Leading the same congregation for over 30 years, Pastor Star R. Scott left the Assemblies of God, dismissed the church board, and brooks no dissent among his shrunken but still substantial fellowship.
The Washington Post offered an in-depth report on the Calvary Temple congregation in suburban Sterling, Virginia ("In Va., a Powerful and Polarizing Pastor," Michelle Boorstein, November 16, 2008, p.A01). The report described a number of instances where Pastor Star R. Scott had called for the shunning of recalcitrant members, including teenagers and spouses.
What caught my interest, though, was the description of the church's governance. Originally a congregation of the Assemblies of God, which claims to be the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world, Pastor Scott took the church out of the denomination in 1986 to become an independent ministry. Then in 1996 he eliminated all church boards, making himself sole trustee in a church constitution that also specified that he would control all church property were the church to close.
I have on several occasions noted that long tenure of charity leadership is often problematic, most recently in discussing the executive leadership crisis at Acorn. In this case, one of the main symptoms of executive overreaching was the church's automotive outreach, called Finish the Race, which was a fleet of high-performance cars, trucks, and motorcycles that the pastor toured with using church funds. Pastor Scott told the reporter that he has no set salary and that his possessions belong to the congregation.
On a more personal level, the pastor married a member of the congregation just a month after his first wife died in 2002—a 20-year old. Pastor Scott was 55 at the time.
Worth noting is that the church once enjoyed a membership of 2,000 but in recent years it has dwindled to 400 or so. What is noteworthy is not so much that the membership has declined by 80%, but that 400 willing congregants remain. By enforcing a strict tithing requirement, the church is still able to thrive. The dynamics of congregations are such that a pastor can continue to go on even after alienating a large share of the congregation. So a governance structure is needed—is it not enough to rely on people voting with their feet to keep a leader on the right path.
The article points out that US tax law for charities does not put any requirements on church governance, and churches are exempt from financial disclosure requirements applied to other charities. There are broad guidelines that limit compensation to key employees, but it is not clear that the pastor could be successfully challenged for receiving excess compensation. The IRS is severely limited in its audit powers where churches are concerned.
It seems to me that the primary need is for more scrutiny of charity governance structures for all charities, religious or otherwise. There should be a requirement that any charity organization have a governance structure that precludes a single individual from making decisions without review or oversight. One aspect of such a structure, I think, is a reasonable balance in tenure between board members and management. Anytime the top dog is in charge for decades, there is high risk that organizational resources will be diverted to serve personal ends.