The Really Big Business of Bethel Church: Part 3 – Known for Its Generosity

As I’ve previously written, Bethel Church Redding has 11,000 regular attenders, $60 million in annual income, two primary charismatic leaders, 800 full- and part-time employees, and an often-verbalized goal to be known for its generosity.

And if generosity is defined as “a readiness to give more than expected”, Bethel seems to be excelling at its goal. When Redding’s Carr Fire hit, Bethel reached out to its international donor base, pulling in more than $1.5 million in donations; money which it then began giving away, $1000 at a time, to families whose primary residence was destroyed by the fire. It continues to spend on Carr Fire relief efforts through its Forestry project which serves residents, usually free of charge, by providing brush removal services sometimes worth thousands of dollars per property.

Bethel Church’s City Project Team volunteers give many hours to Redding trails and waterways. Photo by Randall Smith.

Bethel’s hundreds of students volunteer almost 35,000 hours every year to the parks and public lands of Redding as part of their ministry school curriculum, a donation of time worth more than $400,000 annually. Bethel hosts an annual backpack giveaway for community kids. It serves breakfast to the homeless each Sunday morning on site.

And there’s more. Bethel senior leadership has recently agreed to share giving habits that it has not previously revealed to the press, according to Aaron Tesauro, Bethel Church Communications Director. Namely, that Bethel sets aside 10% of the income it receives from attender tithes and gives that money back to the community. Although the income it receives through tithes is less than half of Bethel’s overall income, it’s still more than $21 million, resulting in a tithe back to the community of more than $2.1 million annually.

Recipients of these funds, according to Mr. Tesauro, include the City of Redding, the Good News Rescue Mission, Northern Valley Catholic Social Service (NVCSS), Teen Challenge, the Shasta Family YMCA, Redding Parks and Trails Foundation (for the Pickleball Expansion Project), the Active 20-30 Club (as a sponsor of the Sundial Film Festival) and the Wintu Tribe of Northern California, among others.

Bethel also contributed $450,000, and significant staff time, to help the City of Redding successfully negotiate the new Redding to Los Angeles daily flight, a flight which benefits the community as well as its staff, students and visitors (which are multitude.) In fact, Bethel’s approximately 50 annual conferences and events have made Redding somewhat of an international destination. It estimates their visitor flow at 25,000 individuals per year, with most staying an average of 3-5 days, offering a very significant boost to the Redding tourism industry.

And while the rumors circulating that Bethel offers small business loans to members are not true, they do encourage what it refers to as a “dream culture”, encouraging attendees that “anything is possible” and to “go after your dreams.” Many small businesses have resulted, which, depending on your perspective, are a boon to (or the bane of ) our local economy.

But like all successful multi-level marketing organizations, Bethel Church provides the biggest payoff to those on the top, maintaining its organizational vitality by continuing to attract those on the periphery through its glossy benefits and giveaways. Meanwhile, it’s the middle many, the workhorses of the movement, who often benefit astonishingly little from the church’s success.

In contrast with its stated goal of generosity, and its track record of giving to the community, Bethel is not known for taking good care of its people. In fact, multiple employees have contacted me to ask me to consider writing about salaries and benefits at the church, in the hopes of creating change in this area.

Salaries are low at Bethel Church, likely for one central reason: supply. There are far more people who want to work at Bethel Church than there are positions open at any given time, meaning the organization can pay its people very little, while continuing to retain and/or attract staff. After all, Bethel church makes millions, gives away millions, attracts 50,000 visitors every year, and runs one of the largest Christian independent music labels in the United States. Bethel Church is evangelical Disneyland. It may not be an obvious career builder, but for many Christians it’s the experience of a lifetime.

And just like Disneyland, there is carefully hidden workplace dissatisfaction. I did not ask Bethel Church about salaries. The issue gets pretty personal, pretty fast, and the church has employees to protect, so I highly doubt they’d give me any specifics. Instead, I got information from a source who approached me after reading several of my articles, a former employee who wishes to remain anonymous. This individual informed me that while salaries vary from department to department, many employees at Bethel Church earn minimum wage, or very little more. Other than revival pastors, per my source, most Bethel staff are hourly employees, not on salary. Raises are 1-2%, annually, which, for a high level manager, making $22/hour at Bethel, would be between .22 cents and .44 cents an hour. An exception, per my source, is the Bethel Music Department, which pays significantly higher wages. For example, while Bethel Church may pay personal assistants between $12-$14/hour, Bethel Music personal assistants might make $25/hour.

Based on these salaries, many Bethel employees with families qualify for both Medi-Cal and SNAP (food stamps), among other low income benefits. And this is probably good, because benefits are also a significant problem for Bethel Church employees. A review of a Bethel job posting highlights what it considers benefits, a list that made me laugh out loud the first time I read it: free lunch twice a month, an ibethel.org email address, free attendance at select conferences, a 20% discount at its own Bethel Church bookstore, and the “opportunity to work with some of the most passionate lovers of Jesus in the world!” are among the best benefits it offers. (My source tells me it’s actually free lunch once a month and the food always runs out early, but the Jesus lovers are definitely there.) More crucially, health benefits are expensive, with poor coverage, per multiple sources who’ve spoken to me about this in the past.

But employees, who now sign a non-disclosure agreement before leaving the organization, per my source, are frequently reminded that they are honored to be on staff, serving the nations and participating in bringing “heaven to earth”. After all, many thousands of people have given up everything to come to Bethel.

And come they do. First Year Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry students, coming from all over the world, pay more than $5000/year to attend school. And, as mentioned above, this attendance includes providing weekly volunteer services to the community, meaning that Bethel’s generous community service is provided through the mandatory efforts of students who pay tuition for the privilege of this kind of volunteerism.

Second and third year students continue to stretch their wings into increasingly higher levels of pay-to-work for Bethel privileges, with third-year students paying between $600 and $900 to work for an individual staff member, or even someone loosely connected to the church, for an academic year. Sidebar: This arrangement is not a paid internship or an unpaid internship. It’s an “intern must pay” for the internship. Which is probably why Bethel Church no longer calls the program an internship.

 

As one can imagine, even more students than staff likely qualify for public assistance of all kinds. And those who don’t are often stretched thin by expenses and by donating to others more in need at the church. Nevertheless, in my experience, most continue to give to the church, having been taught the value of generosity and the importance of tithing to produce favorable financial outcomes in your life. After all, as part of the “culture of honor” at Bethel Church, we speak well of those around us and invest into others.

It takes participants some time to realize that the “culture of honor” flows mostly upward.

This is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the sacrifices made by many employees and attendees, and the fancy cars driven by Bethel senior leaders, sometimes easily identifiable by the license plates that carry their names. My source tells me that only the CFO knows the salaries of senior leaders, so it’s impossible to know whether their financial bounty comes from the church itself or the books they sell and their private speaking engagements through their church network. I didn’t ask.

Bill and Beni Johnson, and Kris and Kathy Vallotton are Bethel Church’s senior leaders. Photo: bethel.com

But in light of all this, I’ve often wondered what the net cost to federal, state and local governments the really big business of Bethel Church really is. How might moving their habits of generosity toward their employees have the potential to revolutionize the local economy and increase their ability to “impact the city of Redding”? And wouldn’t cultivating a habit of generosity toward Bethel’s staff be an important aspect of the culture of honor?

If Bethel Church has the networks and connections to raise more than $140 million for a new building, just imagine what it could do financially for its families on staff, should its leaders feel so led.

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

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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