The world has a new breed of preachers – the superrich pastors.
These are by no means inconspicuous, as they are often seen donning flashy attires, living in luxurious mansions, and driving expensive cars. They are usually flanked by half a dozen or more security men with dark glasses, and some even own multiple private jets. They are important people, and they want you to know it.
The richest of them is Kenneth Copeland. Living in a $20 million mansion, and owning a $36 million jet, Copeland is the poster boy for superrich preachers. In fact, with an estimated net worth of at least $300 million, no one else comes close. While names such as Creflo Dollar, TD Jakes, TB Joshua, Joel Osteen, and Benny Hinn are more recognisable, those in the know understand who the true prosperity gospel patriarchs are, and Copeland ranks very highly.
The second name in the list of who is who among the superrich pastors is possibly the most interesting one, and that is the Nigerian megachurch pastor, Dr David Oyedepo. A university lecturer-turned-preacher, Dr Oyedepo presides over a ministry with branches in 65 countries. He is a founder and president of Covenant University, Landmark University, Faith Academy, and over 150 secondary schools, and presides over one of the largest churches in the world, with an auditorium that can sit at least 50,000 people. He has a net worth of $150 million.
It is difficult for those beyond Pentecostal circles to understand how powerful these preachers are. In a world full of misery and pain, these preachers offer a remarkably appealing alternative, so it’s no wonder that many respond to their message. However, at some point we must ask, how does a person who calls himself a full-time minister amass that kind of wealth?
To start with, it is important to recognise that there is a reason why this has become almost an exclusively Pentecostal (or Charismatic) phenomenon. It comes down to their understanding (or possibly misunderstanding) of certain doctrines.
Firstly, proponents of prosperity gospel preach that faith is a ticket to wealth and health. Thus, believers are called upon to exercise their faith by giving generous gifts as ‘seeds of faith’. While giving is nothing new, one doesn’t need to be a theologian to understand that Jesus’ apostles were quite poor, and often needed assistance. Have these modern preachers uncovered something that the apostles didn’t know? Something is not being said and, as a result, millions give sacrificially to people who only get richer and richer.
Secondly, since Pentecostals believe that God works miracles through prayers, they believe that there are some who have been ‘anointed’ to do more of that. That is, they have special divine unction to overcome obstacles of life. Thus, the anointment is the Pentecostal holy grail – and one of the ways of achieving it is by giving to those who are already uniquely anointed. So, if you have thousands of followers who consistently offer gifts to you to tap into ‘your’ anointing, it is only a matter of time before you start to swim in immense wealth.
Thirdly, beyond the two doctrines, many of the megachurch pastors are voluminous writers, a fact which helps to take their message far and wide. It is also a powerful way to create wealth. Often, they use their churches as exclusive distribution networks that guarantee millions of sales. For example, Bishop Oyedepo has published over 70 books, which are exclusively being sold in hundreds of churches across 65 nations. That’s a money-spinning sweet spot. While there is nothing wrong in getting royalties for one’s work, there is a problem in using one’s community as personal property.
Finally, there is a reprehensible lack of financial accountability in many Pentecostal churches, especially the non-institutional ‘ministry’ types. As generous as people are, they are never informed how the collections are used. Often, that is a loophole that unscrupulous ministers use to enrich themselves. I know of two cases in Tanzania where people contributed to the building of churches while no one knew where the sites were or where the money went! While many red flags are being ignored, sometimes the answers are not so direct.
For example, how do you explain a situation where a preacher who has four jets (a true story) asks his followers to send donations for him to purchase a fifth one? To many, that is a red flag, but what good is a prosperity preacher who doesn’t show off his blessings? The more people see and believe that God is working through him, the more they will want to tap into that stream of blessings by sending him money! You have to think like a Pentecostal to understand the system.
Now, we should not generalise that all pastors are unscrupulous swindlers, or that all givers are mindless zombies. That is simply not true. Moreover, we should not generalise that all millionaire pastors are corrupt. Many may simply be beneficiaries of the system that created them. However, we have to point out that there is something wrong with a system that is designed to enrich ministers while ignoring suffering members.
That system needs to be changed.