How The Church Made Me Rich (Confessions of a Former Southern Baptist Minister)

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 6 seconds.

If you are not careful, success can make you forget how far down you began. That’s why I write so candidly. I hope the point of view I lay before you is a challenge to your spirit and evokes an active response if you have ever felt within yourself an urge to grow beyond your inheritance.

I certainly felt that urge as a young man but ironically chose to pursue that ache for “something more” by becoming a minister like my Dad.

In case you do not know, I grew up in the extreme poverty and illiteracy of the Appalachians, and I tell this bittersweet story in my memoir A Renaissance Redneck In a Mega-Church Pulpit. Thankfully, it has proven an exciting and fun read for a lot of people.

My first church paid me a salary of $12,700. For that princely sum, I worked 40-50 hours a week, led the music program, cleaned the toilets, painted the church signs and walls, mowed the lawn, and paid obeisance to every whim of my pastor.

After 22 years of full-time ministry doing eerily similar jobs, and after finally obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Music at the ripe ‘ole age of 30 on my own time and with my hard-earned money, I got a job at a massive church in affluent Franklin, Tennessee making a decent salary. But you should know that up until that time my most substantial salary (from a mega-church no less) was $39,000 in the year 1999.

Obviously, the pittance the churches paid me for 29 years was not how I got rich. And it definitely has not been the books I have written. There is no money in writing unless you breathe the rarefied air of Rowling, Patterson, King, or Grisham—or unless you deceive gullible people about the tenets of Christianity like Osteen, Dobson, and Meyer.

No, sadly for them, happy for me, the church made me rich by misunderstanding and ignoring me.

Here are five of many examples in brevity:

  1. Creative Assistant—In the early 1990’s, always a voracious reader, I read an article about software by Steve Jobs, and an essay about hyperlinks and search engines. At that time our church had adopted the Willow Creek worship model, and we were designing our services around a central theme. But it was taking too much time finding specific music, dramas, poems, readings, and video clips every week.

I’ve always said opportunity knocks when a need meets passion. In the middle of the frustration of running out of time every week, one day it all sort of clicked. Why not design a software database of thematic material that worked on hyperlinks? I asked a computer geek kid in our orchestra if he would like some side work, told my pastor that I had an idea but I would only work on it during my very rare off-hours, and he agreed not to claim intellectual privilege on the slim chance that something came of it.

I created, named, packaged, and distributed it from home beginning in 1998. I did talks at church conferences and at first people looked at me with blank stares. I marketed it to churches, and it gradually began to sell.

But as luck would have it, in late 1999, when anything Nasdaq and software were sexy, my fledgling computer program was purchased by a division of Zomba Entertainment, New York. At that time, it was the largest independent music operation in the world and home to some of the most significant musical artists, including teen phenoms Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, NSYNC, and R. Kelly and multi-platinum rockers Tool and 311. 

In one day, I made more money than I had earned in a lifetime. Sadly, the church never really understood it—but happily, in 1999 a very successful corporation foresaw the future of a weird idea gathering traction called a search engine.

2. Interactive CD-Roms—I will never forget the first day in 1998 I saw the introduction of the MSN network on a new product called an Interactive CD-Rom. It was a fascinating idea—an interactive and colorful tour through the aspects of the MSN network led by multi-ethnic people of all ages. It was a noble attempt to make a new thing called a web portal.

Immediately, I asked our media arts team to see if we could create something like this for our church having no idea how many millions of dollars Microsoft probably poured into its development. Amazingly, they did it. We rolled out a stunning interactive CD-Rom introducing all the ministries of our church featuring multi-ethnic guides of all ages. We reluctantly linked it to our abysmal website.

I enthusiastically presented it to the church, but they just could not wrap their brains around it. Undeterred, I began to demo it at the many music conferences at which I was speaking—explaining that for about the cost of a color tri-fold paper brochure they could create this new amazing technology to market their church. I handed out (for free) clear step-by-step instructions on how to build it—but again I was met with blank stares at every turn. I gave up on the idea, and sadly, the CD-Rom languished unused on our evangelism department’s shelves.

But happily, a year or two later, in early 2000, I received a call (at first I thought it was a joke) from Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, MI. Their top-secret R&D division, a company, called Visteon asked if I could create interactive CD-Roms for their recruitment department. They wanted a slick new technology to attract top-tier engineering students from universities such as MIT and Georgia Tech.

As fate would have it, the executive who contacted me just happened to notice on a discarded pile of information the sample CD-Rom his wife had picked up at my seminar at a church worship conference in Los Angeles. He understood the implications immediately.

3. re:Create Conference—I have always taught that a wave of creativity historically precedes the turn of a century and as I recount these stories, it seems that it indeed happened to me. In 1996, I began to explore and research the concepts of cohorts (groups of people bound together by similar circumstances) and salons (in France, a gathering of elegant people discussing revolutionary ideas).

When I was hired at the church in Franklin in early 2000, they told me they had always wanted to have a conference similar to the ones convened at Willow Creek and Saddleback Churches. I suggested that instead of copying what those churches were already doing, instead why not try to create a cohort that examines all the new trends in the arts.

Again the (now familiar) blank looks. As fate would have it, I had to develop the conference using my meager arts budget, but somehow in 2001, I launched the re:Create conference. The first two years were a struggle, and the gathering went in the hole about $1,000. The CFO debited our arts budget for the loss. But in the third year, we finally turned a profit of $3,000, and I gleefully awaited the monies to be credited to the arts budget only to be told the profit would go into the regular budget.

It was a slap in the face—I had invited every staff member to join us at the gathering—but no one from our church took time to attend. Again, misunderstood and ignored. I immediately removed the conference from the auspices of the church, willing to take the risk, and formed a personal for-profit company called re:Create Conferences.

The cohort had been my idea, and I had done every bit of the work—yet our arts budget was forced to bear the losses, but received none of the profits. Sadly for the church, but happily for me, during the following fifteen years of the conference, long after I had resigned my job as pastor there, re:Create turned substantial profits as corporate CEO’s from major companies attended to rub shoulders with creatives. It became far more than I ever dreamed.

4. Consulting—When I first resigned from the full-time church pastorate in 2006, because of my success in ministry and business, churches and ministers would call wanting to “pick my brain,” prompting me to write one of my most read blog posts ever: “Why It Costs To Connect With Me”.

Inevitably, when I would agree to do pro-bono lunches or consulting for churches, I would be misunderstood or ignored. And so, I began charging a substantial hourly fee. Sadly, most Christian people were offended, but happily, corporate America was glad to pay my rate and even more importantly to me, to listen with understanding and to apply the ideas generated from the consultation.

5. Kalien Retreat—In 2002, during a run through the woods at a staff retreat, I had the idea for an artist/minister retreat of approximately 50 wilderness mountain acres, with cottages of rustic elegance, conversation areas, and great food and drink. Excited, during the next gathering, I shared my idea. Yep, blank looks. But I am stubborn. Over the next four years, I lobbied to no avail for an artist retreat to be a part of our church ministry.

The final straw was at an executive staff retreat in late 2005, when I presented the idea once more at the prodding of a high-priced church growth consultant that had been hired by the pastor. After my presentation, the executive pastor asked, “Well, Randy, tell us how that can put butts in the pews?” Sadly, that day I gave up on the church getting the idea, and I finally gave up on the church ever understanding me. I resigned from ministry a few months later.

As I sit here today, not many church artists or ministers have taken the time to escape to Kalien Retreat, and when they have, most have been granted a scholarship by our board of directors. Sadly, few ministers and artists carve out the time or money for solitude and restoration.

But happily, a wise board member asked if I had thought to list the cottage on Airbnb when it was not being used. The rest, as they say, is history. In three short months, we have had more than three times as many guests as in the past three years.

And to my surprise, when I read their guestbook entries, the goals that caused me to create a retreat space initially have been exceeded. The Airbnb guests may not be ministers or artists—but inevitably a rite of passage (a death, a marriage, an anniversary), a life trauma, or burnout from a job leads them here to our cozy and secluded cottage in the woods.

And I am grateful.

Conclusion:

And that, my friends, is how the church made me rich. So why did I write this?

To knock the church? To gloat? No.

For something far more critical. Because I don’t want my success to make me forget how far down I began.

And to tell you (to encourage you) that sometimes being misunderstood and ignored can be an excellent thing. If you will let it.

Created by Randy Elrod
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