(Photo: Church governance models determine whether church “members” or board members can remove a pastor or priest.)
“Who can fire the pastor?” It’s a key question to ask when investigating the power structure of churches and ministries as a growing number of pastors adopt barriers to accountability which prevent them from being fired.
Sometimes corrupt pastors are protected by family members and yes men serving on church boards or corporation documents providing dictatorial powers.
Church articles of incorporation and church bylaws determine if church attendees can be members and if they are allowed to vote on church business.
In 2011, televangelist Eddie Long settled lawsuits with five men accusing him of sexual assault. Long did not disclose how much New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (NBMBC) spent to resolve the litigation. Concerned church attendees lacked the ability to remove the pastor from the pulpit.
NBMBC was founded in 1974. The original articles of incorporation stated, “The membership of the corporation shall be known as the ‘congregation’ …”
In 1997 the church articles of incorporation were re-stated and church membership was eliminated: “The Corporation hereby elects to have no members. Any action which would otherwise require a vote of members shall require only a vote of the members of the Board of Directors, and no meeting or vote of members shall be required for this Corporation …” (Emphasis added.)
The board of NBMBC, which may have been the pastor’s only form of accountability, either refused to remove Pastor Long or they were legally prevented from doing so by church bylaws.
It is quite common for megachurches and televangelist ministries to eliminate member voting rights and restrict key business decisions to the board of directors. As another example, Benny Hinn’s World Healing Center Church changed its articles of incorporation to give complete financial control to the board of directors.
Secret Church Bylaws Include Veto Powers for Pastors
In some churches the pastor cannot be fired. The churches of televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Paula White adopted church bylaws giving pastors veto power over their board of directors.
Unlike articles of incorporation, church bylaws are difficult to obtain as few churches post them online. Occasionally these documents are submitted to government agencies and can be obtained via Open Records Requests or litigation.
Trinity Foundation obtained bylaws of Paula White’s church by going to court to unseal financial documents submitted by White during a court battle.
Amid bank statements for Paula’s New Destiny Christian Center Church appeared eleven pages of church bylaws stamped, “CONFIDENTIAL!”
Section 5b stated, “The Pastor-President shall serve as President and a member of the Board of Directors of the Church until her death or resignation, and without need of election or appointment. She shall not be subject to removal.” (Emphasis added.)
Meanwhile, the bylaws of Copeland’s Eagle Mountain International Church require the president’s signature to remove an officer. Because Copeland is president of the church, he can prevent his removal by not signing a removal order.
There have been no criminal charges brought against Copeland or White, but if they were charged and convicted of fraud, tax evasion or other crimes, they could continue serving as pastor unless a government agency would take over the church and appoint new leadership. This process of putting a church in receivership is rarely, if ever, used.
In 2019, televangelist William Todd Coontz was convicted of tax evasion. His appeals to the United States Supreme Court failed and Coontz began serving a five-year prison sentence in 2021. Meanwhile, Coontz remains on the board of Rockwealth Ministries, the organization he used as a vehicle for tax evasion. He was never fired.
Meanwhile, as he sits in prison his website is still raising money from unsuspecting donors and his “About Todd Coontz” page makes no mention of his conviction. His “Speaking Schedule” page states, “NEW MEETINGS DATES POSTED FREQUENTLY. Please bookmark this page and check back for a meeting in your area.”
Headship and The Moses Model
Various church leaders have attempted to defend minimal oversight by appealing to scripture.
Several months ago, in a YouTube video infamous Pastor Mark Driscoll claimed that churches with large boards of directors are ineffective. Driscoll also claimed pastors should oversee the church like a father oversees his family. “And so governance in the church should follow the governance of the kingdom and of the home, singular headship, plural leadership.”
Last year the governing body at Driscoll’s church in Arizona dramatically changed. Three of four board members for The Trinity Church left the board. Driscoll, the only remaining board member, was joined by one new addition as a church employee was added.
There is no independent oversight for Driscoll as he can fire Brandon Anderson, the employee serving on the board.
In Driscoll’s church, attendees are unable to vote on important business as such functions are completely controlled by the church’s two board members.
Perhaps, Driscoll’s opposition to strong church boards is based on his experience at a previous megachurch.
Driscoll co-founded Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Under his charismatic leadership, Mars Hill became a massive megachurch with more than 14,000 members.
Driscoll’s aggressive self-promotion and authoritarian leadership style led to his downfall.
Driscoll’s book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together appeared for one week on The New York Times Best Seller list after Driscoll’s church partnered with a marketing company to purchase 11,000 copies of the book.
Journalist Warren Cole Smith of World Magazine discovered that $210,000 was spent buying copies of the book to place it on best seller lists. News of the book buying scheme harmed the church’s reputation.
Driscoll also removed pastors that questioned and criticized his decisions.
The church collapsed like a deck of cards after Driscoll resigned in 2014. Then Driscoll relocated to Arizona and launched The Trinity Church.
Chuck Smith, the founder of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, embraced the Moses Model, a church governance model whereby the pastor ruled the congregation.
In the handbook Calvary Distinctives, Smith explained, “Let’s look at an example of theocracy in which God was ruling. Under God there was a man called Moses. Moses went to God for guidance and direction. Moses was the earthly leader who was recognized as receiving from God the guidance, direction, laws, and rules for the nation.”
Smith further elaborated, “I believe that God’s model is that the pastor is ruled over by the Lord and recognized by the congregation as God’s anointed instrument to lead the church, with the Board guiding and directing.”
According to Smith, church board members held an important role in solving problems in the church by providing support rather than oversight: “Now, real elders aren’t a bunch of ‘yes’ men, but they are men yielded to the Holy Spirit. They’re a real buffer and protection for me. Their job is to interface with the congregation. The congregation brings any problems that they see to them.”
“Corporation Soles” and Limited Liability Companies
Some churches operate without a board of directors or board of elders. Religious leaders create single member organizations called “corporation soles” in which all important decision making is reserved for one person.
Perhaps the best-known corporation sole in America is the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the property holding company of the Mormon church.
According to Forbes, “This is a reasonable technique for hierarchical churches – associating the property with the office. Churches with more of a congregational polity need to stay away from this form.”
The misuse of corporation soles for tax evasion resulted in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) launching an information campaign and investigations of suspicious single member religious organizations.
In 2004 the IRS included corporation soles in its Dirty Dozen list of popular tax scams.
IRS Commissioner Mark Everson warned, “This scheme shamelessly tries to take advantage of special tax benefits available to legitimate religious groups and church leaders.”
An alternative to corporation soles are limited liability companies (LLC) operated by managers. Hillsong implemented this strategy by establishing churches as LLCs. A single manager makes key financial decisions and creates or enforces policies of the church.
When a church is sued, often the entire board is included in the litigation. By creating a church as an LLC and having one manager, a church can limit the number of people liable for harmful actions.
The Need for Independent Oversight
In the late 1970s several religious financial scandals occurred, resulting in congressmen considering legislation to regulate churches. A group of religious organizations pooled resources and established the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) as an alternative to stricter government oversight of religion.
ECFA created a set of standards for its member organizations to follow. Standard #2 addresses church governance:
“Every organization shall be governed by a responsible board of not less than five individuals, a majority of whom shall be independent, who shall meet at least semiannually to establish policy and review its accomplishments.”
Independent board members do not work for the church or ministry and are not family members of board members.
Independent boards are so important the IRS asks non-profit organizations to list the total number of board members and independent board members on page one of the Form 990, a financial disclosure document non-profit organizations are required to file. (Churches, synagogues and mosques are exempted.)
(Photo: Trinity Broadcasting of Texas, the new parent organization of Trinity Broadcasting Network, has three voting board members of which none are independent.)
Board independence is especially critical when a non-profit provides excessive compensation (payments exceeding $1 million) to board members.
(Photo: Schedule J of Trinity Broadcasting of Texas reveals that board members approve each other’s compensation.)
If Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the world’s largest religious TV network, began providing multimillion dollar compensation packages to each of its board members, the IRS would likely ask for board minutes during an audit to learn about the approval of excessive compensation.
TBN has operated like a family business for decades. Most of the non-profit organization’s officers have been family members. Currently, two of the network’s directors are Matthew and Laurie Crouch who are husband and wife.
If the Crouches were to be charged with criminal misconduct, who could fire them? Like many religious broadcasters, TBN claims to be a church.
Donors to churches and ministries should check out the organizations they financially support. When an organization fails to include independent board members or provide oversight to its leadership, donors should proceed with caution.
When a pastor is not removed from leadership after participating in a scandal, donors should ask why. If church leadership refuses to answer questions, a cover-up may be in progress.
Our witness to others about the virtue, force, and effectiveness of Christ is harmed when Christians excuse corrupt pastors. An unholy church does not honor a holy God. By holding pastors and priests accountable, Christians protect the moral character and reputation of the Church.