CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Elevation Church, led by pastor Steven Furtick, has doubled its average weekly offering in the last two years to more than a half-million dollars a week, and plans to open up to five new locations costing up to $86 million in the Charlotte area, three of which it has not made public.
Those numbers are revealed in a confidential internal report obtained by the NBC Charlotte I-Team. The chief financial officer of the church confirms the numbers are accurate, but says they represent potential deals which may not materialize.
Elevation is the largest megachurch in North Carolina, and one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States. The church has kept its finances secret even from donors, asking staff and some volunteers to sign a confidentiality agreement which threatens to sue them if they disclose internal numbers.
The NBC Charlotte I-Team is withholding some numbers contained in the confidential report to minimize any harm to Elevation’s pending real estate deals.
Elevation’s founding principles called “The Code” state “we are all about the numbers”, and emphasize a reliance on numbers as metrics for growth and success. In one promotional film for Elevation, congregation members identify themselves by the “number” of the order in which they joined the church.
Elevation proudly shares some numbers while keeping others a closely guarded secret. For instance, it totals the number of salvations as 3,785 this year through the first of September, and the number of baptisms as 3,519. It systematically counts the number of people at each service in its eight locations, now regularly totaling more than 14,000 a week.
But when it comes to money, Elevation and its pastor, Steven Furtick, refuse to disclose audited financial statements, salaries, tax-free housing allowances and contracts with for-profit publishers. The confidential report shows that for the first 35 weeks of 2013, Elevation’s average combined operating and expansion offerings, excluding its Toronto location, stood at $550,775.50.
Furtick told the congregation on Sunday, October 27, that Elevation discloses finances “through external audits, as well as audited income and balance statements we make available to everyone who is a part of Elevation Church”.
“That’s not even close to full disclosure,” said Rusty Leonard, founder of MinistryWatch, a watchdog for church donors, “First of all, it’s not the full audited financial statement. It’s just some pretty pictures and a portion of the audited financial statements.”
A full audited financial statement contains formal notes from outside auditors. It discloses what are known as “related party transactions” which can reveal potential conflicts of interest.
Some churches such as Forest Hill Church, another megachurch in Charlotte, make the full audited financial statements public.
Elevation does not disclose its audited financial statement, even to donors and members. Instead it releases a glossy, full-color annual report. The report counts the number of breath mints one “campus pastor” eats, the number of minutes of music from the rock band AC/DC played at the church, and whether the pastor wears a V-neck shirt. It does not reveal the pastor’s salary or benefits.
Furtick assured his church, “I promised that this would always be a ministry of integrity.”
“Unfortunately, that’s just not backed-up by the facts,” said Leonard, “If he was to be truly full of integrity, he would reveal all this information.”
Leonard is willing to publicly question Furtick’s integrity while at the same time admire and wish him well.
“It’s sad,” Leonard said, “It's a great church. Pastor Furtick is a great preacher. He has brought blessings to many. And unfortunately he allowed this situation to get out of control right from the get-go of the organization of the church.”
Few asked Furtick many hard questions about church finances until the NBC Charlotte I-Team reported how Furtick bought a $1.7 million home on more than 19 acres near Weddington.
“If Pastor Furtick had bought a house that was four or five-hundred thousand dollars we wouldn't be having this conversation right now,” Leonard said. “And that's a big house; that's a very big house. Unfortunately he went way over the top…. and he fell into this hubris situation and he's trapped.”
While non-profit religious ministries are required to make their IRS form 990 tax returns public, churches and other houses of worship can keep their finances secret.
Leonard says Elevation’s secrecy hurts other churches as well.
“Non-Christians could say, ‘Why are we giving these guys these tax breaks?’” he said. “In the end, it could be detrimental to the whole church community.”
The 34-page confidential document produced for the Elevation Church “Expansion Team” contains a spreadsheet of the costs of five potential new locations, only two of which have been publicly revealed, a new 1600-seat worship center in Ballantyne, and a new 1200-seat worship center at the former Palace Cinema off of West Catawba at Exit 28 off of I-77 near Lake Norman.
The planning document breaks down land prices, construction costs, upfit costs and soft costs for three more churches in Rock Hill (SC), the University area and Matthews.
The numbers include more than $9 million for audio, video and lighting alone.
Elevation Chief Financial Officer James “Chunks” Corbett emailed NBC Charlotte a statement saying, “While the numbers are accurate they represent far more than our church is undertaking…. Other projects identified in the report you have come into possession of represent potential opportunities we are looking at in the future…. Furthermore, to total these projects assuming they are all going to happen would be categorically false as many are options for the same project and some may never materialize.”
As a religious non-profit, when Elevation buys a property, that property no longer generates property tax revenue.
So it’s a fair question not just for Elevation donors but for all of us as taxpayers: What are we getting in exchange for these tax breaks? And what is Pastor Steven getting? The law does not require him to tell you – and he’s not going to.