Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Wildly successful preachers face greater temptations

Brittany and Michael Koper, center, have filed a lawsuit alleging financial shenanigans at Trinity Broadcasting Network, founded by her grandparents Jan Crouch, left, and Paul Crouch Sr.
Brittany and Michael Koper, center, have filed a lawsuit alleging financial shenanigans at Trinity Broadcasting Network, founded by her grandparents Jan Crouch, left, and Paul Crouch Sr.

What I'm about to say will strike some of you as sour grapes. I don't think it is, though. I've been around long enough to truly feel this way.

That is, I sometimes thank heaven I haven't amounted to too much as a preacher. The congregation I lead is small; our finances are tight.

Usually, I consider both of those things to be blessings.

When I first entered the ministry, an old preacher gave me advice I've never forgotten.

"Be careful with women and money," he warned me. "Those two temptations have derailed more preachers than all others put together."

I still see the great wisdom in his words.

I would add, however, a third perilous temptation: success.

Ministerial success — a big congregation, well-heeled donors, wide influence — often creates a flesh-tempting trifecta. Success can lead to increased sexual opportunities and stacks of loose cash.

I've managed mainly to dodge temptations and so far haven't disgraced myself, possibly because my opportunities for corruption have been limited.

I considered again how fortunate I am when I read in The New York Times about the impending meltdown of Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world's largest Christian television network.

The family of Paul Sr. and Jan Crouch, who built TBN, has ruptured. The Crouches and one son, Matthew, have fallen out with another son, Paul Jr.; his daughter, Brittany Koper; and Brittany's husband, Michael Koper.

It's a battle with "Shakespearean echoes," the Times reported.

The trouble consists of not just a family split, which is common to families in every walk of life, but public charges and countercharges of theft and mind-blowing extravagance, all of it conducted with millions in tax-free donations.

Paul and Jan Crouch, for example, allegedly have side-by-side mansions in a gated community in Newport Beach, Calif. But Jan Crouch rarely stays in her $5.6 million house, the Times reported, preferring to live in another company home near Orlando, Fla., where she runs a Christian theme park. She has an adjacent home there, too, occupied by a security guard who doubles as her chauffeur.

There are still other, often vacant TBN houses in Texas and Tennessee, and a brace of corporate jets, valued at $8 million and $49 million.

Brittany and Michael Koper contend that when they worked for TBN, Paul, Jan and Matthew Crouch "each ran up meal expenses of at least $300,000 per year," the Times reported.

Man, that's some serious eating.

For their part, Paul, Jan and Matthew claim the Kopers stole $1.3 million.

This is just the latest debacle among the Christian elite.

The Rev. Robert Schuller's family dissolved into factions competing for his ministerial mantle and, simultaneously, lost their Crystal Cathedral.

In attempts to protect their ecclesiastical fiefdoms, powerful Catholic bishops allowed pedophiles to abuse kids while enjoying the church's protection, and thus subjected their beloved denomination to disgrace and financial disaster.

Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were undone by hubris accompanied by financial chicanery and/or errant hormones.

Yes, I've written on this theme before.

But there's always a new scandal to consider.

Critics of religion cite this never-ceasing litany of woe as proof that Christianity is inherently tawdry and led by charlatans.

I find that interpretation sophomoric. The truth is more complicated.

The problem is that religion is made up of human beings, and humans are notoriously flawed. Ministers are no more likely to behave destructively than, say, politicians (have you followed the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards?) or coaches (can you say Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky?).

People pretty much are people, wherever you find them.

Most ministers start out with good intentions. Sadly, like other humans, they're also equally prone to be self-justifying or impetuous or compartmentalized or damaged by bad childhoods.

The more success they achieve, the more pressure they find themselves under. They have increasingly busy schedules, more people to please, larger budgets to meet. This stress increases the odds of their unraveling.

They also attract sycophants. They have increased numbers of women (or men, as the case might be) sexually attracted to them and readily available. They have infinitely more money at their disposal.

Worst of all, they can start to believe in their own anointing. They begin to think they personally are the Lord's right-hand men or women. They decide that guarding their kingdom is more important than doing right.

This combination of stress, opportunity and egomania can lead them to commit stupendously dumb deeds.

Many superstar ministers never fall. I realize that. And some mediocre ministers do. But, per capita, the successful ones appear likelier to come apart.

In most cases, it's not that they're intrinsically less moral than journeymen. We're all apt to transgress, given the human stain and the wrong circumstances.

It's that greater success leads to greater temptations. Or, as TV Bible teacher Joyce Meyer says, "New level, new devil."

That's why I'm often grateful for my own lack of star qualities. It's not because I think I'm morally superior to the big shots; it's because I'm sure I'm not.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader