In the final season of Breaking Bad, Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, has made more money than he can spend without breaking his cover as a mild-mannered cancer survivor. In one scene, he and his wife stare disconsolately at a ton of hundred dollar bills stacked two feet high, realizing it was all but useless to them.
Recently we’ve been discovering that celebrity pastors understand that they have a similar conundrum. Having built megachurches with budgets in the tens of millions and generous salaries to match, they can’t really spend all the money they’re earning. Unless they’re fully certified prosperity preachers, there’s a certain decorum that pastors must follow when spending their congregation’s money. When you live off money given to God, your public lifestyle ought to be just slightly constrained.
It’s the Walter White Problem. White couldn’t spend his fortune because it was dirty. Pastors can’t spend theirs because it’s holy.
Take Steven Furtick, pastor and founder of the 14,000-member Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC. Last year he realized that the local NBC affiliate was about to report on a three million dollar mansion he was building for himself. Anticipating that his congregation might take a dim view of that kind of thing, Furtick told his church that it was “not that great of a house” and that the money for it had come entirely from income from his books, one of them a New York Times best seller.
Neither claim was true. Sure, compared to the Biltmore, Furtick’s house wasn’t that great, but, at 16,000 square feet, it’s grander than almost any other house in North Carolina. To pay for it he’d have to sell 1.5 million books, though it’s unlikely that he has sold more than 350,000.
Last year, Elevation Church spent $7.5 million on salaries, a sizable portion of that going to Furtick. His church income surely dwarfs his book royalties, so why the denial that his pastor’s salary was used for the house?
Walter White. You may have the cash, but you can’t just spend it however you’d like.
We don’t expect our pastors to live in palaces, especially ones paid for from the collection plate. Furtick sensed this in his protest about the television report. “I thought this ain’t right,” he told his church. “I didn’t even build that house with money from the church.”
This is a big reason why celebrity pastors love the book business. It’s more comforting to think that the pastor’s five-car garage was paid for by faceless Amazon customers than from a tithe check. Even if the mansion money actually does come mostly from the collection plate, the illusion of Amazon-based wealth is important.
Nothing is better at maintaining that illusion than an author earning a place on the New York Times bestseller list. Of course Steven Furtick can afford to build his mansion, we think; he’s a bestselling author. So is Perry Noble, whose church attracts 30,000 people each week in South Carolina. So is Mark Driscoll.
But that, too, is an illusion. We have discovered in the last few weeks that Mark Driscoll and Perry Noble each authorized their churches to spend around $200,000 to buy 11,000 of their books to artificially force them onto the Times’ bestseller list. Steven Furtick’s church also bought enough copies of his books so that he, too, appeared on the NYT bestseller list twice. Without the bulk purchases, though, each of the pastors’ books fell off the list after one week.
That fleeting bestseller designation is one that the pastors have embraced and trumpeted. Until last week, Mark Driscoll promoted himself as a #1 bestselling author. Perry Noble’s Facebook profile says only two things: He’s a pastor and a New York Times bestselling author. While the bestseller designation has its own value in increasing future book sales and inflating speaking fees, its special value is in the appearance of non-church wealth it creates for these pastor-authors.
The truth, however, is that much of their spendable wealth is generated by laundered tithe money, so the royalties and speaking fees comprise a second, hidden church salary. By using tithed money and their own pulpits to drive book sales and even buy the books outright, celebrity pastors have turned their non-profits into personal profit centers.
The problem isn’t only an ethical one. Tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from contriving special financial gains for their leaders, a violation called inurement that the IRS can punish by revoking the organization’s tax-exempt status. That seems a risk that these pastors are either unaware of or comfortable with, because their churches’ budgets, branding, and messaging are routinely used to sell as many books as possible to make the preachers even wealthier.
Because it’s earned commercial wealth, it can be freely spent. Only when pastors can show us that their spending money isn’t really church money do they feel confident enough to flaunt it, even if they have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of tithed money to create that illusion.
James Duncan is an associate professor of communication at Anderson University in South Carolina. He blogs at pajamapages.com.
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