Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mega-Pastors and Mega-Money

The air out there in the evangelical atmosphere continues to get more noxious. In recent days it has been revealed that Mars Hill Church in Seattle spent over $210,000 to market the pastor's book Real Marriage.

If you are wondering if it sounds a bit fishy for a church to spend over $200,000 of tax free charitably given money to market a for-profit book in order to enrich the church's pastor then you may be on to something.

Major news outlets are on to the story and once again certain celebrity pastors are lending credibility to the old story that all churches and pastors care about is money. I truly believe that Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church must publically repent. I would also suggest that Mark Driscoll step down as pastor in hopes that some of the damage done to the reputation of Christ and his bride can be repaired.


Jason Frankenfield said...

I sincerely appreciate your genuine concern for the testimony of the Church, but have some questions about your post and disagree with the spirit of the articles you linked to.

I'd agree that a church using a marketing firm to achieve NYT best-seller status for a Pastors book seems unwise (as Mars Hill later admitted), even though the Atlantic author noted that the practice is legal and effective. But I see questions with your post:
(1) Of what sin are you calling out Driscoll to "repent" of? If there is not a clear Biblical teaching violated, isn't this a matter of judgment (Rom 14:5, let each man be convinced in his own mind)?
(2) What is your basis for claiming that Mars Hill paid over $200,000 to market when most of it could have been for book purchases and the contract details are largely unknown?
(3) What do you mean by a "for profit book" when people rather books are organized as legal entities? To what extent should Christian authors/artists receive compensation for their labor and to what extent should we scrutinize this before wandering into legalism?

The NBC Charlotte story on Furtick notes that he and Elevation church didn't use a marketing strategy to get on the NYT bestseller list and that Furtick sold the books at cost to his church (thus losing out on author royalties). I understand concerns about Furtick's house, compensation.... But what is the NBC article other than a journalistic hit piece?

I understand and appreciate your concerns, and I can imagine some issues that raise concerns. But the linked articles (NBC, Atlantic, & even World) don't really provide any substantive discussion and instead strike me as tabloid or political hit-piece journalism.

Todd Pruitt said...


1. As a pastor I am deeply troubled when other, very well known pastors publically misbehave. I will not recount the many controversies surrounding Mr. Driscoll's ministry over the years. And just as doctors or lawyers are concerned about malpractice in their fields so pastors share that same concern. But these sorts of controversies impact the reputation of Christ, his church and pastors. Again, time and space do not allow me to recount the MANY public controversies involved.

2. The celebrity culture within evangelicalism is a blight on the church. It lends to a complete lack of accountability. Certain news outlets seem to be doing the job that denominations ought to be doing in calling their celebrities to account.

3. I'm quite surprised you are not seeing the scandal in the story of "Real Marriage". Mars Hill spent over $200,000 to essentially manipulate the market ensuring that Driscoll's book would reach NY Times bestseller status. You do understand that churches are non-profit organizations and therefore are exempt from federal taxes. So do you not see the danger and possible illegality of using tax-free money to generate profit for an insider? It is quite possibly illegal. It is certainly not ethical.

4. Certainly you know that I am not against profit. I am a happy capitalist. But pastors must not pursue riches. Pastors must not use their congregations as means for gaining personal wealth. Churches ought to provide for their pastors. Pastors should not have to worry whether or not they can pay the bills and set aside money for retirement. But that is not what we're talking about here. We're talking about significant wealth. We're talking about manipulation and secrecy.

5. You don't seem to be following the Furtick book issue. Go back and examine the stories. Elevation Church bought thousands of the books so that it could make one of the many bestseller lists (there is more than one). Heavy pressure is placed on the congregation to buy the book. The pastor preaches the book. Etc. Perhaps this does not bother you. But it bothers me. A lot. What is more, he lied to his congregation about his house and how it is being paid for. These are scandals that the SBC ought to be addressing.

6. I don't blame the local news. Furtick is a celebrity in Charlotte. He is known locally as the "peacock of the pulpit." He has promoted himself aggressively. Given the sorts of scandals that preachers provide periodically we should not see the media as the problem here. The problem is a mega-pastor who twists the Scriptures, enriches himself from the giving of God's people, and then deceives them.

If you think my tone is negative then I would suggest you read the prophets denunciations of the "blind guides" of Israel. Or perhaps Jesus' and Paul's words to false teachers and "super apostles" of the day. What I have written is tame and restrained in comparison. What distresses me is the evangelical canons of "niceness" which make any public rebuke of bad pastors unseemly.

Jason Frankenfield said...

I criticized the tone of the articles you linked to but specifically didn’t criticize your tone because I understand the points/concerns you’re getting at, your history of attention on some of this stuff, know you, and respect your motives. So I know you’re rightly concerned about celebrity culture, financial accountability, church testimony…. And yes, I know you’re not against profit!
1. but in regard to the $200,000. I’m not sure you answered my question or that either of us know. It seems Mars Hill may have actually spent far less (perhaps around 25k) for the specific marketing to achieve NYT bestseller status and the other $$ may have just been book payment transfers/purchases. I think we’d both agree that even spending 25k to work the bestseller list process is a poor use of funds.

2. Yes, I do understand the tax exempt issue. But there is nothing illegal with any church having an author or a music artist (Paul Tripp or the Getty’s for you) come to a church do a conferences or concert and then also sell their books/recordings; happens all the time. To the extent that there is profit (income) on the sales, that passes to the individual or entity they’re organized as and then rightly taxed. I think what you’re getting at is, for someone serving as a pastor and paid at least relatively well for it by the church he serves at, to what extent should they also be paid for products that they produce which they’ve produced, at least in part, for the ministry for and by which they’ve already been paid. For example, many government employees would be pretty tightly restricted in this regard, and I can understand concerns that some Pastors are holding themselves to less of a standard than many government employees would be held to and have a “conflict of interest” when promoting their books with their pulpit ministry while also benefitting substantially from it financially (Furtick). But that is also a complex issue and a slippery slope. I’m sure that more than a few seminary profs have rightly received income from books/commentaries that they have written, and they may also be paid for being a seminary prof and/or a pastor. Though I don’t know the details of his situation, Carl Trueman is a pastor, author, and seminary prof whom I admire, and I don’t begrudge him any of that. Does 1 role benefit the other, perhaps. Then again, I don’t think Carl is living in a $1.7 million house. And yes, Driscoll & Furtick’s “defense” essentially comes down to, it is legal and everybody else does it. I know that Graham, Colson, Warren, Piper have all been excellent models of financial integrity and not using ministry to enrich themselves. But where, how, and who draws “the line”?

Todd Pruitt said...


I would suggest that there is a huge difference between hosting a guest preacher or musician (and paying them) and using church money (tax free) to promote a product from their pastor which will then enrich him further. Those are very different things. It's no wonder they wanted those details kept hidden from the church.

As far as where the line ought to be drawn, that's a subjective thing to be sure. But that is precisely what a pastor needs more than a few professional yes men surrounding him. It's why a pastor's accountability must not come from a close circle of other mega-pastors. A pastor must be possessed of enough integrity to figure that one out on his own. If not, then there is a problem.

That Mars Hill justifies its use of church money for market manipulation of the pastor's book by saying it's not illegal is quite revealing. Is this to be our standard? It's alright so long as it is not illegal? That makes my heart ache.

The fact that Elevation Church and Mars Hill continue to keep their congregations in the dark about the churches' spending and then require staff to sign confidentiality agreements is, in my opinion, wicked. We must not let this become accepted practice within the church of Jesus Christ.

Teri Jacobsen said...

The $210,000 dollar contract is sited here by Christianity Today:

Throckmorton's observations on the subject: