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Should We Change the Rules for Large Churches, Ministries, and Nonprofits?

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion here lately on the scandals, alleged misconduct, and outright stupid behavior from some pastors and Christian media leaders. It brings up an interesting point, not the least of which is the wave of problems, all happening at the same time. There are some common themes with the criticism, and one that bothers me a bit is the tendency to compare a major, international ministry with a local pastor.

The truth is, from a practical, operations standpoint, running a major ministry with global implications is a whole different ballgame from running a 75 member congregation in Butte, Montana.

Yes – both roles need to be led by men and women of integrity. They need to be qualified, and they need to be called. But from an operational perspective, they’re vastly different. It would be similar to trying to compare the owners of a local Dairy Queen franchise with the CEO of General Motors, Microsoft, or Google. It takes an entirely different level of talent, skill, and ability – not to mention, vision.

That’s just on the personal side. On the financial side, it’s the difference in a yearly budget of $50,000 contrasted to $100 million or more, and some religious ministries and nonprofits today have income exceeding a billion dollars.

So should they work under the same rules?

Our company, Cooke Media Group, is a for-profit “C” corporation. The more money we make, the more taxes we pay, and there are different implications at different levels of success. In addition, as we’ve grown, we need to attract higher and higher level talent. Our team today has far more experience and expertise than I ever did when I was working by myself and in charge of the day to day operations.

So here are some thoughts that I’d love your comments on. And keep in mind I’m not an attorney or CPA, so if any lawyers or accountants want to chime in, we’d love to hear your ideas as well:

1. We have to stop making it appear that all large churches or ministries are bad. Lakewood Church in Houston is able to spend $30 million a year on missions, Joyce Meyer supports massive relief programs in third world countries. World Vision spends hundreds of millions on humanitarian work. Samaritan’s Purse is a massive global outreach. In terms of changed lives, and transformed circumstances, the impact of major Christian organizations like this can’t be measured. There will always be some bad apples, but somehow, we have in our minds that all large churches or ministries are not what God intended.

We think it mostly because we personally may be more comfortable at smaller churches or don’t really understand what goes on in large ministries. But I think we should reconsider, and stop automatically condemning churches and ministries just because of their size. Today, we live in the age of Google. Things are big. And if we’re going to impact the world through relief work, media, evangelism, or anything else, we have to think bigger.

2. From a financial and organizational perspective, we have to stop comparing the leader of a 100+ employee, multi-million dollar ministry to a pastor or leader of small, local ministries. It’s not an issue of better or worse, it’s an issue of appropriate skill. Many of these major leaders shoulder the responsibility of millions of dollars in budgeting, an incredible travel schedule, supervising a massive team, and often, operate in multiple countries. There’s a huge skill level that not everyone can handle. By contrast, other pastors or ministry leaders are more relational, and work marvelously in a smaller, more personal situation. We should celebrate and encourage both.

3. Perhaps the government should treat non-profit and religious organizations differently, based on their size. While both-sized organizations are doing similar work, the scale is vastly different. Just as I’m taxed differently the more profit I make with my for-profit company, perhaps we should evaluate large non-profits differently from small ones. Certainly, small churches and ministries could get a pass on nearly everything, while larger ones can afford to be monitored more closely.

4. Either way – we should make the rules more clear. I had a call yesterday from the CEO of a major media ministry, and he said, “If the rules were just absolute and clear. We’d do anything they asked, but the problem is, there are too many gray areas.” As a result, that organization is subject to Federal investigations, local harassment from a tax board who doesn’t like ministries, and as we saw years ago with Senator Grassley, anyone could be rounded up by a politician and investigated. Today, churches and ministries are forced to spend amazing amounts on legal and accounting advice just to keep abreast of the changing landscape out there. Why don’t we have one, clear set of guidelines that all non-profits can follow?

5. We have to figure out a way of fixing many of the moral and financial problems in-house. Jesus didn’t criticize the world, he criticized other believers. He was upset that the religious leaders of his day couldn’t understand the signs of the times. We’re back to that situation once again. How can we monitor our own house, so the government and outside media doesn’t have to? If we’re going to be a beacon of hope to the world, we have to maintain accountability ourselves, because when the world sees all these screw-ups, it simply makes us look irrelevant and stupid. Why would anyone want to be a Christian with this crazy stuff going on?

But how do we do it?

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  1. This fresh wave has caused me more pain on a personal level than I have felt in years.  Some because it's not fair (like the so called $24K commode of Joyce's) and some because it is (Earl Paulk's lastest chapter).

    The recurring theme is that the world is watching everything we do.  They are not looking for reasons to jump on board; they are looking for more reasons to discount our message of hope and grace.

    And these headlines give them plentry of reason to shut off anything Christian-no matter how well it's presented.

    If we are going to gain respect, we have to do everything in our power to not be a stumbling block. 

    If there is sin in the camp, it has to be dealt with.  You should love these leaders with moral failures,  but that doesn't mean they should be in the pulpit next Sunday. Where money is concerned, the books have to be opened. 

    Phil is right, if we don't clean up our house –someone else will.

  2. I totally agree! We are talking cash flow here. A ministry takes in $30 million and has $29 million in expenses, salaries, and outreach and saves a little for a rainy day. But all we hear is the ministry "took in" 30 million on the news. And find me a CEO of a company that is responsible for that kind of money who flys coach or a Congressmen (who are public servants also) for that matter, I think congress has a lot of nerve.

    Does anyone else feel like we the goverment and mainstream media want us (Christian ministries) to feel guilty for driving a car without bondo?

  3. Phil, before you throw out numbers like "$30MM a year on missions" be sure you can back up those claims.  It's no different than the media talking about Joyce Meyer's commode w/o knowing exactly what THEY are talking about.

    I read a recent article in our local paper about Lakewood and that $30MM number was not mentioned with the rest of the numbers.  Are you sure that is a separate item, or is the $19MM in television airtime expense part of that $30MM?

    Just wondering… 



  4. John,

    What exactly are you saying? 

    Are you saying that the size of the ministry provides entitlement to live a bit more lavishly?

    Agreeing with Phil, there are definitely different skillsets required for different churches.  Point #2

    I have seen it both ways.  To give an example of the other way, there was a pastor that I served under that came from a large church.  There he was a youth minister, with a HUGE youth ministry.  He had a pastoral staff under him that was larger than most entire church staff's.  He had vision, he had drive, but he didn't have financial and interpersonal skills that a smaller church required.  The changes were abrupt, the re-staffing was abrupt, the re-alignment of existing people in the church and their roles was abrupt, and when the attendance had dropped significantly and still hadn't balanced out, he realized he was in over his head, he left, and took his new staff with him.  He was well-meaning, and worked very hard, but it wasn't his place – he needed a larger church, with more support that he could share his big visions with.

    Point # 1

    You know… There is a people, a pastor, and a place for churches of all sizes.  But no matter the people, the pastor, the place, or the size, Satan is seeking to steal, kill, and destroy.  It can happen where there is a lot of money, and it can happen where there is very little money.  Often, it is easier for men with a lot of power (money normally) to think that they can get away with something.  It is also easier for them to begin thinking that they are infallible.  I believe that the moment we begin to think that we are above a particular sin, we have JUST become more suseptible to it.

    One thing that ALL pastors and believers SHOULD share is humility!!!

    I know that for myself there are 4 sins that I thought I would NEVER commit.  I was certain that I was above them.  I now know better.  I am now more humble, and I put more effort into guarding my heart against them. 

    Pride does come before a fall.


    How do we put a stop to it in the church?  WE DON'T – WE CAN'T

    There will ALWAYS be men that fail us.  You must use these times as times to search our own hearts.  The man without sin can cast the first stone.  You can answer questions from others by asking them if their belief is based on man or is their faith in God.  You can tell them that man will fail, but GOD will not.

    Now, some might think that I seem a bit hypocritical, because I honestly believe that Richard Roberts should not be functioning in any role at the school any longer.  I am not stoning him.  I am saying that there should be change – and I am not saying that he should "change his policy".  I am saying that ORU should change leadership. 

    There still needs to be appropriate action, when a leader falls, they should not be back in the pulpit the following Sunday.  We should not just take their word that they are going to change.  Change should be evident.  It takes time to rebuild trust.  If it didn't then trust wouldn't mean much.


    Points #3 and #4

    Phil,  I am hoping that you have ideas and not just questions 8o)  I just find a lot of conflict in these two ideals…. How do you build flexibility into a system without increasing complication?  That is a challenge that I deal with every day when I am consulting in the software world – oh I live in multiple worlds… 8o) .  The more flexibility you are building the more complexity you are building.  They go hand in hand.  Either you hide all of the work from the end user (tax payer, organization), requiring little input, and do all the black majic behind the scenes in code, or you allow them control over every factor increasing their work, and complexity, and increasing the number of exceptions that you have to handle in the code.

    If it were to be flexible, I think that more tax credits should go to organizations that are more efficient with their money in a measurable way.  If a ministry spent $80M in broadcasting and advertising, and took in $85M total, then they should pay higher taxes than the ministry that took in $100M and only spent $10M on broadcasting and advertising.  Ok these numbers are not supposed to mean anything… I am just saying I think that one of the problems with mega churches and government both is that they tend to be wasteful – they overpay, they use friends to do the paid work, and they generally don't analyze their spending… Churches don't measure their marketing success. 

    Speaking to that last point I made.  I think there needs to be a balance.  A church that spends $10k on a small marketing campaign for an upcoming event for instance.  If they could measure that only 100 people responded to the ads, then it cost them $100 per person.  If traditionally 50% of the people make the church their home after a typical event then it cost $200 per person.  Sounds like measureable success.  But I also think that when those numbers are used as a price, it isn't very pallatable…  I heard a missionary say something to this effect once:  "Salvation comes at a price….  It costs us $1,100.00 for each soul that is saved in "  – I won't say the country.  The point is that each soul cost Christ His LIFE!  The missionary had good intentions, and up to that point I really liked him.  I don't dislike him any more, but I couldn't tell you another thing that he said after that… it was like the adults speaking in "Charlie Brown"

  5. I think we make things more complicated than we need to.

    Yes there's a huge difference between a church of 100 people and a mega-church or international parachurch ministry.  Informal accountibility exists in the smaller organization and there is more intimate interaction and knowlege between the pastor and the congregation in addition to whatever leadership structure exists.

    A mega-church or parachurch ministry has a much greater degree of separation and levels between its leadership and the congregants or contributors.

    I'm going to make a statement that might not set well either but I think it is applicable, but have you noticed that much of the issues of late have come out of charismatic organizations?  Obviously it happens anywhere, but it sure does seem to be happening more in Charismatic type ministries and organizations?  Why is that?

     May I suggest that some of the reasons may include:

    1.  Charismatic ministries tend to stress a closer tie between a strong leader and God and thus there is a higher deference to that leader and more willingness to follow without asking the hard questions.

    2.  Prosperity ministries expect their leaders to live well and model what they are preaching and therefore limits as to what is reasonable are viewed as limitations upon God and over time the incentive to restraint is blurred.

    3.  Appeals to authority, and faith in leadership is seen as such a virtue that the opportunity to abuse power is greater.

    Moving away from the Charismatics, in America we've put such an emphasis on separation of Church and State that we've created a breeding ground for abuse of privileges such as tax-exemption and little or no reporting, and we have failed in some contexts as religious organizations to regulate ourselves so that abuse of these privileges is further spread and the falls when they happen more spectacular.

    Dressing things up with religious language intimidates people and aggressive leaders with good intentions and those without them have a far easier time breaking the rules than those in the secular world.

    Shouldn't the Church be leading and modeling these things?  Some are, but it seems like a very large sector of the church, and more in the Charismatic sector than not, is sure showing signs that the system in place is not working. 

  6. Good Commentary – your missionary friends statements seem shocking, but they are not too far off the mark. The parable of the talents reveals Gods expectations on us to be good stewards of the resources he has trusted us. He does expect a return of souls for the money we have in our hands. It does cost money to reach people. If we actually started measuring these things (from a return on investment perspective) we might actually start making some sensible church finance decisions, particularly in the area of Christian media.

  7. The article touches on two different focuses: Public perception of large Christian ministries and the fiscal accountability.

    1. There are just some things that Joe Q Public is never going to fully, or even mostly, understand the functioning and governance of large ministries. They also won't really get how a large corporation or government works either. This is more due to people taking care of what's right in front of them and not meandering off into off-the-beaten-path subjects like how a large ministry is run.

    2. The best PR is keeping a great deal of in-house accountability AND doing selfless things in the community.

    3. As much as I hate big "government" within ministries, this is where submitting to a governing body like a denomination actually comes into play. When Peter setup the church, it was with accountability so that heresy would be squashed and fairness in spiritual and social matters would have an ultimate earthly authority.

    4. Generally speaking, the preacher driving a media ministry often has an ego. This ego helps draw people to the ministry because people like to follow someone who seems to have confidence in where he/she is going. With ego comes the willingness to risk and go with their gut, which is more conducive to being sensitive to whatever they feelthe Lord is telling them. One of the downsides, however, is that ego also resists bridling, so providing an adequate system of accountability is usually out of the question. 

    5. The Federal government is designed to prohibit an easy solution on their end so a sensible solution orginating from them has about the same chance as Golden Compass winning of Dr. Baer's film awards.

    6. If these ministries would at least join an organization comprized of like ministries and submit themselves for review on a voluntary basis much like universities do with their sports teams to the NCAA, that could go a long way toward improving public opinion, but I just don't see it happening. Still…with man certain things are impossible, but with God, all things are possible. The NRB might be a good place to start. 

  8. Sorry – that post was just too long…  I type fast and sometimes get too verbose.  – ok often get too verbose…

    But yes, I agree that we do need to have measurements in place.  I am just suggesting that those be kept somewhat internal!  I think that transparency is important, and is not practiced well in most churches of any size.  But at the same time, the board and staff need to know the efficiencies so that they can make better decisions, and be accountable.  Giving a cost per soul from the pulpit just doesn't sit right with me – especially if it is part of asking for money.  It doesn't bother me in the slightest, and I would encourage it in a church business meeting.

    1) it seems to make a science / business out of a ministry

    2) it gives a perception that souls can be bought for a monetary price

    3) It can easily be used as a sales pitch for giving. 

    God wants us to be sensitive to His direction on where we should give.  Anything that is manipulative is unpallatable to me, especially because that is part of what turns so many people off to churches.  The importance of tithe should be taught the church.  The principles of giving beyond a tithe should also be taught.  The opportunities to give toward particular goals should be presented to the church, but a high-pressure sales pitch IMO should not come from a pulpit.  God knows what he wants to accomplish and how much money it will take.  We as Christians need to learn to be sensitive to the nudging of the Holy Spirit in how much, and which ministries God wants us to invest in. 

    I can say that many times, I have been in a service with my wife, and an opportunity to give has arisen.  I pray about it, and often a number will pop right into my head.  I write it down, my wife writes a number down, and we compare.  95% of the time it is the same number – it is confirmation.  Sometimes I wonder where the money is going to come frome too…  If the numbers don't match we don't give until we have prayed more and discussed it.  There are also times when neither one of us is prompted to give.  I try to separate in my giving between emotional pulls, and tugs of the Holy Spirit. 

  9. Hey Leslie, I know I am verbose but you are sometimes too succinct….  8o)

    What are you saying, exactly?  Are you referring to mega-ministries, or are you referring to the fact that churches in general aren't frugal enough with their money now-days?


  10. I hope that helps with your question Good Commentary.

    There are two kinds of people who are compassionate to others; those who have been through the trial/tempation and overcame it without succumbing to it and those who went through the trial/temptation, fell to it, got up and overcame it.

    There are two kinds of people who are not compassionate to others; those who have not faced the trial/temptation and therefore speak from what they think they know and those who faced the trial/temptation, fell to it, came into denial, did not overcome it and accepted it as a way of life.

  11. Thanks Leslie for the nice words and the explanation. 

    I had heard the statement before, but just wasn't sure of your application… I enjoy the company of many humorous people, and sometimes am not sure exactly how to read them without hearing the "tone"… 8o)

    I try to keep balance and truth in what I say…  We aren't always perfect and there are probably some things that I say that could be worded better…  I read something just the otherday it went like:  "We are to speak the truth in love, not speak love at the expense of truth"  I really thought that was more profound that it might sound.  We can certainly apply it to the issues the church is facing in this time.

  12. I am a pastor of 20 years now. I pastor a small contemporary congregation in a rural area just one hour northeast of Tulsa and ORU. I tell you this so you will understand the perspective of someone who lacks the supposed "skill sets" that makes some ministers so worthy of jet set kingdom living.

    I would ask you this one thing. Just because I draw a $36,000 a year salary, do you think I dont have to look at the appearance of my lifestyle and consider how it will affect the way the community evaluates my sincerity? I have made decisions on what I will not wear and what I will not drive and what I will not buy because I dont want to give an impression of living high on the child like faith of Gods peoples donations .  Like Apostle Paul, I should be ready and willing to sacrifice any of my rights for the sake of the gospel.

    Paul the apostle worked harder and smarter than any of these modern day "super-apostles". He was the CEO of the worldwide Gentile movement. He sewed tents so as not to be a burden to any one- putting me to shame by the way.

    Heres a radical concept. Imagine this. Imagine a mega-ministry leader who voluntarily caps thier own salary at 100K. What if they insisted on living in a home that was so ridiculously average compared to their level of influence that the world could not help but stop and ask why?

    But as it is, the scripture is true when it says that when one part of the body suffers we all suffer. For when financial scandal breaks out people become cynical of both the mega ministries and the little local churches like mine. I have felt the scorn of unbelievers who turn their disdain on me because I am "one of them preachers" and as everyone knows, we're just in it for the money.

  13. Very interesting premise. There are actually a few major ministry leaders who make zero salary, and only take book royalties – on those sold outside the ministry. That's a pretty good start as far as I'm concerned. I believe Joyce Meyer does that. She still makes a bundle, but it's her books and I'm cool with that. Sure it could still be abused, but I think that would be very fair. Capping at salaries at $100K? The best thing about that would be that it certainly would weed out the ones who aren't in it for the right reasons…

  14. It is interesting, but there are practical issues that are real:

    1) Tapes/CD sales-unlike books sold by a publisher paying the minister royalties, tapes are sold by the ministry. They are intellectual property –and I would argue of the minister. If they made a small royalty per sale–even 1%–in the case of a megaministry would be millions. No matter what their current salary, this would be more for the top guys.

    2) Housing-because TV is viewed by normal people and nuts-people with a high profile need security. They get bomb threats. "Jesus" shows up with a shotgun and a Bible. You can't be on national TV and live in a middle class neighborhood where anyone can ring your bell. That is simply the way the world is today.

  15. Yes, SOMETHING needs to be done. I hate to say it but I hope the laws are changed to make ALL pastors accountable and transparent.  This latest wave of selling Jesus and churches being big business is fraud.  Jesus didn't do it, and they shouldn't do it either. They have completely twisted scripture and made Christ out to be a fake and a cash-cow. It is obscene!

    Another "pimp" in the making is a pastor from San Antonio, TX named Rick Godwin, who just made the paper for fraudulent "borrowing" of church funds for chartered jets, first class airline tickets for his daughter, designer clothes, Cartier watch for one of the elders who isn't "paid."  It has created quite a feeding frenzy in the blog on 

    Church has turned into a big business, but sadly, Jesus is nowhere in sight.

    Many say, hey wait a minute, I got saved in that church. I say, if you got saved under the prosperity gospel, chances are you are not saved.  Simply said, they don't preach or teach the same Jesus of the Bible.



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