While not profit-driven, Upstate megachurches face many of the same challenges – and reap some of the same rewards – as large corporations
Serving as the CEOs of their industry, today’s megachurch pastors are not only spiritual leaders, but are business leaders in their communities as they move their churches forward in an increasingly competitive landscape.
Debate continues about the true definition of “megachurch,” but according to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, the term refers to any “Protestant congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services.”
According to the Institute, although very large congregations have existed throughout Christian history, there has been a rapid proliferation of churches with massive attendance since the 1970s. Some researchers suggest this church form is a unique collective response to distinctive cultural shifts and changes in societal patterns throughout the industrialized, urban and suburban areas of the world.
There are more than 1,600 megachurches across the United States, and more than 70 percent of those are located in the southern Sun Belt of the United States – with California, Texas, Florida and Georgia having the highest concentrations. The average megachurch has a weekly attendance of 3,943 people, with the largest averaging 45,000 in attendance each week.
Getting the Message to the Masses
The Upstate is home to 14 megachurches, according to the Institute’s database. The largest congregation is NewSpring Church, with an average attendance of 23,000. NewSpring’s model is “one church meeting in different locations,” with its Sunday sermon broadcast from the main Anderson location to all of its statewide campuses.
The next largest congregation is Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville, with an average attendance of 10,550 people each week.
Just like businesses, these large churches have multimillion-dollar budgets, hundreds of employees and are tasked with communicating a uniform message (think “brand”) to thousands of people. Some megachurches across the country operate subsidiaries such as music studios and publishing houses, with multimillion-dollar record and book deals.
It’s all about getting the message to the masses, and each megachurch has its own marketing strategy via social media, targeted ministries, televised sermons, books and videos. Donations can be made through websites, PayPal and automatic payroll withdrawals, all in an effort to make it easy for church members to give.
David Dennis, church administrator for First Baptist Church (FBC) of Spartanburg –average attendance: 7,400 members – came to the church seven years ago after serving in executive-level roles in the insurance industry. Dennis says while there are many similarities to the non-secular business world, he sees the church as “more of an organism that an organization.”
Brookwood Church in Simpsonville has an average attendance of 4,000-5,000 people per week, says senior pastor Perry Duggar. Duggar had served as a defense lawyer before beginning Brookwood with 75 people at the first Sunday service 20 years ago. One of the main differences he sees with the business world is that churches “are not profit-driven” and “don’t operate just from the bottom line.”
Big Money, Big Projects
But it’s big money they are dealing with. Brookwood’s budget is $7.6 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, with tithing and donations as the only income source. In 2012, NewSpring banked $36 million in revenue, of which $25 million was used towards operating expenses and the remaining $10 million went towards new campuses.
Both Brookwood and FBC say they disperse all the money they take in. After operating expenses, ministries are the next biggest expense. Duggar says that 30 percent of Brookwood’s budget goes to benevolence and missions, with $2 million set aside in this fiscal year for a mission project in India.
Dennis likens his role now to a chief operating officer in a large organization. When he first started with the church, he was determined to have job descriptions and merit raises, he says, but quickly learned that in the church, people really “operate more as a function than a position,” noting that people are called upon to use their strengths and abilities regardless of their title.
“Not a Vow of Poverty”
Some national megachurches in recent years have received negative press for pastors receiving elaborate salaries – notably, Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest congregation in the U.S., Lakewood Church in Houston, who according to records, has a net worth of $40 million and lives in a 17,000-square-foot mansion.
Like other businesses, FBC provides a competitive wage. “Going into ministry is not a vow of poverty,” says Dennis, who is quick to add that the compensation is not exorbitant. FBC also offers a full benefit package, including a 403(b) plan (similar to a 401(k)) and health insurance.
The differences lie in the benefits tailored to the church. For example, at FBC health coverage does not provide for abortion services that are required under the Affordable Care Act (churches can opt out) and “sin stocks” – stocks of companies directly involved in or associated with activities that some consider unethical or immoral, such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, weapons and sex-related industries – are not included in the 403(b) retirement options.
Both Brookwood Church and FBC have roughly 140 full- and part-time employees on the payroll, and Dennis and Duggar oversee departments such as IT, accounting, maintenance and government affairs, much like a corporate executive would.
One other difference is that churches are exempt from taxes (except for payroll, sales and property taxes) and some business owners argue that services provided by some megachurches such as child care, fitness and even meals should follow the same rules as for-profit businesses.
“We have fiscal responsibility, but I don’t have to be concerned about the bottom line like CEOs,” said Duggar.
Senior Pastor Perry Noble from NewSpring Church and Senior Pastor Ron Carpenter from Redemption World Outreach Center declined to be interviewed for this article.