How Christian Leaders Fleece Their Sheep

How Christian Leaders Fleece Their Sheep October 8, 2013

It always makes me boggle when I hear Christians comparing themselves to sheep. It’s like they have no idea why shepherds keep sheep: for their fleece, their milk, and their meat. There’s a fundamental disconnect there between fantasy and reality, but the disconnect is hardly new. And that disconnect richly serves the interests of the people benefiting from all that fleece.

sheep on a hill in ireland
Sheep on a Hill, Ireland. (ccharmon, Flickr.)

Glamorizing Poverty.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria
Marie-Antoinette of Austria (Wikipedia). Get this gal a shepherd’s crook, STAT!

In centuries past, a fad emerged around Marie Antoinette’s day for “pastoralism.” All these foppish high-level courtiers and dazzling women dressed in what upper-class nobility thought shepherds and milkmaids wore. Then, they romped around their idea of hobby farms with crooks and yokes and pails pretending to be peasants.

The only way such a fad could exist was if these nobles were completely disconnected from the day-to-day lives of real peasants.

A couple hundred years previously, these same nobles would have lived cheek-to-jowl with their peasants. The lives of the upper classes entwined with those of the lower classes in every way. In Montaillou: Promised Land of Error we find loads of info about that topic.

But Marie’s crowd thought this was just the jolliest lark imaginable. Unfortunately, they performed those tasks in spectacularly inefficient and worse-than-useless ways.

The Real Shepherds of Orange County.

English: Engraving of Marie Antoinette à la pa...
Marie Antoinette in peasant costume. (Wikipedia). At least she seems more comfortable in that get-up.

In the same way, modern people think that of the shepherd as some kind of massive humanitarian or something. In like fashion, they consider sheep as this gentle, docile, protected little flock.

The only way this delusion can exist is if the people thinking it have no idea how animal husbandry really operates.

In reality, the vast majority of shepherds don’t keep flocks of sheep because sheep are cute or they need pets. They do it because they plan to take things from those sheep. Either they want to fleece the sheep, shearing them of their warm coats of wool (see endnote), or else they want to kill and eat the sheep. If they protect the sheep, they do so for a purpose. They may rescue little lambs, purely because lambs grow up to be productive. Nobody sensible allows an investment go to waste.

With that said, let’s look at Ed Young and James MacDonald, the pastors of two huge megachurches. Respectively, they lead Fellowship Church in Grapevine (Texas) and Harvest Bible Chapel (Chicago).

Ed Young Learned to Fleece.

Ed Young came to my attention with a news article from 2010 about his incredible wealth and luxurious lifestyle. He’s a Prosperity Gospel type of preacher, telling people that his god blesses those who he loves. By bless, of course, he means showers with material wealth.

He’s flat-out told his church attendees that if they don’t tithe a full 10% (probably of gross; my own pastor taught, “you want a gross blessing, not a net blessing!”), then they are not only wasting their time in church. If they tithe too little, their god will only curse them. However, in that case, they waste his time too. When he put his mansion up for sale, it listed for over US$2 million dollars.

His blatant cash-grabs are obvious to everybody, it seems, except to his congregation. He says he wants to be “open and honest,” but for some reason (as of 2010) hadn’t told his congregation about his private jet, million-dollar salary, or quarter-million-dollar housing allowance. When the news got out about his beyond-hypocritical lifestyle, a few folks did defect. But he recorded a weird video swiping Gatorade’s logo to make a drink called “Haterade,” which he sips on-camera before making a Gary Busey-style grimace of distaste at the viewer. The message is clear: don’t criticize him.

Young’s been trying to get critical videos removed from social sites. However, the truth is that, as this report puts it, “the new age of social media is now making it more and more difficult for preachers the likes of Ed Young to promote their scams and lottery gospel without getting exposed on sites like Facebook and YouTube.” He’s taking the tack we see so often with wrongdoers in Christianity–trying to silence the people criticizing him.

I’ve written before about how hard it is for dissenters to talk about what they see going wrong in Christianity, and how the religion tends to punish those who come forward. Christianity’s tendency to shoot the messenger definitely works to the benefit of its financial predators, not only its sexual ones.

Mind-Boggling Amounts of Wool.

James MacDonald isn’t nearly as nice as Ed Young.

Here’s the basic rundown of his sins: he got his megachurch into staggering amounts of debt, has a hugely expensive home, and draws an untold fortune every year from various sources.

That’s a simplified version of what he’s put his parishioners through, of course. While this was going on, he stripped his church elders of power and ensured that anybody who got onto that board or stayed on it was in lock-step with himself. He began taking steps to ensure that his sub-pastors could do less damage to him when they went sideways (his term) on him. And he began using his authority as the lead pastor of HBC to tell his satellite churches how much they were going to donate, over and above their normal tithing, to his various church-building projects. Not that it worked. At the time of this writing, HBC stands at about USD$65,000,000 in debt.

Even in that mountain of debt, MacDonald decided to build more churches and expand to more debt. A growing group of elders speak out against his leadership, which has garnered some of them excommunication and ostracism.

As MacDonald puts it, “the elders speak for God in our church.” Yeah, unless they gainsay him.

UPDATE: James MacDonald got fired, in great part because of his financial handling. (2/13/19)

Pulpit Pimping in Action.

By now it’s well past a joke, how lavishly so many megapastors live. It might just surprise folks at how far we’ve moved past the gold faucets and air-conditioned doghouses of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker days.

In the evocatively-titled piece “Pulpit Pimps”, The Root describes the current crop of hypocrites: Eddie Long, with his US$5 million-dollar-a-year salary; Kenneth Copeland, who owns not only a private jet but a private airfield; Creflo Dollar, who owns not one but two Rolls-Royce cars and million-dollar-homes in at least two cities as well as a private jet; Paula White and Joyce Meyer (and one day, Joyce Meyer’s day on RtD is coming), who each have the obligatory jet and super-expensive house; the repulsive list goes on and on and on.

As the joke goes, “Jesus died so they could have a mansion.” According to page 12 of a 2010 study, the average megapastor makes almost $150,000 a year!

Protecting Their Fleece.

Obviously, these people consider their “ministries” to be businesses. As such, they take whatever precautions and actions they must to protect those businesses. They’ll neutralize whatever threats they must to keep the sheep fleece rolling into their coffers.

Can you even imagine a businessperson refusing to talk about how his or her business worked, how much money it made, or how it spent that money? Such a person would quickly come under metaphorical fire for poor practices. Transparency in money handling is something we consider essential to running a good business.

Indeed, any other charity or non-profit that refused to discuss those things would quickly find its charter getting revoked. But people put up with it from their church leaders. Efforts to hold churches accountable, like ECFA, are almost laughably ineffective because church leaders don’t have to be accountable. Nothing forces them to be so.

Fleece = Freedom (From Accountability).

If I had to create an organization ripe for abuse and predation, I couldn’t possibly do a better job than what American churches have managed to accomplish. They enjoy freedom from all accountability, exemptions from the rules that other non-profits must follow, and nobody to force them to do the right thing. If I were a predator, I’d definitely be involved in church ministry! Really, the real miracle in Christianity is that most ministers seem to be actually decent and sincere folks.

Look, to become a church leader in a huge number of Christian churches, all you really need is a lot of charisma and a decent understanding of how to manipulate people. It’s that simple. You don’t necessarily need a formal education, nor do you need to have any actual training in leadership. You just need to be able to influence crowds.

It’s not hard to learn how to do any of that, either. We’re talking about basic psychology here, not magic or rocket science. People aren’t hard to manipulate. Remember the Wizard’s First Rule: People are painfully easy to manipulate. Given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything.

The Ease of Fleecing Christian Sheep.

Shaun the Sheep
Shaun the Sheep (Photo credit: Diva Sian).
HE DIED FOR YOUR KNITTING.

Predators who totally lack a conscience, like this horrible Nice Guy who got spurned by the object of his affections, happily fleece sheep all day long. When that manipulator is claiming authority from nothing less than the author of the entire universe, it’s really hard to see past the cloak of borrowed authority to the predator beneath.

Sheep don’t tend to question their shepherds. They just go where they’re directed, do what they’re told, and if they do wander off, they can be grabbed and forced back into line. Sheep don’t critically evaluate their shepherds or use rational thinking to examine their situations.

And they not only get fleeced, but when their usefulness as fleece-givers dwindles, they end up in pieces on their loving shepherd’s dinner-plate.

I wish Christians would reconsider comparing themselves to sheep. Unless it’s to Shaun the Sheep, because he looks really rad.


Endnote: Around 2002, I stood in a hobby shop looking at knitting wool and nursing the tail end of a vicious head cold. Some Yuppie soccer mom with sensible hair and a big cross necklace ends up standing next to me.  She mutters about how she could never use “real wool” because “they kill the sheep for it and that’s just mean.” I look over at her in some concern, but she seemed like she hadn’t cracked a joke since the Nixon Administration. I don’t even remember what I said in response, if anything at all. I’m not often at a loss for words, but that was one of those rare moments.


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Captain Cassidy tidied this post up on March 20, 2019. (That means I added subdividers, rewrote a few sentences for ease of reading, and added an update.)

 

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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