How Steven Furtick turns mediocre books into mansions 36

Steven Furtick is sticking to his story that his mansion money has come from his books, though his business partner clarified that the house is being built with money from books he has yet to write. Though the continued insistence that the house uses book money reinforces their Walter White problem, don’t you wonder how such a mediocre writer (look at the non-Elevation reviews on Amazon) can parlay a boilerplate inspirational book into such a grand project?

I think I know how he does it, and it’s not because people are reading his books.

Weak Sales Performance

With the help of the Wayback Machine, I reviewed the sales ranks of Furtick’s two books over the first year or so of their release. Here’s the rank and date of his first two books:

Amazon Sales Rank for "Sun Stand Still"

DateRank
Sept 24, 201062
Sept 26, 2010119
Oct 7, 2010219
Oct 18, 2010535
Oct 29, 2010206
Nov 1, 2010497
Nov 24, 20101,671
Dec 10, 20102,393
Dec 18, 20103,556
Dec 20, 20106,118
Oct 29, 20133,804

After a strong start, sales dropped off quickly. The same pattern is seen in his second book, Greater.

Amazon Sales Rank for "Greater"

DateRank
Sept 7, 201264
Sept 16, 2012540
Sept 22, 2012374
Oct 4, 2012470
Oct 9, 2012839
Oct 14, 20121,358
Oct 22, 20121112
Oct 25, 2012730
July 8, 20138,423
Oct 29, 2013114,724

Although Amazon doesn’t report total copies sold, Amazon authors have calculated the relationship between rank and sales made. Using that data, and using the most generous rank for Furtick’s books in each month, we can estimate how many books he has sold per month on Amazon.

For Sun Stand Still:

  • Sept, 2010: 1,000 a day (9,000, released on Sept 21)
  • Oct: 500 a day (15,000, running total of 24,000)
  • Nov: 100 a day (3,000, 27,000)
  • Dec: 50 a day (1,500, 28,500)
  • July, 2011: 30 a day (for year 11,000, running total of 29,500)
  • July, 2012: 25 a day (for year 9,000, for 38,500)
  • Oct, 2013: 25 a day (for 2013 so far 7,500, for 46,000 all time through Amazon)

The numbers for Greater are as follows:

  • Sept, 2012: 1,000 (26,000, released on Sept 4)
  • Oct-Dec: 100 a day (9,000, 35,000)
  • July, 2013: 20 a day (6,000 for 2013 so far, 41,000 total)
  • Oct, 2013: <1 a day

We can reasonably estimate that Furtick has sold around 87,000 of his books through Amazon, each one contributing about $1.12 to his mansion fund. The New York Times estimates that Amazon has a 25% share of printed books (though much larger for ebooks), so let’s quadruple the 87k and say that Furtick has sold 350,000 books through all retail channels. If anything, that’s dramatically underestimating Amazon’s share of Furtick’s sales because his book is really only going to be available online for most consumers; it’s not going to show up often in traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. That means that he has almost certainly sold fewer than 350,000 books, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he has.

It’s quite impressive, though it still “only” puts $392,000 into the Furtick house fund. He’s still $1.3 million short, though let’s assume he’ll write two more books that will have the same kinds of sales, giving him $784,000. He’s still not even half way to paying off the house.

Concerning the books he’s planning to write, if you were a publisher looking at his track record, it’s obvious that Greater was a lesser book than the first, being soundly eclipsed by Sun, especially in how quickly sales declined. What new does Pastor Furtick have to say that the readers of his first two books will want to pay $15 to discover? I can’t imagine there are too many publishers lining up to offer Furtick large advances for his next efforts, unless he has a way to guarantee large sales outside of the normal retail channels.

Where does the rest of the book money come from, then?

Juicing the Numbers

In the words of a Forbes magazine article on book marketing, it’s legally laundered, probably through massive church purchases of the book. Before we get to how they do that, let’s examine why the church might use a book to goose their pastor’s income.

We know from NewSpring that megachurches are very concerned about being perceived by the IRS as overpaying their pastors, who lead putatively nonprofit organizations, after all. They consult lawyers and accountants to determine a ceiling that will pass muster with the government. Not only do we know that the pastors want to be paid well, they want to be paid in funds that they can use without running into the Walt White dilemma of having their hands tied on how they can spend their fortune. If the church can help the pastor earn a large proportion of his income through selling books, both sides win–the church gets to construct a massive compensation package where the base salary isn’t appalling, and the preacher gets to spend the money freely because it comes from books rather than the collection plate.

As you’ve noticed above, Greater was fairly unimpressive, especially compared with its older brother. Yet, the later and lesser book managed an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list in 2012, whereas the first book didn’t earn such an honor. The brush with publishing glory was narrow and fleeting, though. The list in question, Advice, How-To, & Miscellaneous (Hardcover), is regularly the home to books by Christian authors. Furtick’s book showed up in the printed list for just one week on Sept 24, 2012, in the fourth position. A LexisNexis search of the NYT shows that it made a brief almost-reappearance on October 7 when its 12th position warranted a web listing only. After that, it disappeared.Greater Bestseller

For comparison, Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, a genuinely popular and influential book, shows up on the same list 116 times.

For a quite different comparison, our friend Perry Noble also makes a brief splash on the Miscellaneous paperback list on October 7 in the number-two slot. It was the only time the book made the list, not even surviving for a last-gasp web listing.

Even though Noble’s NYT placement was better than Furtick’s, his Amazon performance was relatively poor.

Amazon Sales Rank for "Unleash!"

DateRank
Oct 3, 2012629
July 8, 201358,937
Oct 29, 2013208,048

What both Greater and Unleash! have in common is a dagger (†) beside their entry, which points inquisitive readers to the following explanation: “A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders.” As Forbes explains, bulk orders are a way for new authors to buy placement on the NY Times bestseller list by simulating high demand for their books and flooding the market with orders from pseudo customers. When the Times suspects such activity is occurring, it places the dagger on the list to warn its readers that the book’s numbers have probably been juiced.

Manipulating the numbers isn’t cheap, and it can happen in a couple of ways.

  • Book marketing companies, notably one called ResultSource, will arrange sales of enough copies–usually in the thousands–for the book to be listed in the Times. Forbes estimates that placing a book on the NY Times list this way can cost a quarter million dollars.
  • Sales in lieu of fees. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports on an author who asked clients to buy her books instead of pay her cash for speaking fees.

Both Furtick’s and Noble’s book sales were juiced in the first week after their release, probably from a combination of these methods. ResultSource explains why authors might want to use it for a bestseller campaign:

What would a Bestseller do for your brand? Your business? Your future? Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value, giving you a national (even global) spotlight, and solidifying your author brand as the foremost leader in your niche.

Perry Noble: Pastor and Bestselling Author.

Perry Noble: Pastor and Bestselling Author.

Noble and Furtick will be New York Times bestselling authors for the rest of their lives. Perry Noble’s promotional blurb for an appearance at Saddleback, which would have been written by him or NewSpring, highlighted it, as does his Facebook page, which lists his two claims to fame: pastor and bestselling author. Furtick promotes Greater as a bestseller, too.

We and the editors at the NY Times suspect that the bestseller status of these pastors’ books was achieved by selling to people who didn’t intend to read them. Maybe they’ll tell us how they did this, though in the meantime we have to guess. Are book sales attached to conference and speaking fees? Is Elevation Church sitting on a roomful of Furtick’s books that they purchased to get on the NY Times list?

The "Greater" swag pack can be yours for just $99!

The “Greater” swag bag can be yours for just $99!

Some of those books seem have been repackaged with other topical supplements into packs that are sold to churches for $69 or $99. Furtick probably cuts the church a small slice of those sales (this would be the money he claims to give back to the church), then pockets the rest as pure profit, especially since the books have already been paid for by the church when they made the initial bulk purchases. He earns his $3 author’s commission on the initial bulk sale, then collects 20-30 times that much when he sells these packs on Elevation’s website. The church (that’s unfair–his pastor friends, mainly) can funnel big money to Furtick but characterize the transaction as book purchases, not salary. The IRS, the compensation folk and Pastor Steven are all satisfied.

We know that Furtick says his $1.7 million has come from books, both past and future. We also know that, in the words of the WCNC report, “Furtick arranges for the publisher to sell the books by the thousands to Elevation Church at his author’s discount.” The report says that the church then sells the books at a profit, which, according to Chunks Corbett, Furtick’s business partner, “help[s] the church tremendously.” Corbett didn’t say whether the money from the sale stays with the church or goes to Furtick. Corbett would characterize all the money going to Furtick as helping the church. It is Furtick’s church, after all.

Furtick is the one who is on record as saying the money has come from his books, yet there’s no way to reconcile that claim with the evidence we can see from Amazon and the New York Times. There are three possible explanations for Furtick’s statement:

  1. Furtick has sold a million books outside of Amazon, but in stores and websites that don’t report sales to the Times.
  2. The church is buying books in bulk to funnel the money to Furtick, and the data provided to the New York Times is based on a fiction. (†)
  3. He is lying.

You decide which one or two are most likely.

If you watched the WCNC story, did you notice the curious video of Furtick hawking the book on television, promising to donate a backpack of school supplies to local kids for every book sold? Watch the section from 5:38 to 6:30. Steven weakly refutes the charge that it’s a gimmick because, well, giving stuff to needy kids can’t possibly be gimmicky. (Let’s ignore the cruelty of making your help for the needy contingent on someone else’s commercial activity. How many full backpacks did Furtick and Elevation have left over in their warehouse that weren’t distributed? He’s holding a full backpack, so you know they pre-ordered everything in it.)

More relevant to this discussion is how they could afford to do that. As calculated here, the author’s commission on these sales is going to be $3 to $5, depending on what kind of discount they negotiated with the publisher. If these are first-time sales, the backpack eats up the commission, and we know that didn’t happen, because Furtick has been saving the profits from these books for his house; this is not a charity project. If, however, this is the church selling its boxes of bulk orders that got the book on the bestseller list, then everything it collects over shipping costs is pure profit. (The church actually does seem to sell boxes of books directly to people wanting to place large orders. Why does it want such buyers to deal directly with them rather than the publisher unless they’re sitting on a warehouse full of books they’ve already paid for?) If they sell the book for $15, deduct $5 for the backpack, they’re still making bank.

And Steven is building mansions.

36 thoughts on “How Steven Furtick turns mediocre books into mansions

  1. Sam Goden Oct 31, 2013 10:40 am

    keep in mind also that Furtick never took an unpaid sabbatical from the church to write these books. The church was paying Furtick while he was writing these books. Therefore, it is more than disingenuous to say all the money for the house came from book sales when the church paid him to write these books. The congregants through paying him while he wrote and buying a large portion of these books is what paid the lion share of this house

  2. Sharon Long Oct 31, 2013 10:51 am

    [Editor’s note: This comment appears to be a parody. See Jenn’s comment below.]

    You are SO wrong! Pastor Steven has NEVER once lied to us…Prove it!!! I was front row this Saturday night and he talked about how God does miracles in the mud. This is all from the pit of Hell to discourage our Pastor and like he said, we’ve come to far to go back now! By the way, 16,000 square feet is not that big. Time Warner Cable arena is 780,000 square feet and the Bobcats are losers! South Park Mall is 1,600,000 square feet and all it does is market what the world offers! Pastor Steven’s house is nothing compared to those two places and he gives us jewels from heaven! like Pastor said and I quote…”On the other side of this mess, is a miracle”!!!
    SO SHUT UP!

  3. Mark Oct 31, 2013 11:59 am

    I think that this article not only exposes the intended target but brings out the problem with the whole seeker driven bunch.

    I don’t know many people who have ever even heard of most of these guys but they are flying all over the place speaking at each others conferences, selling books, and getting big salaries from their churches.

    The book sales trick and then hyping each other up makes it possible for their ridiculous salaries to seem reasonable and also covers up the fact that they make too much from the local church by pinning their lifestyles on speaking and books. I have suspected this for a while and it is nice to see someone putting it out there in such a well written way.

  4. PP Oct 31, 2013 12:16 pm

    Sharon,

    I knew Stephen when he was newly married, preaching, and in seminary. I spent a semester with him. Ate many lunches with him. He was rather orthodox back then. He was likeable, and was a joy to be around. I can see why people flock to his church. He can draw a crowd, make friends, and inspire many. Fast forward to today. He is rank with prosperity gospel heresy. He invites Matt Chandler to preach. Chandler actually preaches the Bible faithfully, and graciously rebukes Furtick, and Chandler’s sermon gets silenced. His idol is modalist T.D. Jakes who Furtick also emulates in his business dealings. His other idol is Ed Young Jr. I don’t even need to mention all the garbage that flows from him not to mention his lifestyle. But what is most troubling is as commenter has pointed out, Furtick got rich being a pastor. There is nothing wrong with a pastor making a living preaching the Gospel. I think that is biblical. But Jesus is very clear and warns us to beware of those who use religion to get rich (Mark 12:38-40). Furtick does not have your best interest in mind Sharon. It’s all about him, his brand, and his church. Of course, you are welcome to hold your opinion. I’m sure you are sensible and can think this through. My suggestion is for you to make an appointment with Furtick (that is if he will be so gracious as to meet with you), and just say you have a concern. Knowing him, I bet you will be told if you don’t like it, go to another church, and that is if his personal staff will even let you in. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the type of pastor that seems bent on caring for his church.

  5. Jenn Oct 31, 2013 3:04 pm

    Just a heads up…Sharon Long is a parody. I know it’s really difficult to figure out what is parody and what is real! “She” posts over on the Wartburg Watch. Completely fooled a bunch of people there.

    This is Poe’s Law in action here.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    • James Duncan Oct 31, 2013 3:57 pm

      Jenn, thank you. The comment was just too perfect. When you defend your pastor’s house by comparing it to an arena, you aren’t doing him any favors.

      PP, nice initials.

  6. RLBaty Nov 1, 2013 1:09 am

    Has anyone ever gotten any number on how much income Steve Furtick has been paid as income tax free ministerial housing under the provisions of Internal Revenue Code Section 107?

  7. KB Nov 1, 2013 9:54 am

    One HUGE flaw in every article and debate about this topic is lack of knowledge on how much SF actually paid for the house. Knowing the value is one thing. Knowing what was paid is another. If people paid more attention to facts they might just see someone making a good investment! Shoot, if I paid $300something thousand for land that was valued over $1M everyone would think I was wise with my money. But obviously pastors can’t be wise with their finances right? It always has to be some huge blown up story about half correct information.

    • James Duncan Nov 1, 2013 10:39 am

      KB, if SF had paid a fraction of the amount revealed in the CNC story, don’t you think he would have told us so? Also, we’re not talking about land values. The reporter found the building contracts. They’re not estimates, they’re real costs.

      If SF is only paying $300k for all of this, that would be its own scandal.

  8. Paula Nov 1, 2013 3:02 pm

    “if you were a publisher looking at his track record, it’s obvious that Greater was a lesser book than the first, being soundly eclipsed by Sun,”

    BAHA Punny.

    Excellent analysis. Expect an Elevator black Helicopter to be flying over your house soon 😉

    It’s very sad how many people fall for this. But then when I saw Furtick’s apology to his congregation I thought, clever, whenever you’re caught, just give up, and count on people feeling sorry for you so they don’t hold you accountable. Presume on people’s duty to forgive 70×7….

  9. Literary Attorney Nov 1, 2013 3:23 pm

    I happened on to this article by someone who posted a link to it on Facebook. With all due respect, I don’t think you understand the book business, and so there is a material flaw in your reasoning. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but anyone who understands the business would understand that your missing a key component to how authors are compensated. Authors (much like recording artists and songwriters) typically get an advance against future royalties. That’s just how the book business works. Depending on how well a book is expected to sell, a contract advance, particularly if the contract is for multiple works, certainly can be 7 figures. For an extremely high profile work, the advance could even be 8 figures. Not trying to defend Furtick. I don’t think that pastors should live in mansions either. And Furtick may be lying. But your premise that he must be lying because he couldn’t have generated enough royalties to pay for the house represents a flawed analysis.

    • James Duncan Nov 1, 2013 3:42 pm

      Literary Attorney, thank you for the clarification, but I do understand how advances work, and in the post I even give SF credit for having already banked the advances for two more books. I also happen to know how much other bestselling pastors just like SF have received for advances for their work, and there’s no way that he’s getting advanced more than $200k per book. Even if he did get that much, he would still be in arrears, meaning he hasn’t received any further royalties from them since. After the weak performance of the first two, whatever he gets advanced for future books is going to go down, not up.

      Advances could explain his fat wallet, but most publishers aren’t that reckless. As a writer or celebrity, Furtick is no Warren or Osteen.

      (If you know publishers who advance what you theorize SF got, please contact me. I’d like to retain you for my own book.)

  10. RLBaty Nov 1, 2013 3:58 pm

    James Duncan,

    While it’s relevant and interesting, it is unfortunately quite speculative and inquiring minds would prefer documented details.

    I figure there should be a pretty good paper trail, a public paper trail, regarding what is up with the property transactions and maybe lesser records regarding Furtick’s historic income, including that tax free housing benefit.

    Who really owns the property?
    What are the historic assessed values for the property?
    How was the lot purchased?
    How is the construction being paid for?

    I saw the report that money was borrowed to build the house.

    What are the details on that?
    How much has been borrowed?
    From who?
    What are the details?

    It’s an interesting case, and I look forward to future articles that present more details.

    Legally, Furtick may have all his ducks in a row, but I would like to get a clear view of those ducks.

    • James Duncan Nov 1, 2013 4:08 pm

      Baty, WCNC looked into the property papers, as have others. I don’t live in Charlotte, and I’m not particularly interested in exactly how much he’s paying for the house. I assume it’s actually north of $2m after he adds the swimming pool (for the kids), landscaping and interior decorating, which probably aren’t included in the documents detailing the $1.7m.

      Look, for me the cost of the house is not the main issue. What interests me is his assertion that the house is being paid for by book money. I’m arguing that that is impossible for the house he’s actually building. If he’d first acknowledged that it came from his salary, I’d have totally believed him. Actually, after his standing O’s on Sunday, I bet he wishes he’d done that.

      Re. documentation, SF can provide that any time he likes. After making his claim that this is all being done with integrity, let’s see. We know he’s rich, so it’s not like we’ll be learning anything new about him in that regard. Let him show us where his riches came from.

      Until he does that, I think we’re allowed to speculate that he’s hiding stuff that really is worth hiding.

  11. RLBaty Nov 1, 2013 4:10 pm

    In another article I saw it was suggested that Furtick was imitating one of his fellow mega-church preachers and mentor who, reportedly, was getting $250,000.00 or so per year in tax free housing.

    Who is going to find out how close that figure is to what Furtick has been historically receiving and may be planning to receive. Such tax free benefits are supposed to be designated in advance. Has Furtick’s housing allowance for next year been determined yet; if he is going to getting one from somewhere. It doesn’t all have to come from the Elevation Church organization; Furtick could be collecting tax free housing from numerous sources.

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation is attempting to put an end to the tax free housing benefits that ONLY “ministers” get. A ruling on that case could come down any day now.

    The Elevation Church has a lot folks on the payroll. Just how many of them have been registered as “ministers” so they can get their pay tax free as housing? What’s the total tax free housing benefit that Elevation Church paid out last year, will pay out this year???

  12. RLBaty Nov 1, 2013 4:19 pm

    James Duncan,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I don’t mean to distract from your course in the analysis.

    It is problematic to me what the claim might be regarding him paying for it from book sales past, present and future.

    I don’t see his claim as meaning that he’s made $2,000,000 in book profits to cover the cost, whatever it winds up as being?

    Maybe he’s made enough from the book sales to make a big down payment and some payments on his financing deal, if there is a financing deal. I saw where it was proposed he had borrowed money to build the house; whatever that means.

    All sorts of questions about that in my mind.

  13. Kendra Nov 1, 2013 6:11 pm

    James Duncan,

    First of all, I want to start off by thanking you for the work that you have put into this blog. I am in high school, and I have several friends that go to Newspring here in SC. I have often been concerned about some things these friends have said and the way they talk to me about my own church. I have been a reader of this blog for awhile and am excited to jump in a bit here.

    Concerning the article here, I appreciate the approach that you took with it. You seem to have a knack for being fair and reasonable, and that’s one reason I enjoy this blog so much. Anyways, Furtick’s explanation of using the money from his books to fund the building of his house struck me as a bit faulty when I first heard about this whole ordeal from some friends. Reading through your thoughts on the whole issue has only reinforced my feelings on this. Your explanation of how the church could, and very likely is, manipulating the numbers and finding ways to funnel money to Furtick was helpful to me as I tried to make sense of this whole situation.

    What bothers me the most about this whole situation is the secrecy that seems to be cloaking eveything. It just bothers me that any pastor of a church would be willing to hide certain things from public and private speculation when it comes down to a question of that pastor’s integrity. Regardless of whether he is lying or not, though that is also an issue, it is still worrisome that he would be willing to make it seem as if there is something to hide. And more and more I feel as if he does have something to hide.

    Thanks for this post. It has brought me some much-needed clarification.

  14. RLBaty Nov 1, 2013 6:40 pm

    The article asks, in part:

    – “Is Elevation Church sitting on a
    – roomful of Furtick’s books that
    – they purchased to get on the NY
    – Times list?”

    I don’t know about that, but I did notice that Dave Foda posted a note recently about such things:

    – “I (Dave Foda) remember an entry on
    – Holly Furtick’s blog, where she
    – mentioned having dozens of boxes of
    – Steven’s most recent book stored in
    – their garage, that she would personally
    – send out for a ‘modest’ donation to
    – Steven’s ministry (because they’ve
    – already been paid for).”

  15. Concerned for Hope Hilley Carpenter Nov 1, 2013 11:38 pm

    Furtick is blossom buddies with “Apostle” Ron Carpenter Jr., someone who has recently come to my attention. I believe there is good reason to fear for his wife’s current safety and well-being. The reasons for my concern have been outlined here, I believe if you read through the posts discussing Ron’s troubling statements about Hope and the things he says that just don’t add up, you will concur.
    Where is Hope Hilley Carpenter? Is she alive? Is she okay? Where ever she is, is she truly there of her own free will?
    link to websleuths.com

  16. James Duncan Nov 1, 2013 11:38 pm

    Kendra, thank you for your kind words. Welcome.

    Baty, that’s interesting about Holly, though my searches didn’t turn up anything like that on her blog. The closest is this post from Greater’s release day where she encourages people to buy the book so they can give the backpacks away. Except for the backpack part of that, I don’t find that unusual or objectionable. If you can find a link from Foda, that would be helpful.

    Re. the borrowing, I thought about that, too, but decided it wasn’t worth putting in the post. If he’s borrowing against future book earnings, what bank is going to take that risk? I don’t know enough about SF’s financial teaching, but I’d be interested to learn what he preaches about taking on so much speculative debt. I doubt a bank would use future books as collateral, though they may lend against his massive salary nest egg.

    Re. housing allowances, it’s not really the central topic here, but I have seen a little bit of how that works elsewhere. I understand why some churches want to keep that information hidden, and I think that if it became known how they spread those tax benefits around by ordaining low-level functionaries who will never get near a pulpit, there’d be a massive public outcry. The problem is that a reaction against the irresponsible churches would hurt smaller churches who use their housing allowance more ethically. I wouldn’t want the allowance abolished, but I think it would be appropriate to limit it to just one or two per church.

    • RLBaty Nov 1, 2013 11:47 pm

      James Duncan,

      Dave Foda didn’t provide a specific citation for his comment and, like you, I didn’t find it in what looking I did. I did notice that Holly has a lot of book promotions on he blog, but I didn’t find the specific one that Foda mentioned.

      The housing allowance issue is one of my hobbies. I think that FFRF suit might have actually been the result of my suggestion to Annie Gaylor that she take up where Chemerinsky left off after Rick Warren’s case.

      One of the angles I have been particularly concerned with is kinda related to those low-level employees that are “ordained” so they can claim the benefit.

      It goes much further than that; employees (i.e., basketball coaches, math teachers, etc.) at private schools like Pepperdine are allowed to register as ministers and claim the benefit (paragraph #38 of the FFRF Complaint). George H.W. Bush and Omar Burleson put the squeeze on the IRS back during the Nixon years to get that administrative concession from the IRS.

      I recently started up a FaceBook page featuring the FFRF case and my interests therein:

      link to facebook.com

  17. StevenTroy Nov 2, 2013 6:36 am

    Dr. Duncan, Thanks for this very plausible analysis of SF’s claims regarding book sales and the purchase of his mansion paid for with tax-free money. I know this isn’t the central point of this post but it is hard to believe that people making six-figure salaries get a tax-free bonus to make their house payment. What a great gig! I don’t even see why these church-businesses are tax exempt at all. Every citizen should be outraged that essentially they are helping to pay for the houses of Furtick, Noble, Young, etc.

    I would like to ask RLBaty how we can get involved in the FFRF suit to end this ridiculous law.

    Thanks again Dr. Duncan for your very thought-provoking posts.

  18. James Duncan Nov 2, 2013 9:55 am

    Steven, the allowances aren’t paying for the houses; if the houses are already paid off, they’re just paying the pastors as a form of salary. I don’t know if Noble is claiming the allowance this year–I assume he is–, but he claims to have no debt, so his allowance would just be pure gravy.

    As for the FFRF, that’s not a campaign I endorse. First, the organization is proudly atheist. I may question the wisdom and integrity of some of the men who claim to act on God’s behalf, though, fortunately, their behavior doesn’t have to affect our belief in the wisdom and holiness of God Himself.

    Second, even if this were an organization aligned with my beliefs, the courts aren’t usually a good way to change the law. If the FRFF is successful, it will destroy that benefit for thousands of smaller churches who use it properly and really need it. If you want to get involved, I’d suggest trying to gin up political support for a legislative change, where voters have more control over the final outcome than if it’s in the hands of a judge. It seems to me that a church ought to be able to designate one or two parsonages that they can help pay for. Link the benefit to an actual house, not to every questionably ordained staffer.

  19. StevenTroy Nov 2, 2013 10:31 am

    Thanks Dr. Duncan for your very helpful comments. I certainly agree with you regarding the FRFF. I did not know about this tax-free housing allowance until I was receiving one. I am a dentist here in South Carolina and years ago I sold my dental practice to attend seminary (SEBTS, same as Perry). AFter graduating I joined the staff of a large SBC church. Part of my salary package was this housing allowance. I thought that was odd at the time since everyone on the staff made a good salary. The senior pastor, especially, lived quite comfortably. It didn’t take me long to realize that big church is big business; but that’s a whole other story. I got out quickly and returned to dentistry. My problem with Furtick, Noble, Young, et.al. is with the argument that if their church members don’t care about their house then nobody should. Every tax-paying citizen, Christian and atheist alike, should care. I believe Christianity in America has declined to the point of being a business and should be treated as such. I know that small churches would have to make changes and that is regrettable. These true churches are the unfortunate collateral damage in making this correction in our laws. Anyway, that’s my opinion and I know it’s off topic from the original great point made by your post.

    By the way, your blog has been most helpful to my family. We are watching NS really explode here in Columbia. Sadly, people we know are being sucked into this with great excitement. Keep up the great work with your blog. Steve

  20. RLBaty Nov 2, 2013 11:02 am

    Steven Troy,

    To your question as to how to support the FFRF effort; you can visit their website for details if you wish to financially support the effort.

    http://www.ffrf.org

    For myself, I support it by talking it up here and there about the Internet and elsewhere their might be interest. I struck up a relationship with a Forbes on-line contributor who has posted a number of articles about the matter over the last couple of years. Who knows, he might even manage to post one soon from the Furtick perspective.

    For now, all the work appears to be complete as to their lawsuit and it’s just a matter of Judge Barbara Crabb issuing a ruling on the cross summary judgment motions. That could come down any day now. If the case is not resolved thereby, the trial is still scheduled for January of 2014.

    It seems to be an issue destined for the Supreme Court. If so, I hope it moves quickly onward and upward.

  21. RLBaty Nov 2, 2013 11:12 am

    James Duncan,

    You suggested ginning up support for legislative change. I tried that, as have others over the years.

    Didn’t work.

    Neither Republicans or Democrats have had the political will to buck the religious lobby and try to cure what ails IRC 107. Rick Warren flexed his political muscle in order to preserve IRC 107 and all its failings when he was challenged on his housing allowance.

    We’ve seen how that works. Congress and the President wouldn’t act and IRC 107 continued to be exploited for decades because, otherwise, no one was able to obtain judicial “standing” to challenge the law…until Annie Gaylor took up the cause.

    Senator Grassley and his Commission could have acted, but would not. Grassley farmed out the subject to his religious friends at the ECFL to think about it and get back to him with some ideas.

    They told Grassley IRC was hands off and Grassley has kept his hands off any action to try and cure the ills of IRC 107. In the report back to Grassley, his religious friends told him, in part:

    1.

    – Congress should not apply a dollar
    – limit to the clergy housing exclusion
    – under Section 107 of the Internal
    – Revenue Code.

    2.

    – Congress should not attempt to
    – limit the clergy housing exclusion
    – to a more select group of individuals.

    3.

    – Congress should not expand the
    – clergy housing exclusion in an
    – attempt to protect its constitutionality.

    Don’t whine about the FFRF being the agent that God has chosen to send a message to the religious community.

    As one preacher has put it:

    – Pigs get fat.
    – Hogs get slaughtered.

    I think that finds application to where we are at with IRC 107.

  22. StevenTroy Nov 2, 2013 1:51 pm

    Is there a plausible explanation anyone in our country building a house with tax-free dollars. I just don’t see how anyone can argue against ending this. It is sad that it takes an atheistic organization to correct what is manifestly wrong within the church. I believe this is why people who think for themselves are leaving the church. It is inconceivable that anyone could believe it it be right that a preacher can build a 16,000 sq. ft. house with tax-free money.

    • RLBaty Nov 2, 2013 2:14 pm

      Steven Troy,

      We may never get to the facts regarding Furtick’s exploitation of the tax free housing gimmick, but his current media appearances make for a good case study regarding that and related issues.

      I figure, one way or another, the benefits Furtick has received over the years and may receive in the future as to the tax free benefit do figure into how his current residence came to be built and has been or will be paid for.

      Furtick’s case, of course, as noted here and elsewhere, may involve more sinister issues that remain shrouded in secrecy.

      My history with Forbes regarding this issue began when Peter J. Forbes ran an article on the horn-playin’, tax-cheatin’ preacher Phil Driscoll. He may have served his time as a tax cheat, and he may have been ultimately denied a second tax-free benefit worth a few hundred thousand dollars a year, but one housing allowance worth similar amounts survived.

      See:

      link to forbes.com

      And we could go on and on about the Benny Hinns, Joyce Meyers, Kenneth Copelands and so many others.

      For now, however, I think Steven Furtick and his financial shenanigans are a worthy subject that should receive additional scrutiny and discussion in the public square.

    • James Duncan Nov 2, 2013 2:14 pm

      I’m ready to move on from this topic, but a couple of final points from me:

      Furtick isn’t building his house with tax-free money. That’s a key part of my argument that he would have had to have sold millions of copies to have enough left in his pocket after taxes. If he is claiming a tax-free housing allowance–and we don’t know for sure that he is–, he receives the annual rental value of the property (which would be astronomical) tax free.

      It is disappointing that an atheistic organization is at the vanguard of reforming the abuses of a subset of churches. However, God often uses the unregenerate to discipline and correct his people, though that doesn’t make what those organizations do right nor compel us to support them.

      Here’s how this should work, in my order of preference:

      1. Self government. A wealthy pastor decides to decline a tax-free benefit that he doesn’t need and that his flock can’t share.
      2. Church government. Elders control who within a church’s leadership should claim the benefit. This may be difficult to manage because the claim is probably made on personal returns, so may rely on honest self-reporting by ordained officers.
      3. Denominational government. Denominations should be more judicious in restricting whom they allow to be ordained.
      4. Parachurch government. Financial accountability organizations like the ECFA withdraw their approval from churches that abuse the housing allowance.
      5. Civil government. Legislators find a solution that preserves the benefit but limits abuse (like they do successfully for all other government benefits). *sarcasm alert*
      6. Judicial prohibition. Actually, courts removing this option by decree is undesirable. On the whole, I assume this benefit helps the local church, despite the abuse by the big boys.
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    • James Duncan Nov 5, 2013 10:08 pm

      Thanks Baty. I know the discussion of property tax warms your heart.

      That report suggests that WCNC has found someone on the inside who’s leaking information and documents to them. More than the bad publicity, that’s got to be flipping SF and Corbett out. Who knows what he or she will release next?

      FBC Jax Watchdog has an interesting account of SF’s brother losing his composure over the whole thing, with some cheering on from Mrs. F.

      • RLBaty Nov 5, 2013 10:13 pm

        James Duncan,

        Actually, I was anxious to see if there were any details on the current or historical housing allowances.

        Didn’t see any.

        I wrote the reporter to see if he had any information on the housing allowances and was willing to disclose it.

  24. Soli Deo Gloria Nov 8, 2013 4:17 pm

    Frankly, I’m now wondering if Steven is going to stop accepting his tax-free housing allowance as part of his income from Elevation. Since he’s adamant that no money from the church will fund his house, then I think this is at the very least a fair question for Elevators to ask.

    • RLBaty Nov 8, 2013 5:18 pm

      Soli Deo Gloria,

      Furtick is only one of the employees of Elevation Church.

      How many have registered as ministers and are claiming the tax free benefit; in what amounts.

      How many millions of dollars have been shielded from tax by Elevation “ministers” over the years?

      Maybe the next investigative report will provide some details on that aspect of the caper that continues to develop.

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