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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. 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. 

  5. 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.

  6. 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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