An item showed up on my megachurch Google Alert this morning regarding the court-appointed reorganization of Word of Faith International Christian Center in Jackson Mississippi:
A Jackson lawyer will oversee pretrial proceedings in a case pitting a Jackson megachurch against its former general manager over ownership of the beleaguered Mississippi Basketball and Athletics complex.Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Sweet Owens on Friday named James Henley as special master in the legal imbroglio involving Word of Faith Christian Center church and Jeffery Lewis, who is currently operating the church’s former foundation, court records show.
Special masters are officers of the court who serve in a quasi-judicial capacity. [link]
The foundation here is not strictly speaking part of the church. It’s complicated.
Founding bishop Kevin Wright stepped down in September of last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct and mismanagement of funds. It was subsequently discovered that
the MBA Center, which was paid for by the WOF Foundation but placed in Wright’s name. According to sources, Butler ordered it closed. The price tag for the MBA Center was estimated at $2 million. [link]
A later article clarifies and corrects some of the accusations and figures [link] but doesn’t correct the earlier statement that the MBA was paid for by the church but technically owned by Wright. How it came to be owned by the church foundation and into the control of Lewis isn’t clear.
That’s not the only thing that isn’t clear; the church is listed in more than one article as being a 4000+-member megachurch, but somehow missed the Hartford Institute list [link].
This basic pattern, however, is familiar: a church grows from being small to being large in a single generation; there’s financial stress and sexual misconduct; and business practices that weren’t worth mentioning when the church had nothing of value became important when the church was big, handling lots of money, and suddenly having shall we say organizational issues.
What’s the takeaway here? Well, I’d be tempted to put it this way: if a church or a parachurch organization is a single generation old (that is, if the founder is still on staff in any capacity) I’d suggest finding out who legally owns and controls the church, its property, and its finances. This is especially true if there is a second entity (an integrated auxiliary, if you will) such as a school, radio station, television station, publishing or production company, or sports complex that appears to be under the ministry’s organizational umbrella.
This is one more reason to suggest that if a church has a second entity like this the whole ministry should file the IRS Form 990 and disclose its assets.