13 INVESTIGATES: Mega church money - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Mega church money

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GOOD HOPE, AL - Pastor Jerry Lawson leads Daystar Church in Good Hope. They opened their one thousand seat auditorium six years ago, where they, like all churches, strive to be good stewards with their congregation's giving.

“No more than a third is salaries, for all employees.  No more than a third is program costs and facilities costs and a good third is outreach,” Pastor Lawson stressed.

To find out how the area's biggest churches are spending their tithes and offerings, we first had to narrow our search to the ten largest in our 21 county viewing area.

Based on our research, here is the list we came up with: The Church of the Highlands, Church at Brook Hills, Gardendale First Baptist, Hoover's Hunter Street Baptist and the Worship Center Christian Church in east Jefferson County.

The rest of the top ten included Homewood's Dawson Baptist, Shades Mountain Baptist, Faith Chapel Christian Center, Briarwood Presbyterian and Pastor Lawson's Daystar Church.   

For a complete attendance ranking of the ten largest churches, click on the link to the right.

When we sat down with Pastor Lawson he was very open about how they decide how much money he makes.

“When it comes to the senior pastor's salary we hire an outside firm to make a recommendation of what pastors all over America should make with our numbers,” Pastor Lawson pointed out.

Dr. Tom Fuller at the Beeson Divinity School has researched mega churches.

He says the IRS does have some authority to ensure pastor salaries do not become excessive.

“Typically they would begin with some sort of sanction and then if the situation was not remedied they might proceed to revoke their tax exempt status.  But the IRS has been very hesitant to get into that,” Fuller said.

To find out how churches are prioritizing their tithes and offerings, we requested the latest financial figures from the ten churches we mentioned.

Of those, seven opened their books to us.

That group included Church of the Highlands, the Church at Brook Hills, Gardendale First Baptist, Hunter Street Baptist, Shades Mountain Baptist, Briarwood Presbyterian and Daystar Church.  Take a look at the original figures for yourself by clicking on the links to the right.

The total annual budget for that group ranges from $2.7 million all the way up to $42.5 million.

So of that, what percentage should a church spend on administration and personnel costs?

Based the budgets we were given, the percentage ranges from as low as twenty percent, right up to that fifty percent mark.

De Allen is the Executive Pastor for Administration with Gardendale First Baptist Church.

“On the personnel side we are usually around 42 percent.  The reason you do that is Jon is combined you've got to make sure you've got something left over for ministries, which is what it's all about,” Allen said.

So what about general church operations and ministries?

The seven churches in our survey spend as little as four percent and as much as 27 percent in that category.

There is a similar range for missions and outreach funding.

Two churches spent around eight percent and one as much 28 percent.

“When someone says how much of your budget goes to missions, sort of in a coy way I say one hundred percent. Because if it's not reaching the mission of Jesus we quit doing it.  We just don't do it,” Pastor Jerry Lawson stated.

Finally, next to personnel costs, the churches we studied spent the most on facilities and debt, between 15 and 52 percent.

Like we mentioned seven of the ten churches we contacted agreed to share their finances with us, something which is not required by the IRS.

“While I don't think it needs to be made a matter of public record, at the same time I hope any church would be of the attitude that we would gladly welcome a fair auditing by anyone,” Dr. Tom Fuller argued.

Pastor Jerry Lawson and the Daystar Church fall into that group.

He said in his opinion, the handful of scandals the American Church has seen over the years should motivate all churches to open their books.  

“Because of all that, people are very, I guess jaded and they question a lot of things.  So I think it is very important not only just to be transparent to your local church membership but to the community at large,” Pastor Lawson said.

Ultimately, though, each church is responsible to the members which fund it.

Refusing to provide finances to its own congregation should not be an option.

“I think the key is if you have unity in the church and you've got trust among your leadership than i think that gives your members sort of a peace that the money is god's money and it's been accounted for and it's been spent wisely,” Allen concluded.

In full disclosure, that group of top ten churches included my own.

I am a member of Hunter Street Baptist Church.

They were the first church of which I requested a budget and the first to provide it.
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