Pastors of Megachurches
Very few churches start off as megachurches. For example, “the first meeting of Lakewood Church was held in a converted feed store on the outskirts of Houston on Mother’s Day, 1959” (www.lakewood.cc/pages/new-here/our-history.aspx) is the beginning of the story of Lakewood Church. Founded by John and Dodie Osteen, the church grew to over 10,000 members when John died in 1999 and his son Joel Osteen became head pastor. With over 43,000 attending one of its weekly services, Lakewood Church is the largest megachurch in the US. Now located in the former home of the Houston Rockets National Basketball Association team, Lakewood Church spent $75 million to renovate the former basketball arena. It pays $2.1 million in annual rent to the city and offers three English services and one Spanish service each week. The church, with a seating capacity of 16,000, has a family life center, bookstore and a café.
Southern California offers a number of megachurch stories of its own. For example, “on Easter of 1980, Saddleback Valley Community Church held its very first public service and 205 people, most of who had never been to church, showed up” (http://saddleback.com/aboutsaddlebak/history). Saddleback Church, led by Rick Warren, has become another megachurch with an average weekly attendance of more than 22,000. Size matters in myriad ways for congregations: “We assume that by the time a church has reached this general size, it will have made changes to its organizational structure, staffing, and leadership patterns; programmatic offerings; worship forms; and physical plant that give it the full range of megachurch characteristics we use as definitive of the phenomenon” (Thumma & Travis, 2007: XXI). The style of worship is “characterized by contemporary praise music, led by a worship team, accompanied by orchestra, drums, and electric guitars and augmented by state-of-the-art sound systems and huge projection screens” (Thumma & Travis, 2007: 27). Megachurches have “removed every obstacle that keeps people from coming to the Christian church. Plus, they give people a feeling of anonymity. And that is particularly important to those who have been hurt or burned out in smaller churches” (Axtman, 2003).
However, critics argue that megachurches have a “consumer mentality, meaning they begin with the individual and not with God and are thus accused of inverting the faith” (Thumma & Travis, 2007: 98). In this line of analysis, the cost of “removing every obstacle that prevents people from coming to the Christian church” is a kind of lowest-common-denominator approach to church in which the distinctive elements of Christian worship and witness are subsumed to fulfilling market expectations. Other critics compare “McChurches” to Wal-Mart (Liu, 2003; Symonds, 2005), citing their secular, if highly successful, homogenized, and unapologetic business models that succeed at the expense of smaller congregations. The business magazine Forbes has referred to mega-pastors as “essentially CEOs who successfully address many of the same issues that challenge their business brethren” (Buss, 2007). Megachurches, viewed in this way, are critiqued for having a consumerist approach to theology that is absent of the rigor and sacrifice often demanded by traditional churches, while simultaneously servicing as havens for a moral community craving for purpose in an increasingly secularized society (Twitchell, 2004; Warf & Winsberg, 2010).
***insert table 1 about here***
Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics on the pastors of the largest 20 protestant churches as measured by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research Database on Megachurches. As indicated by the data, the top 20 churches are very large (average church membership of 20,000). Many of these churches have satellite churches or multiple campuses. Out of these 20 pastors, 17 have authored at least one book, 5 have authored a self-proclaimed best seller, and 3 have authored a New York Times best seller. In addition, most of these pastors have their own website (for example, Joel Osteen has www.joelosteen.com; he is pastor of Lakewood Church, which is www.lakewood.cc) on which they sell their books directly. On the uses of other social media technologies (Facebook, Twitter, blog), virtually all pastors used these technologies.
This consistent output of discourse complements numerous book publications by these same pastors. In fact, many of the largest megachurches are led by people who have also penned bestsellers. Out of the broader set of megachurch pastors, we have identified 19 pastors that have self-identified their published books as bestsellers. One such pastor, Reverend T. D. Jakes, whose church “The Potter’s House” has over 30,000 members, has written over 30 books. We find the co-evolution of megachurches and pastors’ writings to be a fruitful area of research to explore institutional maintenance and improvisation and modifying strategies (Battilana & D’Aunno, 2009). Furthermore, many of the authors have a wide breadth of subjects that they write about, from the intuitive topics of religion and self-help to the less obvious topics of organization and leadership. In fact many of the bestsellers have several commonalities with more traditional business literature, including motivation, change and leadership concepts. For example, books such as Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, IL, contains topics such as “The Power of Vision,” “Developing Emerging Leaders,” and “The Sources of Decision Making.” But these business topics are not limited to books that happen to be focused on traditional business topics. In Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, by Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, the author includes chapters on having a vision, developing strategic goals, and setting appropriate expectations. In fact, among the pastors of the top 10 largest megachurches in the United States, six of them have books with topics that include traditional business concepts.
Another example of the information provided in books that speak to business rather than religious logic is the book by bestselling author, Joel Osteen, called Be a People Builder. As noted previously, Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood church in Houston, Texas, which boasts a non-denominational congregation of more than 43,000 people. This title and the information contained in the book itself are indicative of leadership, organizational behavior, human resources, or numerous other business topics. Another example of the inclusion of organizational language is Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California, which has a membership of more than 30,000 people. His best-seller not only discussed spiritual truths, but also discussed strategies for individuals with regard to how they can become more effective in other parts of their lives.
***insert table 2 here****
In examining these texts, we found an overwhelming number had language that supported both a spiritual or religious logic as well as a professional or business logic. Many of the books were intended as teaching manuals meant to provide guidance to pastors or other church leaders. T.D. Jakes’ bestseller, Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limits, discusses goal-setting, careers, financial management and even branding. Ed Young’s book, Sexperiment, tries to address the notion that sexual relationships and God do not mix. Jentezen Franklin has books on subjects ranging from fasting principles to how to be the person you want to be. What we find interesting is that most of the megachurch book authors come from very large non-denominational churches. This echoes the theory that megachurches are created largely in response to a need for community, not just religion. Further, the larger the megachurch, the greater the likelihood and need for the megachurch pastor to engage in personal branding as a means of building the megachurch—especially as non-denominational megachurches do not benefit from the built-in legitimacy offered by established denominations.
Drawing from insights on institutional leaders and the megachurch literature, we argue that there are some defining characteristics of megachurches that would lead them to write books as a way of connecting to their membership. The first hypothesis deals with the leader of the church. One of the key insights from Selznick’s work is that similar to how organizations become institutions as they become “infused with value”, so to does the leader of an organization become an institutional leader once he “assumes personal responsibility for the well-being of the organizational “whole” identifying himself with it, and reconceptualizign himself as its steward (Kraatz, 2009: 64). Given that there is variation among the tenures of pastors of churches, we argue that this personal responsibility characteristic would be mostly closely affiliated with the founder of the church. As such, our first hypothesis is:
Hypothesis 1: Founders of megachurches are more likely to write books than non-founders
Our second hypothesis connects to insights from institutional theory. Scott’s (1991) work on institutional theory suggest three pillars, regulatory, normative, and cultural cognitive. From this work, Washington and Ventresca (2005) argued that instutional pillars are not only constraints, but might also be supporting mechanisms as the pillars provide templates for action. Combining this insight, we argue that if a pastor is wanting to connect to their growing congregation, they would use practices that they already know. Similar to Kraatz and Moore’s (2002) study predicting that presidents that had some familiarity with adopting professional programs in their previous position would be more likely to adopt professional programs in their new position, we argue that pastors that have and experience with books—specifically their value as a communication and commitment tool—would be more likely to engage in the practice of writing one. One way a pastor can obtain this experience is by having a level of higher education. There are no formal degree requirements to becoming a pastor. However, having a university degree would expose a pastor to the utility of reading books as a way of communicating, learning, and consolidating insights and wisdom. This leads to our second hypothesis:
Hypothesis 2: Pastors that have a university degree are more likely to write a book that pastors that do not have a university degree.
Our third hypothesis deals with the statesmen part of Selznick’s view of institutional leaders. If an institutional leader’s world revolves around politics “speaking to subordinates’ values and ideas, as well as their interests, and is wise to the importance of rhetoric, culture, and symbols (Kraatz, 2009: 77)”, an institutional leader would use multiple tools to get his message out. In our dataset, we have identified 3 tools that can be used. The first is a personal website. Drawing from our earlier example, some pastors can be found by looking up website of the church (Lakewood church for example), but other pastors can be found by “googling” their name (Joel Osteen). We argue when pastor is using their name to be identified / recognized, he is communicating that he has a message to share above and beyond the message of the church. This tools (his own website) would be a ripe for text dissemination. Thus, we argue:
Hypothesis 3: Pastors that have a website, are more likely to write books than pastors that do not have a website.
Our fourth hypothesis connects to the broader reach of the pastor. While one could argue that if a pastor has a large church, they might be writing books as a way to communicate to the audience that comes to the church every Sunday (or Saturday). We suggest that a different purpose of the book might be to connect to the people that connect with the pastor, but not through a face-to-face audience. Books in this sense is something that people that hear or see the pastor can have so that they can reach a deeper connection. Thus, we argue:
Hypothesis 4a: Pastors that have a television presence are more likely to a write book than pastors that do not have a television presence.
Hypothesis 4b: Pastors that have a radio presence are more likely to write a book than pastors that do not have a radio presence.
Methodology and Analytical Design
Our work is also shaped by preliminary analysis of over 1400 megachurches in the United States. The Hartford Institution for Religious Research (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/) tracks data at the congregational and denominational levels. Relevant to the present analysis, this institution has collected information on all churches with a weekly attendance of more than 2,000 members. To this database, we have consulted numerous websites such as the websites of individual pastors, the websites of the churches themselves as well as other religious databases to identify additional variables of interest..
Our dependent variable of interest is book which denotes that a pastor has written a book after having been pastor of a megachurch. Our first independent variable of interest is founder. Founder receives a 1 if the pastor of the megachurch was the original founder of the church. Our second independent variable of interest is degree. Degree measures of the pastor of the church has at least a 4-year college degree. Our third independent variable of interest is website. Website receives a 1 of the pastor has a website that links directly to the pastor (as opposed to the church), if not, this variable receives a 0. Our third independent variables of interest TV and Radio. TV and Radio measures 1 if the church that the pastor is the leader of broadcasts on Television and the Radio.
To control against other arguments, we include a measure of race labeled Black. Black receives a 1 if the pastor identifies as black (based upon reading the biographies of the pastor from their own website, or Wikipedia page) and 0 if we could not determine the race, or the pastor was not black. We also control for 3 different denominational differences. While there are numerous types of denominations (Baptist, Methodist, etc.), some churches are non-demoninational. This means that they do not profess an allegiance to a specific religious body of knowledge. One could argue that being non-demoninational might results in more religious freedom (or less denominational constraint) which might influence a pastor work. Nondenom receives a value of 1 if the church is non-denominational and 0 if not. As opposed to controlling for the more than 63 denominations represented in our database, we used (citation here needed) a generally accepted classification to determine if the denomination is considered evangelical (more charismatic) or mainline (more traditional). If the denomination is considered evangelical or mainline, we coded that church with a 1,otherwise the church was coded with a 0. Connecting to the historical legacy of some churches, we also coded if the church was considered a historically black church. While many different denominations could be part of this grouping, churches that identified themselves (from reading their websites) as historically black, were coded as a 1, otherwise they were coded 0. Lastly, we controlled for the size of the church with the variable attend. To reflect the range of size in our database, we log the attendance as reported on the Hartford Institution of Religious Research database.
Using Stata 12, we ran a logistic regression. Table 4 presents our descriptive statistics. Given the large number of variables that were correlated, we ran Variance Inflation Factors for our variables. For all but the attendance measure, the VIF scores were well below 5. While we kept the attendance measure in our final results, we ran additional analysis with this variable absent and our results stayed the same. Table 4 presents our results.
Model 1 of table 4 presents the results of our control variables. As you can see the larger the church, the more likely a pastor is to have published one book. We also see that race is significant in that black pastors are more likely to have published a book than non-black pastors. Model 1 presents the results of our first hypothesis. In this model, founder is significant, meaning that if a pastor was the founder of the church, they were more likely to write a book. This result supports hypothesis 1. Hypothesis 2 is presented in model 3. Here there is also support for our hypothesis as Degree is positive and significant. This means that pastors with a college degree are more likely to have published a book than pastors without a college degree. Model 4 presents our findings from our 3rd hypothesis. There is also support for this hypothesis as website is positive and significant. This suggests that pastors that have a website of their own name are more likely to publish a book than pastors that do not have a website of their own name. Model 5 provides the results of our 4th hypothesis. Here we see partial support. Showing your church service on the TV increases the likelihood of you publishing a book, but having your show on the radio does not. Model 6 presents all of the hypotheses together. Here we see that founder, degree and website remain significant (along with the control variables of black and attendance). However, having a television program no longer predicts publishing a book.
Post hoc analysis
While our main interests is in analysis which pastor will be likely to publish a book, our database also affords us the opportunity to examine which pastor is more likely to have a book become a best seller. To determine if a book was a best seller, we first started with the pastors who listed either own their own website, or on the church’s website that their book was a best seller. We then corroborated this information looks at lists from the NY Times, and Amazon.com. Our search determined 19 books were indeed best sellers. Table 7 presents the results of our analyes examining what predicts a pastor’s likelihood of writing a best seller. Here we find that some of the variables that predict writing a book, also predict writing a best seller (website, founder, TV, attendance). Interesting, having a degree is not a predictor, neither is being black.
A second set of post-hoc analysis we conducted were on the number of books written. Of those that have written a book, the average number of books written were 2.7 and the maximum number was 200! To examine who writes a lot of books, we ran a regression analysis with our dependent variable being number of books. Model 8 presents those analyses. Here we see that founder, website, TV and Radio predice the number of books written. Interestingly black is a negative predictor, and attendance is not a predictor.
The goal of this paper was to examine the institutional work of institutional leaders. We focused this inquiry on the empirical setting of megachurches and the work of writing books. For pastors that are institutional leaders, we argue that writing books is a way of communicating the pastor’s values to their audience in an effort to maintain internal integrity and gain / maintain trust with their members. Our major findings were that pastors that were founders of the church and had a website were more likely to write books. Our intuition is that founders carry an additional set of commitments to the church which results in them being more likely to engage in producing text. We also find support that pastors that come from a background where knowledge is produced and valued (a college education) were also more likely to write books.
Of keen interests to us is that one set of variables were not significant. As you can see from the title, an assumption we had was that the denomination would also have an influence on a pastor’s likelihood of writing books. In this case, we did not find any significant effects of the denomination of the church on a pastor’s likelihood of writing books. Future research could better tease out the denominations to see if indeed there might be an effect.
Though not hypothesized, we have an interesting set of findings with regards to best sellers and number of books. It appears that pastors that write a lot of books, also have a website, a TV program and a radio program. This could be views as pastors that have a way to get a message out, create messages to deliver. However, one could also cynically relate this to Leblebici, Salancik, Copay and King’s (1991) study of the radio industry where it was the “snake oil” salesmen on the periphery of the industry who first advertised on the radio. Maybe we have a case where pastors take advantage of their media (website, radio, tv) in an effort to create an audience for their products (in this case books). Future research could also further tease out the relationship between media outlets and book or text production.
As with any study, there are some inherent limitations in this one. The biggest is that our data come from self-reported websites. We examined the church’s websites and the pastor’s websites (those that had one) to determine many of our variables. Thus, some pastors might have had a degree, but did not choose to list that information in the biographical information we found on the church’s website. Similarly, some churches might have had a radio or TV program, but did not list that on their website. However, since we are interested in the institutional aspects of work and leadership, we think that if a pastor did not include this information, than it wasn’t institutionally relevant and we would argue, would not be a factor in how they view writing books.
Selznick suggests that leading an institution is:
“far more than the capacity to mobilize personal support; it is more than the maintenance of equilibrium through the routine solution of everyday problems; it is the function of the leader-statesman—whether of a nation or a private association—to define the ends of group existence, to design an enterprise distinctively adapted to these ends, and to see that the design becomes a living reality. These tasks are not routine; they call for continuous self-appraisal on the part of the leaders; and they may require only a few critical decisions over a long period of time” (Selznick 1957, p. 37).
The institutional leaders that we examine in this study are pastors of megachurches. Pastors of megachurches continually look for ways to connect with their growing members. Pastors can choose to adopt new practices such as websites or blogs, or utilize connection practices that have been proven sources of support such as television or radio ministry as a means of broadcasting their services. However, new practices or organizational forms are often contested and surrounded by significant conflict. They can be opposed or even stigmatized by the status quo (Hudson, 2008). The challenge for the megachurch pastor as they attempt to connect to their members is to avoid the traps of becoming a Celebrity CEO (Rindova, Pollock, & Hayward, 2006). Appearing on TV, radio, or the internet could allow the pastor to connect to her membership, but it also pushes the pastor into the spotlight, which might create unwanted attention (see for example the unwanted attention on Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, which is a Chicago megachurch with over 6,000 members, after a YouTube post that shared his views were brought to light once one of his members—Presidential candidate Barack Obama—was questioned about his pastor’s views). While a pastor’s aims might be noble, the more successful the pastor, the more this person might be written about in the media and become a person of celebrity.
After describing some characteristics of megachurches and providing a description of the types of books pastors publish, we turned our attention to examining which pastor is more likely to write a book. We found that those leaders that founded the institution, had prior experience with the value of writing texts, and had a visible presence were more likely to write a book than those that did not.
We think our results make numerous contributions. Using insights from institutional theory, specifically the concepts of institutional leadership (Selznick, 1957; Washington et al., 2008), and institutional work (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006; Lawrence, Suddaby, & Leca, 2009), we suggest that pastors of megachurches have adopted the practice of writing books as a way of reaffirming the megachurch organization as an institution. These books not only help a pastor to connect to his internal members, but also help the pastor communicate to an external audience.
Similar to the explosion of studies that examine sport, healthcare, or internet phenomena as a way of testing various organizational theories (Wolfe et al., 2006), we think that as an empirical setting, megachurches can extend the growing intersection of institutional work and identity (Creed, Dejordy, & Lok, 2010), institutions and emotions (Voronov & Vince, 2012) and organizational rituals (Dacin, Munir, & Tracey, 2010). While Creed’s work examined the perceived identity contradiction of being a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender minister, examining megachurches provides a lens into understanding how pastors navigate a new identity of “Protestant Christian” for their mega-congregations. While Dacin, Munir, & Tracey, (2010) examine how rituals and traditions enable institutional maintenance work, megachurches provide an interesting setting to examine the creation, maintenance (and destruction) of extremely institutionalized rituals and traditions. While the conversation connecting emotions to institutions has mostly been conceptual or theoretical, the field of religion provides a fascinating empirical setting to examine how this connection works, is created, and potentially disrupted. Similarly, one dimension where many denominations vary is in the role of emotional expression in the church service. Thus, the variation across denominations might also be a place to explore how different institutional arrangements support or destroy “emotional work.” Lastly, the newness of the megachurch allows researchers to gather longitudinal data to test theories about institutional development and work. We encourage research that fleshes out what we know about this institutional form.
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Table 1: Summary Statistics of top 20 mega-churches
Average Size of Church
Number Baptist Affiliation
Number that have authored a book
Number with a self-proclaimed "best seller"
Number with New York Times Best Seller
Have their own website