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The Really Big Business of Bethel: Part 2 – Who’s in Charge?

Editor’s note: Since submission of this story, Bethel church staff updated its websites to accurately reflect their leadership structure.

If physical and financial growth is any metric of success, Bethel Church has a lot to teach us about how to run a church. Or perhaps how to run a business, since the majority of Bethel’s income comes from the business-like nonprofits operating under the church’s auspices.

A quick recap of my Part 1 on Bethel: The church has 11,000 attendees “who call Bethel Church home” and it had an income of more than$60 million last year, most of which came from its supporting organizations, not from tithes and offerings. If you’re like me, you’ve started wondering who’s spending that income.

But Bethel’s leadership structure, like its finances, is surprisingly obscure. Despite the international attention Bethel has received, and the international donors they court, it’s difficult to determine the genuine structure of their leadership. In fact, Bethel’s two main websites. Bethel.com and BethelRedding.com, offer contradicting and incomplete information on the leadership structure of the church, a subject I raised with Aaron Tesauro, Bethel Church’s Communications Director.

So who’s really running the church/business/international sensation that is Bethel Church? How do decisions get made? Who’s steering this ship?

If you’re a Bethel attendee, you’ve frequently heard the term “Senior Leadership Team”. These are the core people who oversee the church and its ministries, both local and global, with responsibility for managing their 800 full- and part-time employees and the spending of their $60 million annual budget. It’s an 11-person team, five of whom are quite directly related: Bill Johnson, his sons Eric and Brian, and their sons’ wives, Candace and Jenn, all have positions on this team. Bill’s very close friend Kris Vallotton and Kris’s wife Kathy are also on the Senior Leadership Team. Other team members include Dann Farrelly, who’s best known in the church for being a theologically minded pastor, and Charlie Harper, Church Administrator and Project Manager. The final two Senior Leadership Team members, Danny Silk and Paul Manwaring, both used to live in Redding, but have moved away in the last several years and participate mostly from a distance. There are no female leaders on the Senior Leadership Team other than spouses of other senior leaders.

Most Bethel attendees I’ve met aren’t aware of any oversight of the Senior Leadership Team, which is provided, according to Mr. Tesauro, by a 13-member group, which is alternately referred to as either the Council of Elders or Board of Directors. Bethel Church’s bylaws state this group provides oversight to the board, although very little mention is made of what this oversight includes or how it is accomplished. Aaron Tesauro shared with me that the Board/Elders broadly approve an annual budget suggested by the directors of ministries and “senior staff are empowered to manage allotted dollars to meet the set goals or needs in their areas of ministry”.

Interestingly, the Board is comprised of many of the same members as the Senior Leadership Team it oversees, with almost half (five out of 11) of its members holding positions on both groups. Bill Johnson serves as Senior Elder on the Board that oversees him and decides his salary, while his close friend Kris Vallotton is his associate Senior Associate Elder on the Board. Eric Johnson, Dann Farrelly and Charlie Harper also all play a role on both teams, de facto supervising themselves. Other members of the Board of Directors include Andre Van Mol, Mike and Julie Winter, Josh and April LaFrance, Gene and Nell Nicolet, and Ron Rock. These eight independent members of the Board/Elders are also less independent than one would expect; six of them are in a spousal relationship to another member of the Board/Elders and Andre Van Mol is the supervising physician to Nurse Practitioner (and Redding Mayor) Julie Winter.

Phew! Is nepotism alive and well at Bethel Church? Obviously. What about cronyism? No doubt at all.

In fact, this is the kind of board that non-profit advisory councils warn against. Although it’s common practice for the head of a non profit to serve on its oversight board, it is recommended that they serve in a non-voting, advisory capacity, to reduce the potential of conflict of interest, arguably the greatest concern for any board. The California Attorney General’s Guide for Charities, among many other publications, includes a section on “adopting a conflict of interest policy” which is strongly recommended by the IRS, per this guide. No such policy was to be found in the Bethel bylaws. Rookie mistake? Byproduct of an organization that has grown too fast? Accidental oversight? Not likely. This is because Bethel’s board and leadership team actually mirrors the theology that they espouse, in both composition and function.

Theirs is a theology and movement that is rooted in experiences and personal revelation. And a new book, “The Rise of Network Christianity” (recommended to me by the incomparable RV Scheide) almost perfectly elucidates the thought patterns behind it all. The authors of this book, Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, call this new kind of Christianity, Independent Network Christianty (INC). It’s characterized by strong independent leaders who gain their “legitimacy and influence from their perceived ability to access supernatural power to produce ‘signs and wonders’ rather than through speaking ability or educational credentials.” (“The Rise of Network Christianity”.)

In INC churches such as Bethel, a few top leaders are given full discretion over the revenue streams produced by their ministries, and ultimately make their spending and other leadership decisions based upon what they are hearing from God directly. And in a ministry where God himself speaks to the top leader or leaders, who are their Board/Elders to tell them otherwise? To quote again from “The Rise of Network Christianity”: “We were told repeatedly in our interviews that prophets, apostles and other transformative leaders should not be hindered in their use of money by boards, councils, denominations, and other oversight bodies.”

Informed by this background, I asked Aaron Tesauro, Bethel’s PR guy, “can individual senior leaders direct money without the approval of the board or senior leadership team? Why or why not? If so, which ones?”

Tesauro’s answer was broad: “Once the budget is approved by the Board of Directors, as is standard practice in most organizations, senior staff are empowered to manage allotted dollars to meet the set goals or needs in their areas of ministry.” Which, to me, can mean almost anything depending on what the budget looks like, who controls which ministries, the number of allotted dollars and what stated goals and needs there are.

But regardless, here’s the bottom line: Bethel Church is a non profit with an annual income of $60 million last year. With its 11,000 regular attenders, it represents a good tenth of Redding’s population. Management of this local “force of nature” seems to come down to two people: Bill Johnson, a fifth-generation pastor, and Kris Valloton, the former owner of a small auto repair business in Weaverville (who now calls himself a prophet.) Oversight of these two leaders is provided primarily by themselves, as the heads of both their Leadership Team and their supervising Board.

And maybe it’s working, because Bethel Church continues to grow.

More to come in Part 3.

Editor’s note: Annelise Pierce is a graduate of Bethel’s ministry school and a former member of Bethel Church.