Thursday, December 31, 2009


Oh God (and as you’ll see if you keep reading, I use the name appropriately here). Everything old is new again. Rick Warren (right,center, with John McCain and President Obama)--the celebrity pastor who helms the Saddleback mega-church, and who was invited to speak at President Obama’s inauguration – has sent a letter to his tens of thousands of congregants. It says this:
“With 10% of our church family out of work due to the recession, our expenses in caring for our community in 2009 rose dramatically while our income stagnated. Still, with wise management, we've stayed close to our budget all year. Then... this last weekend the bottom dropped out. On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive - leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year, unless you help make up the difference today and tomorrow.
Warren issued his plea this week, and made it clear the money has to be in place by January 1.

Hello? Does this kind of desperate last minute plea by a celebrity clergyman ring any bells? Let me refresh your memory. High profile pastor Oral Roberts – 1987 – remember? That was the year he told his congregants that unless he was able to raise $8 million by March 31 the Lord would call him home. Whew! Lucky for Oral, he raised $9.1 million quick and the Lord didn’t call him until this very week.

Meanwhile, what about Rod Parsley (left)? A less familiar name, perhaps, but equally as desperate as Rick and Oral. Parsley is the head of the Ohio-based World Harvest Church. This week, Parsley told his congregants this:
“…Everything is at stake…I’m facing the greatest financial attack in 30 years…All I’m asking is for you to help save this great ministry…Let’s turn back this demonically-inspired attack against this ministry…”
The bottom line? Parsley wants members of his flock to pony up $250,000, and fast. And what’s worse – apparently the devil is to blame. Not the U.S. economy, not mis-management of funds, not over-spending, not anything man-made. The devil!

Color me skeptical. Even color me cynical, if it makes you feel better, but I have watched these guys over the years and one wonders: Why do the financial crises of mega-churches always occur so desperately at the eleventh hour? Why are the churches that take in more money than some mega-corporations, not doing a better job of managing their businesses? They are indeed businesses. Purportedly, they are non-profit businesses, but they are businesses just the same. They have customers called congregants and a product that is of great value to the congregants. They have cash flow, real estate, investments and a promotional machine in place that could easily rival the NFL, AIG and Bank of America combined. So, why do they find themselves in such desperate straits?

Further, why are the Warrens, Roberts and Parsleys of the spiritual world always such controversial figures? Warren, you will recall, is the guy who in 2005 said Michael Schiavo’s decision to remove a feeding tube from his wife Terry, who was in a persistent vegetative state, was “an atrocity worthy of Nazism.” He is also the man who publicly crossed the divide between church and state by endorsing Proposition 8, the 2008 California bill that eventually outlawed gay marriage. Warren is also the guy who gathered thousands of young people in a stadium and talked about how powerful Hitler was when he gathered the youth of Germany together in 1939. Watch:

And Parsley? Well, Parsley, who calls himself a “Christocrat,” and who makes no bones about his political views ("The left has chosen the courts as a major battlefield over social issues”) strongly allied himself with John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign. By Spring of ’08 McCain publicly denounced Parsley’s characterization of Islam as “inherently violent.” Still, as recently as two months prior to rejecting Parsley’s endorsement, at a campaign rally in Cincinnatti, McCain hailed Parsley as a “spiritual guide.” Parsley may have taken his spiritual/political connection a bit too far by 2006, when a group of Ohio clergymen charged that Parsley had violated his church’s tax-exempt status by publicly taking sides on political issues.

Men like Warren and Parsley increasingly come off as extremists in the public arena. Their followers are often average Americans in need of spiritual guidance and affiliation. Those are legitimate human needs that appear to be trampled on by celebrity pastors who prey on their followers’ often limited finances. From the outside looking in, one tends to see these guys as financially predatory toward congregants who are not just looking for something in which to believe, but for someone in whom to believe. The media tends to operate as a societal watchdog, and frequently Warren and Parsley have taken verbal shots at media organizations. Do they fear public scrutiny of their closely guarded finances? Are there elements of successful mega-ministries that their keepers feel are not suitable for public consumption? And what about these last minute, frantic please for funds? Why?

So, will the desperate Rick Warren succeed in raising almost a million dollars in a two-day period? And will the equally anxious Rod Parsley encourage his followers to ante up 250 grand in record time? Compared to the late Oral Roberts’ campaign to raise $8 million way back in 1987, Warren and Parsley’s requests are peanuts. And sadly there are an awful lot of trusting people out there who will heed the call. Call it a hunch, but I predict the pastors will way, way exceed their stated financial goals.

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