Steven Furtick has a Walter White problem.
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.
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.”
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.