when I read about Stephen Furtick. It dropped over the allegations with James MacDonald. I saw on Matt Redmond’s Facebook posting that Mark Driscoll purchased a million dollar house. And then I read on SGM Survivors recently about CJ Mahaney going to Disneyworld, and all his family being subsidized and gone down their on most likely the dime of Sovereign Grace tax payers. I mean here was this guy who taught…”give till it hurts” and how many people thought they were giving to God’s kingdom, and instead learned they were giving to the Magic Kingdom.

    I do respect Rick Warren in this area, however why is Rick Warren having James MacDonald preach at Saddleback?That in my opinion shows poor discernment.

    • Yeah, I’m with you there. Warren seems to be much more the real deal. As much as I have respect for him despite significant idealogical differences, I feel a bit leery about many of his choice of “business associates.” Kinda feel the same way about Chandler: He’s not like like the Piper and Driscoll club in so many ways, yet he is such in integral member.

  12. I am going to make a contrary point, having been at the other end of this discussion.

    Contrary to many IRS interpretations, too many churches handle pastors as independent contractors. That has happened to me. When I had the church begin to follow IRS rules, they complained to the bishop that somehow I must be cheating them. What the church wanted to do was to continue the practice of giving the pastor a straight lump sum and telling him to “live long and prosper.” Even though the church spent not one penny more than it used to, the fact that the lump sum was now split into stipend, employer contribution, and unemployment (etc.) somehow was seen as that I was robbing the church!

    However, by doing it that way, at least some people realized how little they were actually paying the pastor! More than that, it certainly lowered my tax bill. People were used to looking at the lump sum and assuming that is what their pastor received, rather than realizing that this was salary, plus all the monies that employers would normally cover.

    Now my point. If a pastor is paid as an independent contractor, then no one can claim that he is writing a book during “work” hours. An independent contractor fulfills a task, but the hours are not set (IRS rulings). NOTHING is owed to the congregation.

    Second, the vast majority of pastors are underpaid. The discussion above points out a couple of exceptions. However, the discussion above will also encourage those on church boards who are already looking for ways to cut back the little money that they give their pastors.

    Michael, you need to do an article on typical church compensation in the USA so that the readers may be shamed by how pastors are treated. Many pastor do not “choose” to be underpaid servants. They are forced into it by greedy church members who do not wish to give but still want a 24/7 domestic servant.

    • Very good points. Independent contractor status is a two edged sword. I’m a Real Estate Broker and am often explaining to my conventionally employed friends the benefits they get from their employers that they take for granted.

      I remember there being a past discussion on Pastor pay and the concept I thought was best was basing the Pastors salary on the mean or median of the congregation or the community that the congregation is located in. Clearly some estimating would be necessary as the Church boards don’t have precise info on the salaries of congregants, but this wouldn’t be a difficult estimation.

      I’m not familiar with the details of individual congregations that are part of a strong denomination or hierarchy, but it seems to me as an outsider that the bishops of a diocese would be in a position to recommend a pay scale.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Orthocuban, you have just described the predicament my regular writing partner (the burned-out preacher-man) has been in since I first met him.

    • Fr. Ernesto, great points, and a battle I fought for years. And don’t get me started on congregations using this phrase from the IRS for social security “However, you can request an exemption from self-employment tax, if you are conscientiously opposed to public insurance for religious reasons. You cannot request exemption solely for economic reasons” I cannot tell you how many congregations/pastors use this exemption for economic reasons only! I can perhaps see an exemption for a hierarchic tradition like RC that promises to take care of its priests, but it should NEVER be applied to congregational non-denominational pastors.

    • Fr. Ernesto brings up a really good point that needs to get a lot more air time. Money-grubbing mega-chuch pastors are easy targets but they are an anomaly. For every one of them there are literally hundreds working really hard and getting by on scraps.

  13. Cedric Klein says

    Something I’m wondering….

    Why do any of us give a rat’s tail what minister is making how much & what sort of house s/he’s living in if we’re not their actual parishioners/donors?

Speak Your Mind