It's really all in the family at Lakewood. Even more than you thought.
(Warning: Those of you who think I'm obsessing over Lakewood Church are welcome to skip this post. I admit I never paid much attention to it when it was located in an area I never frequented, but now that it has moved into the former Compaq Center I pass it a couple of times a week and the phenomenon of The Oasis of Love really gives me pause. )
And I'm not the only one. This move has ratcheted up the church's profile not only in the area, but in the state. Yesterday the Houston Chronicle had a lengthy article in its Business Section about the church's sources of income and its finances. When was the last time a church was analyzed like a business in your hometown paper?
Then El Jefe read another feature in this month's Texas Monthly about Joel Osteen and the Lakewood empire called "Prime Minister" by William Martin, a professor of religion and public policy at Rice University, and called my attention to the description of the "polity" of Lakewood in it. This morning I passed Lakewood twice on a trip into presbytery for a meeting and I was struck by the differences between the governance of most mainline Protestant churches and something like Lakewood. So I stopped on the way home to buy the magazine and check out the article for myself.
Lakewood is run by the Osteen family. Period. The board of directors is composed entirely of Osteen family members. The administrative head of the church (or COO in corporate terms) is one of the brothers-in-law of Joel Osteen. Joel is the CEO, as senior pastor. Lakewood can be fairly characterized as a closely-held family-owned business. There is no vestry, session or lay board with members of the congregation elected to provide any oversight for this group. On the other hand, according to the article, the family-run nature of the church is not concealed but is well-known and publicized. Joel Osteen's wife, Victoria, is the "co-pastor" and his two young children are already being groomed for the family business.
There is little accountability for the more than $60 million received in annual revenue at this time. The annual budget is not made available to the congregation, although Martin said he was told there is discussion about doing this. Apparently there is an annual outside audit because Martin was provided with copies of audited statements for the past two fiscal years. It seems like an invitation to charges of financial misdeeds to me to run an organization of any size this way, never mind a church.
I reflected on these differences as I sat through 3 hours of meetings at presbytery. It gave me a new perspective on the value of our endless committee meetings in the Presbyterian system. It seems very un-Protestant to me to set up a church government that mimics the monarchial system of medieval Europe with all policies being decided by a familial oligarchy. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church admonition : No bishop, no king! Why doesn't this concern the 30,000 people who attend every week and contribute to the church?
Maybe they are happy to attend, give their money, participate in activities and not be responsible for participating in the business and policy decisions of the church. Don't we all sometimes share that feeling? We make jokes about committee meetings and whine about them. Next time I do, I will remember Lakewood as I did this morning. Better three hours spent in meetings so we can remain accountable to each other, to the larger church and ultimately to God than to abdicate that responsiblity to a small group so that church decisions remain "all in the family."