Pastor or CEO? The Finances of Megachurches Explored by James McNeese W'19 C'19

         Founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard said in 1948 that “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, start a religion.” While he may have succeeded by taking his own advice, for most other people, starting a successful religion is not a very plausible career path. Starting a movement within another religion, however, is an entirely different matter. Protestant Christian churches have existed in the United States since before its creation; moreover, additional churches are constantly being built and renovated. The building of a church usually connotes giving back to society or creating a safe place for faith. However, in recent times, the purpose behind church creation no longer seems quite so clear. As the phenomenon of American “megachurches” has grown, the complex finances of the church workplace have begun to display their true colors.

            Many people know about churches, but megachurches are not only a different size, but offer a different experience than mainline protestant churches. . A megachurch, at least in the American context, is a church that sees at least 2,000 people in attendance on any given weekend. Often with very outspoken and controversial pastors—such as Mars Hill Church’s Mark Driscoll, who required his congregation to attend classes and submit to the authority of the church—these megachurches often seem much different in approach to their mission than the average church. Besides controversial practices, the greatest oddity of these megachurches is the way their finances work in an almost corporate way.

Charisma News reported on Steve Furtick, megachurch pastor, who reasons that his finances should be hidden because talking about how much he earns would “be against what Jesus preached.” However, it is known that his church receives, on average, half a million dollars every weekend in donations, which is a large sum of money for an institution with tax exempt status. Furthermore, Furtick, who tries to keep his finances hidden, makes extravagant purchases with his secret money: the pastor purchased a $1.7 million home, saying it was a gift from God, while critics of the purchase complain that the man does not appear to act like the “servant” of God he claims to be. Church finances go to more than just pastor-CEO salaries: the actual church is often renovated or improved more frequently than money is sent out in donations. Resurrection Fellowship Church in Colorado recently paid a large sum of money to install electric car chargers in its parking lot, an odd decision considering that few people in the region drive electric cars.

Megachurch finances play a direct role in society. Amidst the confusion over where the finances actually go in the church structure or social benefit, megachurches affect society in varying ways. One way in which megachurches play a more corporate than religious role in society is through politics. For instance, pastor Perry Noble of a South Carolina megachurch, urges his thousands of congregation members to not vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. While donation of funds to political campaigns by churches of any kind is banned, the $100 million annual revenue of the Church buys it a huge megaphone with which to promote the views of its pastor, political and otherwise.

Corporations and businesses possess strong similarities to the megachurches of today’s American society; however, a few differences set the two money-makers apart. In Christian belief, believers are supposed to pay a “tithe” annually of a percentage of their income as a donation to something that will help others. In the financial world, if a corporation had the opportunity to access a steady supply of large donations, it surely would, and that is exactly what these megachurches are able to do. With a constant stream of donations based on faith in the institution, tax-free megachurches have stores of money to spend however they see fit. However, corporations could learn a thing or two from the megachurches in how they conduct their finances. By basing all revenue off of an idea, megachurches can direct their income in any way and justify it with donations with other money or claiming the purchases/salaries are based on promoting the belief system. For this reason, many see megachurches as rich and corrupt, yet they still pull in millions of dollars in donations-based revenue, which many businesses cannot do.

Followers of some megachurches might as well call their pastor a CEO because in practice the church leader handles money in the same way an entrepreneur might. The debate on whether churches ought to keep their tax exempt status will likely continue to remain controversial; however, requiring more clarity and transparency from megachurches would provide more much needed insight into the finances of the lucrative Christian market.