Readers in Denver should be thankful for Eric Gorski, the wonderful religion reporter at the Denver Post. I've read and enjoyed him for years. Gorski never takes the easy road when describing complex religious ideas. Because he takes the time to understand nuance, his stories are much more fleshed out. His editors gave him a lot of time and space over Columbus Day weekend to cover one local religious leader: Bishop Dennis Leonard of Heritage Christian Center. Since I hail from the Denver area, I've known more than a few people who were members of that megachurch.
"Bank on God: storing up riches on earth," the first story in the series, sets the stage for Bishop Leonard's underlying theology of prosperity. Gorski speaks to theologians at various schools but also a number of current and former members of Heritage. It gives the reader a much more realistic view of how the theology filters down to the practical level. Gorski's gift is balance -- he speaks to members who talk about the benefits of tithing and he speaks to former members who dispute the claim that God is reciprocal.
"The gospel of prosperity," the second story, is a breathtaking expose of all the financial dealings of Bishop Leonard, his family members, and the church itself. I can't imagine how much time Gorski spent interviewing countless players and establishing the story. Gorski spoke with multiple experts familiar with IRS law and did his best to reveal motivations of conflicting parties. This story exhaustively uncovers complex financial dealings and substantiates allegations well. Here's the summary at the beginning of the piece:
Project Heritage, a nonprofit founded by the church, was faulted for squeezing too much profit out of a government program to help low-income families buy renovated homes. Leonard's daughter-in-law and the daughters of the board chairman earned real estate commissions on the home sales, which the government flagged as a conflict of interest.
The lead real estate agent at the time said a Project Heritage executive told her to funnel half her commission income back to the nonprofit and pressure a lender to donate half his profits to a ranch for youths founded by Garret Leonard, the pastor's younger son. The executive denied the former claim, and Garret Leonard called the latter charge "a lie from hell itself."
While many of his church members live on the edge financially, Leonard enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, living in a $1.4 million home in the gated golf community of Castle Pines Village, driving luxury vehicles and vacationing at a condo in Mexico. The bishop also flew across the country on a multimillion-dollar church-owned jet, angering some church members, before it was sold.
The church became fertile ground for a sales networking business that involved Michele Leonard, the bishop's third wife, and his elder son, Mark. They and other Heritage pastors recruited others in the church community to buy and sell wellness products for which they could earn extra income based on the sales of their recruits.
A board of elders that established Bishop Leonard's salary was restructured, taking that decision away from church members. Leonard now sits on the church's board of directors, and the church says an outside independent board sets his salary.
The portrait that emerges of Heritage Christian Center is a conflicting one. While preaching a gospel of wealth, Leonard also urges the faithful to give back: The church runs one of the city's largest food banks, a "breakfast club" that prepares meals for the homeless in shelters and parks, a prison ministry that installed 26 satellite dishes in state prisons and an emergency outreach that clothed Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Gorski easily could have written a hit piece that focused solely on the allegations of misdeeds. But he works overtime to get all sides to the story and paint the most balanced picture possible. He shows how Leonard, while he might make $750,000 a year or more, pastors a multiracial congregation and how his sermons counsel people. The $8 million jet that flew Leonard around might have been an example of an extravagant expenditure, but Gorski talks to the pilot who says he never saw such a frugal operation in 40 years of aviation.
In the end, that approach might make the piece all the more damning.
Still, he breaks down the problems in a Housing and Urban Development-financed project, including conflicts of interest, overcharging for homes, financial reporting problems, and kickbacks.
Most reporters would just write a story about financial shenanigans. Gorski does that and more. By establishing a prosperity theology baseline, he more accurately and fairly presents the Leonard picture. He ends with this telling quote about Leonard and his sons from his first wife, Christine Jewett Robie:
"They truly live and believe that if you give you will get back," said Jewett Robie, who lives in Boulder. "In a way, they've proven that. I don't think everyone knows all of the story, what they go through. They work hours and hours. Church is a business.
"They run it like a business. And it's been successful."
The final piece focuses in on Leonard and his appeal. Gorski lets parishioners praise him and former parishioners raise questions about his financial dealings and theological depth.
The series is well worth reading, even this chart showing the differences between the way two churches govern themselves.