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Elevation Church to build 1,200-seat campus in University City, discloses audit for the first time

Elevation Church plans to open a new, 1,200-seat campus in University City’s Innovation Park – the former IBM headquarters – by Easter 2015.

Elevation’s decision to build in the University area was disclosed in a new audit of the church’s 2013 finances – the first one Elevation has ever made publicly available.

Other details in the audit revealed that a total of $13,000 was paid to some church board members for speaking at Elevation events.

Elevation, one of the country’s fastest-growing churches, just opened a $10.5 million campus in the Lake Norman area – its ninth Charlotte-area site – in January.

Construction of the new University site, just off IBM Drive, will begin “in the upcoming months,” said James “Chunks” Corbett, the church’s chief financial officer. Currently, the church rents space every weekend for worship at the University City YMCA.

The audit report, prepared by C. DeWitt Foard & Co., a Charlotte CPA firm, is available online and says Elevation has entered into an initial, 10-year lease for the land on which the University campus will be built. The church issued a $1.5 million letter of credit in February to secure the lease, the report said, and Elevation expects monthly payments of $37,659 will start in the first quarter of 2015.

The church had previously declined to disclose its audited financial statements.

Instead, it distributed a glossy annual report, showed videos and made announcements at weekend services, while making income statements and balance sheets available.

“In 2013, we decided to make the full audit available,” he said.

Corbett also revealed that on Friday, Elevation was accepted as a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The ECFA, based in Virginia, is a respected accreditation organization that asks member churches and Christian nonprofits to adhere to standards on everything from financial transparency to governance. To become a member, Corbett said, the church had to turn over all of its employees’ compensation data – including Furtick’s.

These decisions come after months of questions being raised about the church’s financial transparency, its governing style and some of its worship practices.

The heightened scrutiny began last October after the Observer and WCNC-TV reported that Pastor Steven Furtick was building a large house in the Weddington area. The 15,000-square-foot house has about 10,000 square feet of living area, finished basement and enclosed porch, according to Union County property records. The land and house currently have a tax value of $3 million.

Elevation also has an unusual governance structure. A board of overseers made up of Furtick and pastors of other megachurches around the country oversee operations and (with Furtick not voting) set the Elevation pastor’s pay.

The audit report does not disclose Furtick’s compensation. But it does say that, while Elevation’s board members are not compensated for that role, they are paid if they preach at “worship experiences and other events” held by the church, as are other guests.

In 2013, the church paid a total of $13,000 to board members who spoke at these events. The audit report does not identify which overseers received payments. Corbett would not give names, saying only that “various board members” were paid.

Other recent controversies have dogged Furtick and Elevation, and some got the attention of national religion news outlets.

Both Religion News Service and The Christian Post, for example, followed up on a WCNC-TV report that Elevation’s 2011 guidebook to “spontaneous baptisms” advised planting people wearing volunteer T-shirts in the congregation to be the first to walk down the aisle.

Some bloggers have also criticized Furtick and his church for giving children in Elevation’s eKidz program a coloring book that had a likeness of Furtick on one page. Corbett said the book was used for just a few months four years ago and then discontinued.

The audit report is silent on such dust-ups, but in a note about credit risk, it does signal how crucial it is to Elevation’s financial health for Furtick to stay in the pulpit and continue drawing an average of 14,000 worshipers every weekend.

“Contributions could be impacted, especially in the short-term, if the Church’s lead pastor were unable to perform his duties,” the report says.

Corbett called that “normal audit language from the CPA for a contemporary church with a founding pastor. Nothing noteworthy.”

A South Carolina native, Furtick launched Elevation, a Southern Baptist church, in 2006 with just seven families.

According to the audit report and Elevation’s 2013 annual report, the church:

• Had total operating revenue of $25.2 million, up 24 percent from 2012. Total expenses were $19.3 million, up 7.5 percent from 2012. Personnel expenses were $7.5 million, up 25.8 percent. Corbett said the jump in personnel costs can be largely attributed to “new staff hires.”

• Said it gave $3.8 million to charities.

• Said it entered into a $50 million line of credit with Bank of America in 2012, of which $40.6 million was still available at the end of 2013. The Observer reported on the credit line in January.

Rothacker: 704-358-5170; Funk: 704-358-5703
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