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Tuesday, March 20, 2007
(10:23 AM) | Stephen:
Reverend Richie Rich

Jerry Johnston is the pastor of First Family Church in Overland Park, KS. He's recently been profiled in the Kansas City Star, which raised questions about the lack of financial accountability that exists between pastoral leadership and the congregation. Key points:

In 2005, Johnston told followers that God had answered their prayers — someone had donated more than 200 acres for a new youth camp. But real estate records show that Johnston’s 25-year-old son, Jeremy, actually signed a $400,000 mortgage on the property in the church’s name.

Johnston insists that the church, a Southern Baptist Convention affiliate, is accountable and run by a board of trustees that oversees all of its finances.

“They’re respected Christian leaders,” he said. “And they’re everything from the former United States district attorney to very accomplished Christian businessmen.”

But Tim Dollar, a lawyer listed in church corporation papers as a board member until January, acknowledged he hadn’t been to a meeting in years. Dollar said he didn’t even know who was on the board and hadn’t ever attended the church.

If someone donates land and the church decides to get a mortgage on it, that's fine. Since 200 acres is probably worth far more than $400,000 and mortgage interest rates are still pretty low, it could be a very prudent way to raise money that's needed quickly. However, the members of the congregation should know when something like that is happening. They should know that the church needs a $400,000 lump sum and why it's a good idea to raise the money through a mortgage than through other means.

Far more troubling is the admission by Tim Dollar that he hasn't been to a board meeting in years and has never attended the church. First Family's board appears more like one of those honorary boards that get attached to nonprofits in order to raise their stature - senators, celebrities and other luminaries that allow their names to be attached to the organization's name and have very little else required of them.

A church board is not supposed to work that way. I'm flabbergasted at the idea of a church board member that doesn't attend the church. In most cases, that would be cause for dismissal from the board. In fact, if Dollar hadn't ever attended the church, I have no idea how he could have been placed on the board at all, since in virtually every congregation in the world such positions are chosen through congregational elections.
Johnston and the board decline to reveal his compensation for his church duties or money he makes from a for-profit corporation he owns that handles his book and video sales and his speaking engagements. . . . .“Most industry and most churches do not publish that because of the privacy of the employee, among other reasons,” Ulrich said. “But I can say that the board has approved everything, and the board represents the congregation.”
As the Star article says, "Officials at several other large churches in the metropolitan area, however, said they provided their pastors’ salaries to members who asked for it." In reality, most churches publish their financial records in their entirety every year in preparation for their annual meeting. These records are also usually readily available to anyone at any time, and if the church is part of a larger organization, the denominational headquarters usually keeps these records and makes them publicly available. The Church of the Nazarene has extensive records on every single congregation in the USA (and most overseas), and this data is available to anyone who calls in and asks for it. The Episcopal Church has a salary schedule for its priests that is common knowledge and, again, available to anyone who wishes it.

The article is quite good and well worth your time. At one point it compares First Family's $17 million budget (general budget figures are available) for its 4,200-member congregation with the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection's $12 million budget for 12,000 members and College Church of the Nazarene's $7 million budget for 3,200 members. And remember that for both the Methodist and Nazarene churches, the budget details are available.

Another disturbing story comes to us from Detroit, where the pastor of the World Outreach Church just moved into an 11,000 square foot mansion worth $3.65 million. This made the news mainly because the church acquired the mansion as a parsonage, removing $40,000/yr in property taxes from the city where it's located.

World Outreach Church does preach a "prosperity gospel," so it's not like the pastor is a hypocrite. I suppose if the church's doctrine says that God will financially reward his people, then the pastor needs to live in a home like that, or there just wouldn't be much reason to attend the church.

What this story, in addition to the one about First Family Church, does do is highlight how ridiculous it is to consider giving to a church as "charity," at least insofar as charity usually refers to assistance for needy people. In my post discussing Arther Brooks' book, Who Really Cares, I argued* that conservatives appear to give more to charity than liberals because giving to church congregations is counted as charitable giving even though most of that money goes toward salaries, technology, buildings and maintenance, supplies and similar things. Since liberals tend to give less to churches, the giving is usually more targeted to organizations that spend their money directly helping those in need (I wouldn't count orchestras and museums in this category; however, churches far outnumber these groups and raise far more money for that to offset the discrepancy).

It's far past time for a change to our tax laws regarding churches. They should only be able to reduce their taxes according to the amount of their physical plant and operating budget that is actually spent helping the needy. People who donate to them should only be able to deduct from their taxes the portion that their church can demonstrate is spent on actual charitable acts. This wouldn't be hard to do, just set a standard for valuing a church's charitable activity; if 10% of the congregational resources are spent charitably, then 10% of a parishioner's donations could then be deducted from income tax.

Palatial homes, business parks, $200 million church campuses, none of these should be completely exempt from property taxes. If, for example, the members of World Outreach Church cannot afford to put their pastor in an 11,000 square foot home unless it's exempt from property taxes, then they should evaluate the strength of their doctrine. The Christian Church in the United States has been coddled by excessive privilege for too long. A period of testing might be in order, and reducing the privileges and protections found in our tax code would be a good way to start.

*I'm pretty sure I got that idea from Sanpete, and never attributed it. That was unintentional, but still a bit rude. So, thanks Sanpete.

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