The Business Of Faith

Black megachurches are turning pastors into CEOs of multimillion-dollar enterprises

the African American community. The scriptures say that we should be lenders and not borrowers.”

Like their more notorious corporate counterparts, some who work in the ministry are not above engaging in skulduggery to achieve results. At times the misuse of funds and resources is so flagrant it calls into question the privileges afforded to church leaders. Rev. Henry Lyons, for instance, former president of the National Baptist Convention, one of the largest organizations of black clergy, was charged with racketeering and grand theft after the home he shared with a mistress was burned to the ground by his wife. In 1999, Lyons was convicted of grand theft and racketeering charges in Pinellas-Pasco County, Florida, for stealing funds from NBC and the Anti-Defamation League. He is currently preaching at a new church in Florida.

In 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Bishop Eddie Long, minister of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, may have violated Internal Revenue Service regulations by accepting compensation totaling $3.07 million in the use of property and salary from a charity he helped oversee. During a four-year period, he reportedly received a 20-acre, six-bedroom home estimated at $1.4 million; use of a $350,000 luxury Bentley; and more than $1 million in salary, including $494,000 in 2000. J. David Epstein, Long’s tax attorney, denies any improprieties on the part of his client, insisting that the church and the charities have come to the aid of millions. Moreover, Epstein asserts, several independent compensation committees, including New Birth’s and a national accounting firm, sanctioned Long’s compensation package.

Established in 1984, New Birth has more than 25,000 members and nearly 50 ministries. It owns 250 acres of land that boasts a 10,000-seat cathedral; the Family Life Center; the Christian School of Excellence; and a variety of programs and activities such as conferences, concerts, theatrical productions, and educational classes. “They are baseless allegations,” maintains Long in an exclusive interview. “When you grow and become this kind of power base, a lot of things are done to discredit you. There is no indictment. The IRS is fine with us.”

Long says his woes are partly due to a misunderstanding that many people have about the role and function of the modern day megachurch. “The megachurch is a new thing,” says Long, who manages an annual budget of $30 million to $40 million. “When you talk to Bishop Jakes, Bishop Charles E. Blake, and Kirbyjon Caldwell, you will find that we have entered into something that there is not a lot of history about, but at the same time we collaborate with one another to realize that we have a great power base economically, and we have a great voice in our community that has to be heard. One of Dr. King’s legacies is economic empowerment, but the message that is getting out is that we as ministers are trying to chase money and that is not the case.”

According to John Walker, chief creative officer of Chitwood and Chitwood, a Tennessee-based

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