Did you hear about the scandal that may be brewing surrounding the Rev. Eddie Long, the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church with 25,000 members in Atlanta?  He has been accused of molesting four male members of his church when they were boys.  To be fair, the charges of the alleged victims have not been proven to be true, so we should assume Rev. Long is innocent until proven otherwise.

What I want to focus on is the Achilles’ heel of these mega churches.  But first, the following is copied and pasted from the church’s web site:

“New Birth has entered the new millennium stronger than ever with over 25,000 members. Called to Conquer, a new book by Bishop Long, hits the scene in the year 2000. New Birth moved into a magnificent new place of worship, the New Birth Cathedral in spring 2001. The $50 million dollar complex seats 10,000 people and contains administrative offices, a library, a 1700-square foot bookstore, a computer lab, a kitchen, audio and video studios, a nursery and more. New Birth sponsors various programs and events that minister to people locally, nationally and internationally. Thousands have discovered their destinies due to the continual sacrifice of Senior Pastor Bishop Eddie L. Long, a man after God’s own heart. To God be the glory!” 

The category of mega church which New Birth falls into includes the following characteristics:

1. The congregation’s ministry tends to focus on one person, the pastor.

2. The pastor wields enormous authority and power.

3. The pastor acts as a CEO and chooses the board of directors who decisions re. governance.

4. The message preached by the pastor is PROSPERITY, i.e. if you give your life to Christ and obey him, you will prosper.

The Achilles’ heel is accountability.  Much like the CEOs of Lehman Brothers and AIG, the man at the top makes the decisions and the stakeholders have to trust that he his making those decisions with their best interest in mind.  That’s why, in almost all cases, the pastors of these mega churches are charismatic folks who are capable projecting an image to thousands of people in one auditorium that they are trustworthy.

There’s very little transparency in these organizations.  To function as a staff member in a congregation like New Birth, you have to be OK living under the authority of the boss.  And, when the boss retires or dies, the organization hits a crisis.

Bill Winston, the pastor of Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park, runs in the same circles that Pastor Long runs in.  When the news of Long’s problems hit the news, the reporter mention Creflo Dollar and T.D. Jakes as ministers with a similar profile as that of Long.  Both pastors have spoken at Living Word many times.

I’m not implying that there is a hint of scandal at Living Word.  As far as I know, Bill Winston is a man of integrity.  But, as I’ve watched Living Word grow from just twelve members twenty years ago to 15,000 today, I’ve watched him consolidate power at the top of his organizations.

Whenever I’ve called Living Word to get information for a story over the years, the person to whom I’m talking always has to check it out with Pastor Winston.

So identified is Living Word with Bill Winston that many of the programs there are referred to as coming from Bill Winston Ministries rather than from Living Word.

The advantage of that kind of authoritarian organizational structure is that it is efficient.  Decisions get made and things get done.  The disadvantage is that when the leader stumbles, the whole organization falls and gets broken bones and bruises.

I know several intelligent, competent, educated people who belong to Living Word.  They trust their pastor completely.  For their sake, I hope there continues to be no scandal at Living Word.  My worry is that Bill Winston shares the same sinful human nature as I have, and I wouldn’t trust myself with that much power.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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