Saturday, October 26, 2013

Steven Furtick and the danger of pastor-led churches

I recently accepted a call to become an Elder at my local church. Our church is an elder-led church: following the example of apostolic churches, the decision-making leadership of the church lies in a board of Elders (or presbyters); the church also employs three staff members, and utilizes many volunteers in roles like deacons to take care of the practical aspects of ministry.

The Elder-led church is the model used mostly by non-denominational "Bible" churches. It is probably the rarest of the church models. Some use Episcopal-led churches, where most leadership decisions are made regionally or globally (e.g., Orthodox, Catholic, and some mainline Protestant denominations). Others use Congregational-led models, where leadership decisions are made by vote in a churchwide business meeting (such as is common in Baptist denominations).

As I have said before, none of these is inherently wrong or un-Biblical. The Bible tells us the qualifications that the men who lead must have, but is (I think purposefully) vague on exactly how to organize. This allows us to do what we think is best given our situation and culture. Our church happens to have chosen to go as apostolic as possible and mimic what a first-century church would look like; others use the medieval models of Orthodoxy and Catholicism; yet others choose the American models of democratic vote. All have their strengths and their weaknesses.

But today I want to talk about one other church model, one which has been on my mind a lot lately after a recent story about a megapastor and his mansion.  One increasingly-popular church model should be followed with caution because of the ease with which it can lead to abuse:  the Pastor-led church. Unlike the above models, the Pastor-led church gives unilateral authority to their lead pastor, so that he is not slowed down by the bureaucracy of an elder board or a congregation. Pastor led churches are very popular today, because without the bureaucracy they can make decisions faster and respond quicker to the needs of the congregation. I will say with absolutely no hesitation that with the right leader in place, a pastor-led church is absolutely the right way to plant a church which will grow at radical speeds.

However, as with any church model there are dangers...and this one has a big, big danger.

In all of the other methods of church governance, there is a check and balance to ensure that one person does not misread the Holy Spirit's desire and go rogue, following his desires instead God's desires. There are people who serve as the keepers of the church's theology, finances, and vision to ensure it is aligned. It is sometimes too easy for the Devil to get one Godly man off track; it is much more difficult to get an entire board of Godly men off track.

In an episcopal-led church, the higher-ups (bishops and cardinals and Patriarchs and Popes) can keep the local pastors in line. In a congregational-led church, the church body can keep the pastors in line. In an Elder-led church like Grace, it is my job to pray over, for, and examine the theology and actions of the pastors to ensure it remains in line.

But in a pastor-led church, you run a risk. A big risk. If the pastor gets off base, there is often no stopping him (or her, in some cases). Generally a pastor-led church either has no method of accountability, or a very weak one.

Unfortunately we are seeing that play out right now in one of the most famous pastors of a pastor-led church. Steven Furtick is the 33-year old pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina. His books Sun Stand Still and Greater were best-sellers and immensely popular in evangelicalism. At age 26 he began Elevation Church, and it is a pastor-led church. It has been amazingly successful: it consistently is ranked as one of the fastest-growing churches in America, with over 15,000 in weekly attendance.

As I mentioned, this is a pastor-led church. There is a "Board of Overseers" to presumably hold Furtick accountable: however, as with most pastor-led churches, this board is purposefully chosen to be friends and/or remote. In Furtick's case, his Board consists of five megachurch pastors, none of whom even lives in the same state: they come from South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Washington.

(BTW:  Furtick is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, and this type of Board is in direct violation of their requirements in several ways.)

Hmm.  Think they're involved in the day-to-day? Think that Furtick runs new ministry decisions up to the Board to see if they think Jack who sits in row 8 would be offended based on his past? Think that the Board is making sure Furtick counsels and aids Jill as she recovers from a messy divorce? Of course not.

The result is that Furtick is the king of his own kingdom. There are some advantages, to be sure: there is also the risk of massive abuse.

I don't know Steven Furtick, and I have no idea if he is abusing his position. I'm just pointing out that the option exists. A local NBC affiliate is suggesting just such an abuse of power, since (a) his salary is not released to anyone except the Board of Directors, and (b) he and his wife just finished building a $1.7 million dollar mansion. The mansion is 16,000 square feet...think about that. For a family of five. He has 19 acres of land. Furtick claims none of the church funds go to support the house, only his book earnings; but of course, since the church pays for the book, hires staff to give him free time to write the book, and pays for the advertising for the book, that seems to be a distinction without a difference.

I don't like to criticize how others spend their money. I really don't. I live a nice, comfortable life myself--that said, we give generously and despite making a nice salary I live in a modest home ($130,000) in a modest neighborhood in a modest state; I drive a Camry and my wife has a 10 year old 4Runner. We live nice lives...but we aren't living it up. And even so--I am constantly worried that I'm not giving enough, that I could do more.

So it is hard to imagine, no matter how much money I ever made, that I could plunk down $1.7 million on a home of that size. His family is about the same size as mine, he's about the same age as me, seems to have similar interests...yet you could fit ten of my homes inside Furtick's. It is not my place to judge, but I do hope there is someone in his life who can be an accountability partner, to ask Furtick if he is really using the money God gives him as a good steward; if a home that takes up half a football field in each direction is really helping God's kingdom. As you readers know, I am extremely cautious about judgmentalism--I write about that all the time--but is this an instance which is so blatant that we fellow Christians must stand up and ask our brother to reconsider what he does? Is there any way in which you can picture Jesus in the Gospels telling a successful disciple, "Go, and build a house the size of a Galilean village"?

Are pastor-led churches wrong? No, they aren't. They aren't unbiblical or wrong. They can be quite good, offering flexibility and fast reactions by giving the decision-making authority to the visionary leading the church. However, just note the incredible risk if no accountability exists; if there is no one with the authority to overrule the pastor, you may one day find your pastor making an absurd salary out of your tithes, the church money funding his pet projects and big land deals/new homes, and a failure to have wise advisors to tell the pastor when he has gotten off track.

Accountability is really valuable to all of us -- whether you are a lay-member, a deacon/deaconess, an elder, a missionary...or even a pastor.

1 comment:

  1. I totally, 100% agree with you about "Pastor led" churches. Somewhat! Churches should be led with some sort of checks and balances. I have seen and have been a part of several pastor led churches and most of the abuses I have witnessed is in the handling of staff and other smaller decisions like having the whole church remodeled because the pastor's wife desires it. I do not begrudge the earning potential of a pastor and they should be able to reap the rewards of their labors. I am sure that Furtick and other founding pastors have invested more than money into their churches. In many places, including mine, a $150,000 home and the luxury of two cars is opulence.