The Next Jerry Falwell?

The Kansas City Star has recently run a series of articles profiling Jerry Johnston, pastor of the First Family megachurch in Overland Park, Kansas, who apparently sees himself as the next Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson:

Today, Johnston has gained national prominence through his tough talk on homosexuality, abortion and what he views as wimpy pastors who won’t take strong stands on social issues. His positions have earned him appearances on “The Today Show” and “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Those positions have prompted Johnston to use volunteer bodyguards for personal protection, as well as for church security.

Indeed, Johnston envisions himself becoming one of America’s foremost religious leaders.

“Guess what?” he asked his congregation after rattling off the names of evangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in a 2005 sermon. “Those men are getting old. Really old.

“See, God’s calling us to step up to the plate. And there are national Christian leaders all over this nation that are looking to First Family Church to do the job.”

Over the past couple of years, Johnston has become increasingly active politically, especially in opposition to marriage equality, appearing alongside right-wing starts such as Roy Moore and Jerry Fallwell, and being featured on NPR, “Nightline,” “Scarborough Country,” and “The O’Reilly Factor,” where he told host Bill O’Reilly:

[P]astors are called of God to teach his word. And when we look at the same-sex initiative in this country, it is a shame that pastors across this country have not done a more effective job defining what the family is as God intended.

And because of the silence in the pulpit, we are in the mess we're in right now. When we saw this defeated in the Kansas House, I was shocked. I mean, we're in the land of Dorothy and Toto, and we can't even get a marriage amendment initiative on the ballot to vote on.

And so, we have met with hundreds of pastors. And we've said, we need to teach our people. We need to have surveillance of elected officials, how they're voting. And we need to get those three out of four evangelicals that did not vote in the last election, voting so that we can continue to see America endure under God's blessing.

Considering that Johnston sees himself as heir to the Robertson/Fallwell political empire, the series run by the Kansas City Star probably has been particularly helpful:

First Family payroll includes several Johnston family members

The Rev. Jerry Johnston’s church is a family affair.

Johnston is the senior pastor. His wife, Christie, is “Director of Open Arms & Chesalon Comfort Circles.” Their son, Jeremy, 25, is executive pastor and chief operating officer of media. A son-in-law, Christian Newsome, 29, is associate pastor of family and youth. Their daughter, Danielle Newsome, 27 — Christian’s wife — is contemporary worship leader. Another son-in-law, Luke Cunningham, 21, is pastor of youth ministry for preteen boys, and Luke’s wife, Jenilee Cunningham — the Johnstons’ 21-year-old daughter who married Luke in April — is in charge of youth ministry for girls. Jerry Johnston’s mother, Joyce, is one of the church’s executive secretaries.

John Vaughan, a national expert on megachurches, estimated that fewer than 5 percent had family members on their payrolls.

Dan Busby, vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, said that the group had no policy on nepotism but that having numerous family members on staff did raise some red flags.

Lavish lifestyles at odds with pastor’s calls for the faithful to sacrifice

Expensive trips. New homes. An elite credit card.

The lifestyle of the Rev. Jerry Johnston’s family has raised eyebrows among former members of First Family Church.

“Everything is extravagant,” said Melisa Gingrich, who left the church last year. “That’s the way the Johnstons live.”

Johnston and the church board will not reveal his compensation, nor how much he makes from his for-profit corporation that handles his books, videos and speaking engagements.

Pastor, church have been delinquent in paying tax bills

The Rev. Jerry Johnston and his ministries have a history of being slow to pay their taxes.

Records show that in 2002 and again in 2004, the Kansas Department of Revenue went to court to force Johnston to pay his state income taxes. Department officials said tax liens were filed only after numerous attempts were made to collect.

Lax financial oversight riles some First Family Church followers

Jerry Johnston, the dynamic Johnson County pastor who leads one of the fastest-growing megachurches in America, has an unusual problem.

As hundreds of new worshipers flock into his First Family Church, hundreds of others have bailed out, complaining that the pastor they once held in high esteem appears more intent on building his own kingdom than God’s.

“What he preaches from the pulpit, he doesn’t put into action,” said Bruce Shalberg, who was co-chairman of a fundraiser that he said raised millions of dollars several years ago to pay off the new church building. “You would have to call someone like that a hypocrite.”

What’s more, an examination by The Kansas City Star found that the church is structured in a way that provides little financial oversight.

Business offshoots add to bottom line

Not only does the Rev. Jerry Johnston run a megachurch, he also has his own business.

The for-profit corporation, called Jerry Johnston Publications, operates out of a mailbox drop in Leawood. Its only officers are Johnston and his wife, and its purpose, according to records filed with the Kansas secretary of state’s office, is “book and video sales.”

Johnston said the corporation handled the sales of his books and other products, as well as his speaking engagements around the country.

And, to make matters worse, The Star also revealed this:

The Rev. Jerry Johnston refers to himself as “Dr. Jerry,” and the title is prominently displayed on a large sign at First Family Church’s entrance.

But the “degree” that Johnston holds is an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He received it May 8, 1998, when he was the speaker for the baccalaureate service, a university spokesman said.

Johnston calls the degree “one of the greatest honors of my life.”

Johnston told The Star he attended Kansas City Christian High School in the 1970s but did not graduate because he spent much of his senior year attending a Bible institute and traveling the country as an evangelist.

He instead earned a general equivalency diploma. Johnston now attends Midwestern Baptist College in Kansas City, where he says he will receive a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies in May.

Of course, it should be noted that having a history of apparent financial impropriety is probably not really a liability for those seeking to become the next Robertson or Falwell.