Steven Furtick and the Walter White conundrum 15

Steven Furtick has a Walter White problem.

What now?

What now?

In the last season of Breaking Bad, Walter White, who has become a criminal mastermind, has literally tons of cash that he can do little more than stack on pallets in a storage unit. He has become incredibly wealthy, yet he can only spend tiny fractions of his wealth without breaking his cover as a mild-mannered teacher/cancer patient/car wash proprietor.

For sure, Furtick is not a meth kingpin, but his response to the big-house story indicates that he understands Walt White’s conundrum. Having made a boatload of money, how is he supposed to spend it without getting in trouble?

Walter couldn’t spend his money because it was dirty.

Steven can’t spend his because it’s holy.

His behavior before and after the story illustrates that he understands this.

Furtick hid his name

WCNC in Charlotte discovered that the deed for the massive new house was in the name of a Jumper Drive Trust, which has as its trustee Chucks Corbett, Furtick’s primary partner in starting and running the church. How WCNC discovered the connection to Furtick is an intriguing question. My guess is that they’re protecting an anonymous source, perhaps from a current or former staff member. Whatever the source, Furtick probably didn’t expect that this building project would get tracked through the trust and Corbett to him.

Why hide it unless you don’t want people to know you’re spending all that money?

Furtick hid the house

The only way WCNC could provide pictures of the project was to fly a helicopter over dense woods to view it from above. Even from the road, the house is hidden. A wide shot of the property illustrates how effectively hidden the whole project is. Furtick is not a private man, nor does he hide his family from the world on his blog or in his sermons; in fact, the CNC story points out that he has turned himself into his own brand. The house isn’t hidden so that people won’t see the Furticks; it’s hidden so that people won’t see the house the Furticks live in.

The Furtick house is surrounded by 19 acres of dense woods.

Pastor Steven will need Google Maps to find his neighbors.

An aside: In a sermon chronicled in the CNC story, Furtick complained that the news channel had gone to all the trouble to use a helicopter to fly over the property, suggesting that it wasn’t that great of a house. The irony is that Elevation got its PR start with its own expensive helicopter flight. Outreach Magazine was impressed, and described it like this:

In Easter 2006, Elevation was just a few months old, with little more than 150 in attendance, when it hosted its first helicopter egg drop. The church literally emptied its bank account to put on the event.

The bank account filled up afterwards, it would seem.

Furtick hid the source

Furtick’s defense once the house was discovered tells us why he went to such lengths to hide his activity. He claimed that the house money came from his books.

I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because they tell me there’s this news reporter trying to do this story where he wants to make our church look bad. Now me and [my wife] Holly, this year, we’re building a house. We’ve been looking for a piece of land to build a house for our family for a long time. I’m real excited about it, but then I find out, this is crazy, the news is trying to fly this chopper over our house. I’m thinking to myself, first of all, it’s not that great of a house. I’m sure there’s better houses, if you’ve got to fly a chopper over somebody’s house.

It started to mess with me a little bit because I thought this ain’t right. I didn’t even build that house with money from the church. I built it with money from my books and I gave money to the church from the books and you start getting real defensive and being like this ain’t right. This ain’t right.

Furtick assumes that the if he’s paying for the house with his Elevation salary, the church will “look bad,” though if it’s from books, the church won’t look bad. He acknowledges that he’s defensive, and that the idea that he’s using his salary for the house “ain’t right.”

Why?

Because his Elevation salary comes to him from people who think they’re giving their money to God. Book money is commercial money, so it’s fair game for Furtick to spend as he wishes. As grotesque as some of Furtick’s money appeals are, he still must invoke God as the one compelling the congregation to give. The idea that it’s God’s money does seem to constrain Furtick’s latitude in spending it, knowing, as he does, that it ought not be spent on $1.7m homes. It’s possible that Furtick is constrained by his own conscience, but it’s more likely that it’s his anticipation of his congregation’s reaction that has been limiting his spending choices.

His claim that the house is built on his books is false for one main reason:

He hasn’t sold enough books.

Authors typically earn a 15 percent royalty on sales. Furtick says he gives some of his book money back to the church, so let’s assume that’s a tithe of 10 percent. Let’s also deduct about 40 percent for taxes, so about 7.5 percent of the sales price of each book goes into his building fund. Amazon is listing his two books at between $12 and $15 after their discount, so let’s assume both books are selling at $15, at the high range. Using those assumptions, his net mansion-fund profit for each book is $1.12. At that rate, Furtick needs to have sold more than 1.5 million books, saving every single penny for this house. For comparison, Writer’s Digest reported that Tina Fey’s book didn’t reach a million sales, and a Schwarzenegger autobiography sold just over 50,000. There’s no way Pastor Steven has been outselling Liz Lemon and the Terminator.

Furtick hid the house in a wooded wilderness because he really is using his Elevation salary, and he’s rightly ashamed of it.

But what of other pastors who can’t hide million-dollar houses behind anonymous trusts? Consider his friend, Perry Noble, who’s probably making the same kind of money as Furtick (he sets Furtick’s salary, so they’re likely similar). Because Noble lives in the small city of Anderson, he’s already maxed out his living options in terms of size and luxury. Zillow values Noble’s home at around $400k (that’s its worth, not what he paid for it), and though there are a few houses in town larger and nicer, he really doesn’t have the same significant upgrade options as, say, a Furtick or an Ed Young. In contrast to the metrosexual stylings of Furtick and Young, Noble projects a more authentic down-to-earth Waffle House image. Expensive cars, clothes and houses just wouldn’t fit him.

So where does he spend his storage-locker money?

Vacations. On his blog, Perry has embraced the idea that pastors need as much play and vacation time as possible. One of Clayton King’s assigned roles for Noble and Furtick is to preach that same message to the church: give your pastor lots of time off. The main reason for this is that, as Gary Lamb discovered when he had to work a real job, megachurch pastors don’t really know what hard work is. The second reason is that it provides a way to spend the pastor’s earnings in ways that won’t raise eyebrows because there’s no-one around to see.

You can only spend so much on vacations, however, necessitating a second option.

Savings. Noble can’t be spending nearly as much as he’s making, especially without million-dollar mansions in his portfolio. He gives some of his money back to his church, but he must be building up an impressive nest egg. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if his own compensation committee has thought about what that means for NewSpring’s future. On one hand, they try to pay him as much as they possibly can–which is a lot–, but on the other hand he has the same Walt White Conundrum that Furtick does. While he is being paid tithe money, Noble really can’t spend it in public and extravagant ways. He has two options to unlock his savings. He could go full-throttle prosperity gospel and flash the money as proof of God’s blessings. Or he could retire early.

And that’s why churches delegating salary decisions to these superstar compensation committees is going to be destructive. Rich pastors with no connection or loyalty to the givers are enriching each other in ways that the recipients can’t enjoy unless they’re no longer pastors. Congregations are paying a lot of money for superstars now, but those choices will be even more costly when these ministry entrepreneurs start cashing out.

I hope someone’s planning the sequel.

15 thoughts on “Steven Furtick and the Walter White conundrum

  1. Whozep68 Oct 26, 2013 1:20 pm

    That was an amazing analogy. Well done on the post.

  2. Tom R Oct 29, 2013 1:26 pm

    Wow, masterful analysis James. Spot on….

  3. Jenn Oct 29, 2013 2:37 pm

    Brilliant piece from a man who has seen much of the sordidness from the inside.

    Can you imagine the attention Steven Furtick would have received if he had used his “extra” $1.7M to build Habitat Houses in Charlotte?! We are a city in dire need of affordable houseing. Or if he had set up a foundation to pay for dental care for children on Medicaid to go to a regular dentist and not the rare one who accepts Medicaid?! I see so many of the young who desperately need care of this sort.

    Dr. Duncan, please continue with your thoughts on these issues.

  4. J Niv Oct 29, 2013 9:46 pm

    One thing is for curtain is that Furtick learned from others mistakes by stating in his sermon/damage control opening remarks that the media was not to be blame for the reporting that took place. Note the following from a previous post by JD: In November of 2010 Perry Noble and Shane Duffey released a leadership podcast entitled Ignoring the Jackass where they took great delight in belittling and literally demonizing bloggers who dared criticized Noble’s teaching or NewSpring’s methodology.

    It will be interesting to see if Elevation actually provides actual audited financials upon request as Furtick stated during the same sermon.

  5. Josh Oct 30, 2013 12:23 pm

    The problem with Furtick isn’t that he’s rich, or even that he’s a rich pastor. The problem is that he’s rich because he’s a pastor. If professing Christian Steven Furtick started a successfully bakery, retail store or construction company in 2006 that was incredibly successful, so much so that he could buy a 3 million dollar home, few would criticize him for enjoying his earnings. In fact, the world and people in the church generally look favorably on successful Christian businessmen. No one questions how Truett Cathy spends his Chick-fil-a money, for example.

    The problem is that Furtick and others got their money by turning the church into a business. Pastors like Furtick are obsessed with business leadership because they fashion themselves as the CEO and identify more with celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs than with non-celebrity pastors. Decisions are made by the CEO to build the brand, to create a larger customer base, to increase the giving margin, and to expand into new opportunities. Church personnel decisions are made in the same way. Is the youth pastor growing the youth brand? Is the worship pastor stylish enough? While such decisions are constrained at some point by biblical considerations…they aren’t going to hire a guy who publicly rejects the bible…the biblical standards of Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 aren’t really considerations.

    This creates two problems, though. One, churches aren’t businesses and aren’t supposed to be run as such. There is nothing wrong with Macy’s developing a non-fraudulent pricing and promotional strategy designed to extricate consumers with as many spending dollars as possible. Macy’s should offer products and services designed to produce high margin income. But churches aren’t businesses. The pastor shouldn’t spend time developing (or more likely purchasing from consultants) “offering talks,” or message series, or coaching services, or conferences with a goal of increasing the church’s income. The church shouldn’t be selling books and tshirts and lattes and bibles or anything else. God’s house is not a house of merchandise!

    So when the Furticks of the Christian world stand up and talk about money (and they talk about money a lot!) it sounds a lot like Macy’s running television commercials for their two-day after Thanksgiving sale. When they preach on tithing (a subject on which bible believing Christians can easily disagree), it sounds self-serving because it is self-serving. Is it Furtick the preacher of God’s word talking, or Furtick the CEO of Elevation Church, Inc. talking? Nothing has changed in two thousand years. A pastor cannot serve two masters.

    The second problem is the conflict of interest between the company (the church) and the CEO (the pastor.) Former GM CEO Charles Wilson reputedly once claimed that “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” (A misquote, but that’s not the point here.) Celebrity CEO Pastors seem to believe that what’s good for the Lead Pastor is good for the church. That’s why they freely write and promote books on “church time” and bring in other celebrity CEO pastors to “teach” (with undisclosed and sizable speaking fees). Does Furtick invite Craig Groeshel to teach for $____ because Groeshel brought in Furtick to teach at Lifechurhc for $_____? No one knows because it’s all a big, big secret. Is the five week sermon series on “Sun Stand Still Prayers” for the edification of the church, or to promote the CEO’s new book, which is conveniently for sale in the church bookstore. Building the CEO’s profile will help him sell books, increase his demand as a guest speaker, and feed his ego. But does it benefit the church? None of your business.

    The clear conflict of interest is exacerbated by an utter lack of accountability. Sure, if Furtick gets caught sleeping with his cute personal assistant (which has happened in at least two smaller CEO-style churches I’m aware of), he couldn’t salvage his position. But no one from inside his inner circle is going to question his business dealings, his use of church time to work on and promote his books, his purchase of his own and friends books by the church, his speaking fee at churches with mutual relationships, or his promotional choice of message series. Anyone from the inside who did ask such impertinent questions would suddenly find themselves on the outs, and in a personality driven organization, loss of access to the leader is a dire sanction. Outsiders in the media or blog may ask questions, but they won’t get answers. And the rank and file members will stay on and keep giving.

  6. Bruce Gerencser Oct 30, 2013 7:56 pm

    A hilarious and apt analogy. Great analysis of Furtick, his house, and his “cash” problem. Keep up the good work.

  7. Paula Oct 30, 2013 8:40 pm

    Not to stick up for Furtick here as I cannot stand what he teaches, but could he have meant all three of his books as well the new devotional for Sun Stand Still?

    • James Duncan Oct 30, 2013 8:44 pm

      Paula, that’s a reasonable question (and we won’t jump on you for sticking up for SF). I’m working on a followup post where I’ve looked at the available sales data for his books. It’s just not possible, even if you include the devotional book.

  8. Jeff Oct 30, 2013 10:23 pm

    After reading this, I could see how one would feel compelled to be discreet about how they spend “their” salary. What is the motive behind this article? Is it trying to rescue the believers from giving away their money? I see an article such as this as a stumbling block for believers. The tithe serves to build the faith of the believer. The truth is, the believer knows they aren’t the owners of their money but are the stewards of what God blesses them with. When they return the tithe to God, it is done through their local church (“bring the whole tithe into the storehouse”). If the pastor or the church does not steward what is received in accordance with God’s will, they will be accountable to God for that but God still blesses obedience and generosity. I contend if all believers brought the whole tithe, you would be hard pressed to find a church or a pastor struggling financially. It seems prejudice to contend that a pastor must not be allowed to prosper financially just because he is a pastor? If they are preaching the gospel and people are receiving Christ as Lord and Savior and the numbers are growing, it is inevitable that the pastor would be blessed financially. If a pastor earns a million dollars and gives half of it away, he will still be judged by the world for the life a 500K income would bring.

    • James Duncan Oct 30, 2013 10:30 pm

      Jeff, the point is that Furtick isn’t just being discrete about his salary; he’s saying that he is not spending any of his salary on this house. Not one penny. This is a distinction that he made publicly and voluntarily, and has since repeated. Regardless of whether we think his salary is too high or too low, he thinks he’s not supposed to use it on building mansions. Why not?

  9. Bethany Oct 31, 2013 2:18 pm

    As additional income, don’t forget the huge sums that are given to Furtick as payment for his many speaking engagements. It’s quite a substantial amount for all of the pastors who participate in the traveling circuit that they’ve arranged with each other.

  10. Tim Cameron Oct 31, 2013 3:26 pm

    Awesome take on the expose and great addition Josh. Praying many of the “wannabe” protégé’s will see this as the warning it should be.

  11. Paula Nov 1, 2013 2:51 pm

    Thanks James. And no I’m not sticking up for Furtick. I can’t stand him. 🙂 Going to read now.

  12. Loddie Resnick Nov 2, 2013 9:57 am

    This is not a comment on Steven Furtick per se but about all who claim to be ministers of Christ yet are caught up in greed and the love of money.

    Ever heard a minister, preacher or teacher in the pulpit, on a radio or across the television screen ask for men to give their wives to him? I never have! Why does that not happen? Deuteronomy 5:21 “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife…” is most likely a deterrent to that request being made. The Hebrew word “avah” means to desire, to want or long for. It is translated most often in the Old Testament as simply “desire” but as “covet” in Deuteronomy 5:21. One dictionary definition for the word desire is “to ask for.” In other words a person reveals their desire for something when they ask for it. Jesus confirmed this when he told his disciples in John 15:7, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” Does anyone ever seek after and ask for that which they have no desire for or do not want to possess? Of course not! It would be obvious that any minister coveted another man’s wife if he asked for her to be given to him. Nevertheless it would be daring foolishness for any man in ministry to ask for other men’s wives whether done publicly or privately.

    But Deuteronomy 5:21 is emphatic about something else not to be coveted (desired), “do not covet your neighbor’s house or land, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else your neighbor owns.” Money is an owned asset and would fall under the “anything else” category. Yet every day of every week, year in and year out those who stand in the pulpits of churches or television and radio studios appeal (often with begging and pleading words or with threats of God’s curse) for the audience (their neighbors) to give their money to them. There is only one reason they ask. It is because they desire (covet) the money that belongs to their neighbors. What they would not do in asking for a man’s wife they will do without hesitation in asking for a man’s property. Yet both of these desires are strictly forbidden in God’s Word. The warning of Paul in Corinthians 6:10 about coveters not inheriting the kingdom of God should give pause to those who have this desire for his neighbor’s money. The Greek word for coveting in that passage means eager to have what belongs to another. With the Lord the end never justifies the means. Desiring a neighbor’s money for the purpose of taking the Gospel of Christ to the lost will never justify a coveting heart. How blind and deceived are these pretender’s who unashamedly go after their neighbor’s assets in the name of Christ. Peter said this about them in his second letter, “In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money. But God condemned them long ago, and their destruction will not be delayed.”

    Study the life and ministry of Christ in the four Gospels. Can one passage be found where Jesus ever asked his followers for money, for tithes, for seed faith offerings or for them to partner up to support his effort to proclaim the Kingdom of God to the Jews? An emphatic NO! Jesus never sought or asked his followers for property (which includes money) to support his calling. The reason he did not do so was because seeking their property was coveting, a sin which would have disqualified Christ from being the sinless Lamb of God. Christ sent out his disciples to minister with instruction about their support. He told them, “Don’t move around from home to home. Stay in one place, eating and drinking what they provide. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve their pay.” (Luke 10:7) This instruction is the most telling of how true Christian ministry conducts itself. The sent ones were not to move around from house to house. Jesus knew the hearts of men. Even his disciples were susceptible to the seduction of greed. Staying in one household limited what a disciple received. Though their actual needs were met it constrained the desire for excessive support. A disciple, who was primarily concerned with the amount of his support, knew going from house to house provided the opportunity of increased support. If one household provides x-amount of support then 5 households would provide 5 times over that amount. This is how a heart of greed thinks and proceeds. The more households accessed the greater the revenue (support) acquired. Is this not the prevalent mind set and practice of many ministers today? How many partners can we attract to join up and give? How can we add households to our mailing lists? How can we increase membership or attendees to improve our revenue numbers? How many can we access through television and radio to implore their giving. On and on it goes. And what did Jesus charge his disciples to do concerning hospitality? They were to receive the hospitality provided. They were not to solicit the hospitality desired. The provider of hospitality determined what he would give. His deliberation was to be free from the pressure or pleadings of the sent disciples (2 Corinth 9:7).

    Though Jesus never sought support from others he did receive support from many because of their love and appreciation for him (Luke 8:3, Mat 15:41). He walked in trust of His Heavenly Father to provide the provisions of life necessary to accomplish His Father’s will. “Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs, and he will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern.” (Matt 6:32-33) Those who are true ministers of the Lord will follow after Christ’s example of trusting their Heavenly Father and not desiring or seeking the property of others. It is a tragedy that in the Body of Christ the most important measure of a “successful” ministry or church is based upon the attaining and accumulation of a neighbor’s possessions. But God’s judgment is coming on those who “use” Christ for their means of gain and glory in this life irrespective of their calling or pleading defense, “Lord, Lord.” (Matthew 7:21, 22)

  13. Pingback: How Steven Furtick Turns Mediocre Books Into Mansions | The Wartburg Watch 2013

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