Elevation Church stands out in Charlotte for its growth and governance

Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick watches as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) lines up for a drill during practice on Thursday, January 9, 2013. The Carolina Panthers’ Steven Drummond looks on at right.
Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick watches as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) lines up for a drill during practice on Thursday, January 9, 2013. The Carolina Panthers’ Steven Drummond looks on at right.

Editor’s note: This story was first posted in January 2014.

Every weekend, about 14,000 worshipers attend Elevation Church’s nine locations in and around Charlotte.

These Elevators, as they sometimes refer to themselves, give a total of about $400,000 a week to what has become one of America’s fastest-growing churches - in attendance and donations.

Many in Elevation’s far-flung congregation also sign up to be volunteers, to meet in small groups and to bring friends to the Southern Baptist church.

But these participants - Elevation prefers that word to “members” - have little say in how the megachurch is run or in how it spends its millions.

And except for the church’s chief financial officer and its controller, no one who’s made Elevation their spiritual home has any idea how much money Pastor Steven Furtick makes.

This lack of local oversight by members, and the transparency that traditionally comes with it, sets Elevation apart, say many who study and run houses of worship.

“They’d be the only church connected to our association that would have that kind of model,” said Bob Lowman, executive director of the Metrolina Baptist Association in Charlotte.

It’s also “not the most typical way megachurches organize,”: said Scott Thumma, one of the country’s leading experts on megachurches.

At the great majority of churches - in Charlotte, in the Southern Baptist Convention, even in the cutting-edge world of megachurches - the congregation or elected lay leaders make the final decisions on budgets, debt and salaries.

Elevation does have a five-person governing board. But it offers none of these seats to those who actually fill up the church’s theater-like sanctuaries every Saturday and Sunday.

Instead, Furtick and four out-of-town megachurch pastors direct the church’s $25 million budget, its ambitious building program, its debt and a host of other matters.

This “board of overseers” also sets the salary and housing allowance for the 33-year-old pastor, using a compensation study of a range of churches that’s conducted by a law firm the church won’t identify. Furtick doesn’t vote on his own compensation, the church says.

Ministers who lead megachurches of Elevation’s size are paid as much as $500,000 a year, according to the Leadership Network, a think tank that advises large churches.

A dynamic preacher who started Elevation in 2006 with just seven families, Furtick hand-picked the original board members. As a member himself, he still has a voice – and a vote – in who fills board vacancies.

And questions have been raised about whether the board has the independence to provide strong oversight and hold Furtick and his staff accountable.

“I just don’t know how (a board of out-of-town pastors) can understand what’s going on in the church if they’re not there,” said Simeon May, CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administrators, whose member churches tend to belong to denominations.

At least one of the pastors overseeing the church has had close ties with Furtick for years. In the latest issue of the church’s magazine, the Elevation board’s longest-serving member – Perry Noble, pastor of NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C. – is described as “one of Pastor Steven’s closest friends.”

Other questions about Furtick’s compensation have come to the fore in recent months after reports by the Observer and WCNC-TV that he was building a 16,000-square-foot gated estate on a large wooded lot in the Weddington area of Union County.

The news about Furtick’s luxury home and the way he bought the land - listing a trust, not his name, on the deed and tax records - has for some drawn comparisons to the PTL saga. Once a Charlotte area success story, Jim and Tammy Bakker’s TV ministry turned into a national cautionary tale about what can happen when there’s too-little transparency and oversight.

“I don’t go as far as comparing it to PTL,” said Lowman of the Charlotte-area Southern Baptist group. “But we as Christians have to be wise in the ways we present ourselves if we want to be the best witnesses for Christ.”

Most of those who attend Elevation had a very different reaction. They gave Furtick a standing ovation when he addressed the headlines about the house. The real news, these supporters say, is that Elevation, whatever its governing setup, is turning thousands of people into followers of Jesus and pouring money and volunteers into local charities.

Since its start, Elevation has given away more than $11 million to charities, missions and new churches. More than half of that amount has gone to Charlotte groups. In a video shown at last weekend’s services, the church told attendees that it has donated a total of $475,000 to Crisis Assistance Ministry, which provides emergency assistance to those needing help with rent and utility bills.

“What they’re doing for the city of Charlotte is incredible,” said Melissa Sawyer, a teacher from Waxhaw who attends the church’s Blakeney location with her husband and their three teenagers. “And what they’re doing for my family is incredible.”

She and husband Charles also said they’re not concerned about the questions regarding governance and salaries.

“We try not to be critical, but to trust,” she said. Going to Elevation, he said, “has grown our faith.”

Meanwhile, those put off by Elevation’s lack of transparency and local input tend to just stop going rather than stick around as internal dissidents.

James Simpson, a former Elevator who lives in Union County with his wife and son, sang on the church’s praise team early in its history, left for another church and then tried Elevation again last year before deciding it wasn’t the place for him. He pointed to the lack of transparency and the feeling that he and others were being kept in the dark as one big reason why he eventually gave up on Elevation.

“They’re always talking about trying to raise money. What happens to the money? I have no clue,” said Simpson, whose family now attends Carmel Baptist Church. “And I’ve never seen a vote (at Elevation). They just say, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is what we’ve planned.’ It wasn’t my cup of tea, so I left.”

Even as Elevation draws thousands to its services, the church is also a magnet for critics, sparking at least two Twitter accounts that regularly roast the church and Furtick: @elevationwatch and @furtickhouse.

The church has fought back against its critics – a group Furtick has labeled “haters.” “Hey, Haters, I hate to break this to you, “ Furtick says in a video posted on YouTube two years ago, “but your day is done.”

Member involvement

Most churches and denominations involve some and often all of their members in key money decisions.

Canon law in the Catholic Church requires that each parish and diocese have a finance council of lay members.

At smaller Baptist churches, the congregation often knows and votes on the pastor’s salary. Presbyterian and United Methodist churches have detailed rules about the election and powers of lay leaders, and their pastor salaries are made public in lists compiled by both denominations.

Even in churches where the pastor’s salary isn’t revealed to the full congregation, boards made up of church members usually set that compensation.

“We don’t reveal the salaries of anybody on staff, as a courtesy, “ said the Rev. James White, pastor at nondenominational Mecklenburg Community Church, a multicampus megachurch in Charlotte. “But we make the process itself transparent. You get to vote on people (the church’s trustees) who set the salary, and they have to be members.”

External boards are not unheard of in newer, younger megachurches. But many of them will also have an internal board of members who make financial decisions.

“One would be a board of church members that function as trustees and run the business side, “ said Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “And then the pastor may have overseers who hold him morally accountable. The gray area is who sets the pastor’s salary, but that usually falls to the internal board.”

This is the model recommended by the Association of Related Churches (ARC), which helps start new evangelical churches that aspire to grow into megachurches.

It’s also the setup at one of the churches led by an Elevation board member.

Pastor Stovall Weems’ Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Fla., has a board of trustees composed of church members. It approves Celebration’s budgets, spending and other financial commitments, spokeswoman Jenny Huang said. It also establishes a compensation committee each year that sets Weems’ salary based on industry data.

Celebration has a board of overseers, too. It’s made up of senior pastors of “nationally respected congregations and ministries, “ Huang said, but its focus is “purely spiritual, “ providing moral oversight for the pastor and the church.

Celebration is a member of ARC; Elevation is not.

Furtick declined to talk with the Observer about his salary or Elevation’s decision to forgo local boards of deacons and elders.

But Elevation chief financial officer James “Chunks” Corbett, one of the very few at Elevation who knows how much Furtick is paid, said the church is transparent with how it spends its money overall.

An annual report that is given to Elevation attendees revealed, for example, that its 2012 personnel costs, for about 100 employees, totaled nearly $6 million.

“While we don’t publish individual salaries,” he said, “we’re very open that our revenue to pay for all the personnel is at or around 30 percent, which is well below the national average for churches our size.”

Corbett also defended Elevation’s decision to go with one board of out-of-town pastors, saying they mostly lead even bigger churches and are uniquely qualified to help the Charlotte church deal with expansion, multiple sites and long-range vision and planning.

“These guys know how to do it. ... They have been there, done that,” Corbett said. “They understand more than anyone the issues and struggles we face.” Answering to such experienced hands, he added, “is the best way to structure a large church for growth.”

Corbett also disputed the notion that regular Elevation attendees have no input in the church’s decision-making.

He said the board and church staff pay attention to recommendations made by a few Elevation advisory groups, whose members come from the congregation.

One suggests where to spend the church’s outreach money after sifting through applications from charities. And Corbett himself calls on an “Expansion Finance Team” - nine men who attend the church and have financial expertise – to offer advice on real estate and other money matters.

Though they are invited, not elected, to serve, Corbett said, the expansion group has access to all the church’s books and finances, except for what Furtick and other staffers are paid.

Corbett declined to make any of these advisers available to the Observer.

His description of the relationship between the church and its flock?

Elevation, Corbett said in an emailed statement, “exists to teach, encourage and build up those who choose to attend. ... We tailor all of our decisions each week to what we understand the needs of our attendees to be. They, in turn, pray for our ministry, serve and give financially to support the church, find community through our small groups, and participate in evangelism by inviting others who may not have a personal relationship with God.”

Elevation is now in its fifth year of getting a financial audit from C. Dewitt Foard & Co., a Charlotte accounting firm.

Corbett would not provide that audit or the church’s bylaws to the Observer, but said anyone connected to Elevation can come by the church office for a look at those documents.

And with all the news in recent months about Furtick’s new home, more Elevators have shown up, he said, “seeking clarity about some of the misconceptions created by the media.”

Added Corbett: “There are no secrets at Elevation Church.”

‘Not a rebellion’

Elevation’s governing style is different from other noted Charlotte megachurches.

Forest Hill, pastored for more than 30 years by David Chadwick, is a nondenominational church on Park Road with satellite locations in Ballantyne and Fort Mill, and plans to expand into Waxhaw. Every weekend, it gets up to 5,000 worshipers.

It’s governed by a council of 12 elders – all members at Forest Hill – who are elected to three-year terms by church members who vote by email. Chadwick also sits on the council.

The council votes on the budget, which is developed by Forest Hill’s chief financial officer and recommended by the church’s Finance Committee, a panel of three elders and three other church members with financial expertise.

The Senior Pastor Development Committee, a group of at least four elders, sets Chadwick’s salary, using data from churches of similar size. It’s then reviewed by the chairs of the Finance and Audit committees. And Forest Hill discloses its audited financial information on its website.

“We meet once a month and have a lot of activity,” said Steve Brown, an accountant who serves on the elders’ board. “And we’ve done it for 30 years.”

What may be most striking about Elevation’s decision to not have a board with church participants is that it still considers itself a Southern Baptist church.

Elevation’s approach is “very not Baptist, “ said Susan Beaumont, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute, an independent think tank near Washington that helps congregations. “Most Baptist churches have huge (member) boards. This is the antithesis of that.”

When Elevation started, it received financial help from both the North Carolina Baptist Convention and the Metrolina Baptist Association. And Furtick has the same educational background as many Southern Baptist pastors: He has a Master of Divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Corbett said Elevation still subscribes to Southern Baptist theology and “we are wholeheartedly committed” to the Baptist duty of supporting mission work around the world.

But Corbett pointed to another Baptist principle - that each local church is autonomous.

“This is not a rebellion,” Corbett said of its governing setup. “(Baptist groups) never told us what to do. And we thought we did what was best.”

Some bigger Southern Baptist churches have moved to a setup in which elders make major financial decisions.

“But it’s safe to say that, generally, even churches with an elder-led model have some things the congregation would vote on, such as the election of elders,” said Lowman, executive director of the Charlotte-based Baptist group.

Beaumont, with the Alban Institute, said Baptists and members of some mainline faiths believe that God plants vision and wisdom in the hearts and minds of the people of the church, and that a governing system is built to honor that.

“It’s more a partnership, with the congregation, the staff and the pastor coming together,” she said. “(Elevation’s approach) provokes the question: What is the role of the laity in that church?”

Elevation’s answer: Its mission is more focused on bringing people to Christ than on keeping them as members.

In “The Code,” an online list of Elevation’s 12 core values, the church says: that “we will not cater to personal preference in our mission to reach this city. We are more concerned with the people we are trying to reach than the people we are trying to keep.”

During its first six months in operation, Elevation encouraged worshipers to sign up as members. But it soon abandoned its classes and sign-ups.

“We wanted people to just try Elevation, not get them to sign papers committing to it,” Corbett said.

Instead, they now urge “participants” to volunteer (3,100 did in 2012), to join small groups (6,800 in 2012) and give money (Elevation won’t divulge how many do).

Volunteers are required to sign one thing: confidentiality agreements forbidding them – at the risk of being taken to court – from divulging any church information.

The agreements, which cite Scriptural passages condemning gossip, have been widely criticized by people who don’t attend the church. Corbett said they are needed to restrict those church volunteers with access to personal data about attendees, including their giving history and contact information.

A competitive marketplace

Some observers of megachurches say they operate in the religious equivalent of the market economy.

In rapidly growing churches such as Elevation, worshipers are considered spiritual consumers or seekers, and pastors are widely referred to as spiritual entrepreneurs who must be free to act quickly in the increasingly competitive marketplace, said Dave Travis, CEO of the Dallas-based Leadership Network, which works with megachurches. Elevation is not a current client of Leadership Network.

In this scenario, congregational decision-making is sometimes dismissed as a thing of the past.

“Everybody who goes to Elevation votes with their feet and wallets every weekend,” Travis said. “They know they don’t get a lot of input like they would at a small neighborhood church. But there’s something there (at Elevation) that has become part of their lives.”

On the other hand, said megachurch expert Thumma, there’s a danger for large churches that downplay membership and local input and instead stress the worship experience.

“The idea of membership means I have some commitment to this place, “ said Thumma, who co-authored a book about megachurches with Travis.

“If you do away with membership, then they’re there because they’re caught up in the excitement. ... That can quickly turn into ‘Am I getting my money’s worth?’ If you don’t create that level of commitment to the organization, it’s easy for that 15,000 to go to 5,000 overnight.”

But there doesn’t seem to be clamor for change among the thousands of people who flock to Elevation every weekend.

Chad Burmeister, 40, of Waxhaw loves Elevation so much that, when he can’t be there in person, he’ll watch the service on his iPad or iPhone.

“I like the message the pastor gives – it’s so relevant to this day and age,” said Burmeister, a sales manager. It’s one he doesn’t believe he can get at traditional churches.

As for all those questions about how Elevation is run, Burmeister said, “I think it’s fine the way it is.”