Charlotte’s Elevation Church has had a dramatic rise from just a handful of families in 2005 to more than 12,000 members spread over eight locations today.
This week, reports by NBC Charlotte have focused on the financial success of the church’s charismatic pastor that has accompanied that growth. The station revealed that Pastor Steven Furtick is building a 16,000 square-foot house on a 19-acre estate worth at least $1.7 million. The station also examined how Furtick's salary is set by a "board of overseers" comprised of pastors from other mega-churches throughout the country. The two-part series was called "The House of Steven."
Stuart Watson is the reporter who filed those stories. He joined WFAE's Kevin Kniestedt during Morning Edition to discuss them.
Kevin: Your stories make clear that church money is not being used to build this house so how is he paying for it?
Stuart: He’s paying for it, he says, with the proceeds from his books. He is given advances for books. He has written a devotional guide now and a new book out next year. He’s written a book called Sun Stands Still and another one called Greater which appeared for one week on a New York Times Bestseller list. It had a little dagger beside it, a little asterisk beside it that said it included bulk sales, which is cases and cases of books.
The book is sold for a for-profit and he is given an advance for that. He won’t say the amount of the advance. He won’t say the number of the books that have been sold. He won’t say the number of the books that have been sold to the church or through the church. He does say that he does not profit from the books sold to the church. He’s already been given the advance for that. But he has said that the advances from the books have essentially paid for the house, but he has given no dollar figures. And the book is promoted through the church.
Kevin: Ok so the church does play a role in the sale of these books.
Stuart: Absolutely. It plays multiple roles. Also, more importantly, the marketing and promotion of the books.
Kevin: Well what does the pastor have to say about all of this?
Stuart: Well he doesn’t say anything directly to me. We have sent e-mails, phone calls, a registered letter, and I have had an off the record face to face meeting with him. I appealed to him to have an on the record talk about this, but they don’t want to talk about any of the specifics. They say that his career as a speaker or a preacher on the kind of circuit, going around to conferences, huge conferences – well over 10,000 people in some gatherings – to preach is separate. But there is no question that he is just inextricably tied – this is all bound up – in Elevation Church. So you have a non-profit, tax-exempt entity that is acting as a launching pad for what is a very much for-profit career.
Kevin: Are these revelations a surprise at all to church members? If they don’t have a problem with it why should anybody else care?
Stuart: Well most of the church members that I have heard from do not have a problem with this at all. They say “God has blessed Pastor Furtick.” He is obviously a very talented, very gifted speaker. He’s obviously a very charismatic person. So none of them particularly begrudge him, at least not the ones that I have heard from.
There are some that have been to Elevation and no longer go who think that the emphasis on money and the emphasis on a really large house and all that is not something that they were comfortable with. There are people that I have also heard from – they don’t want to go on the record particularly – who say that they have brought this up. They try to ask questions about money. They have tried to approach the leaders, the staff members of the church. And they (the church leaders) did not particularly want to have a conversation about money. It was not a dialogue they wanted to have.
Kevin: Do we have any idea how wealthy Pastor Furtick actually is?
Stuart: We really don’t, other than this purchase. They say that he took out a construction loan for the house. The cost on the building permits was $1,399,000. The cost of the land was $325,000. They say there were no additional payments for the land. Before the recession this 19 and a quarter acre spot was appraised at $1.6 million, but that was pre-recession, and he got it for $325,000. This is the first major purchase he has made. He has aligned himself and appeared alongside people who are called “gospel of prosperity preachers” however he has not made a conspicuous purchase until now.
Kevin: Has Pastor Furtick given any reason why he doesn’t want to talk to the media?
Stuart: He thinks that I’m being negative and that it’s a drain and that I’m only interested in the negative. That’s not true. I think that the church has received just extremely positive coverage up until now. When you check our files or anyone else’s, there haven’t been very many critical questions raised.