An expose of a Kansas City megachurch ran on the front page of The Kansas City Star's Sunday edition and a few readers passed it along then. I apologize for the delay in posting about it, but it's taken me days to get through the whole package. Reporter Judy Thomas wrote sidebar after sidebar, including a piece on how the pastor and his Southern Baptist church have been delinquent in paying tax bills, how various business offshoots add to the pastor's bottom line, details on the pastor's lavish lifestyles, how the "Dr." in the pastor's title comes from an honorary degree and he doesn't even have a bachelor's degree, how he has claimed for years that the church is on the brink of financial destruction, claiming Satan is attacking the church because of all the good work it does and how he has seven family members on the payroll.
The pieces are exhaustively researched. Thomas interviewed dozens of former church members, current and former board members, tax experts and the pastor of the church. Pastor Jerry Johnston gave one 35-minute interview but deferred further questions to a Dallas public relations specialist. The PR man answered a few questions via email before refraining from further comment. Thomas also read through dozens of sermons given at the church. But she specifically said she avoided analyzing the pastor's religious views:
The newspaper did not examine Johnston's religious doctrine or his positions on social issues, only the church's finances.
I think this was intended to keep the discussion on finances, rather than the pastor's conservative political views. But I wish she would have been able to show how or whether his theological views contribute to the financial issues being discussed. Eric Gorski did just that in his series on the financial shenanigans of a Denver megachurch and readers were better off because of it.
The article explains in great detail how the church is structured in a way that provides no financial transparency. It's a riveting package which is all the more impressive considering to what lengths Thomas goes to to write fairly and modestly. This section will give you a feel for her style:
Even critics acknowledge that Johnston is a gifted orator with a strong grasp of Scripture. And supporters say that's what keeps them coming back. The church now boasts more than 4,200 members, a $17 million annual budget and a TV ministry that has gone global.
"I've never seen such a visionary," said Gary Krings, a financial adviser who joined First Family three years ago. "The guy is incredible. There are very few people I see that are making such an impact for Christ worldwide and locally."
But among Johnston's biggest critics are people who either worked for him or were in his inner circle -- including former members of his board. Many were major donors, and several said they gave hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Although their backgrounds are diverse, they all shared similar concerns. They believe the church is in dire need of financial oversight. . . .
David Pinson, who is on the faculty at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said he left the church two years ago because Johnston refused to provide any financial information.
"There's zero accountability," said Pinson, who taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. "I did put money in the church, but I regret every penny of it."
Thomas speaks with officials at other evangelical megachurches as well as evangelical overseers who put the church's claims about the need for secrecy in perspective. Needless to say, the church doesn't have many defenders.
As interesting as this news package is, the most interesting thing about it was this disclosure about the reporter at the bottom of the main story:
Thomas is a longtime member of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.
Thomas' church is a megachurch and she mentions it in her story to compare size and budget. That pretty much means she had to disclose it. One GetReligion reader said that members of the profiled church think Thomas' affiliation disqualifies her from writing the story since she goes to a megachurch down the road. What do you think?