When I was a young man just out of high school in 1958, it seemed that almost every car, long past its prime, had multiple bumper stickers on it that read, "Lakewood Church An Oasis of Love."
The standard joke was that it was those multitudes of "An Oasis of Love" bumper stickers that were holding the old rattletraps together.
John Osteen began his years of ministry in 1940. He pastored several Baptist churches and was a well-educated and well-thought of minister.
A divorce of his first wife found as well as becoming more Pentecostal in his sermons and instructions, brought him at odds with the church deacons and a good portion of the membership, so he set out to found his own church.
A lot of thought went into the selection of a site the new church would own,, and finally, the choice was on the east side of Houston, primarily among the working class. When the first church building was built, the membership was about ninety.
It grew until membership and Sunday attendance dwarfed the building, even with all of its additions. And the highway and the residential streets to the Lakewood Church became burdened before and after services.
Worse, there was no way for the church to handle any further increases in membership.
John Osteen died January 23, 1999, and even though his death was an inevitable event, not one of his six children had been chosen to be his heir apparent.
While I've not found any written reference, my personal contact with the family members brought me to understand that the family retained a prominent marketing firm to help them decide the course the church should now take..
For a while, Dr. Paul Osteen, a well-respected general surgeon, found his name in the hat, but he made it clear that he believed medicine remained his better calling
They settled on Joel Osteen to be the most likely to successfully pastor the church, and the marketing folks recommended that his messages from the pulpit should be closer in style and content to those of Norman Vincent Peal and Dr. Robert Schuler.
The group felt that Lakewood's TV ministry should be an extension of the local churches, not the TV audience's only church.
So at the end of each broadcast, Joel Osteen affirms that when he says, "Friends, we believe that if you'll get in a good bible based church, He'll take you places you've never dreamed."
Special staging details were thought out. The dais was specially designed and built so as to not block Pastor Joel Osteen's body during his sermon. He was to move from side to side of the dais, not stand behind it. The stage was to not have a Christian cross or religious statuary.
Next, it became obvious that the church could no longer remain in its founding headquarters. They began to look elsewhere.
The Compaq Center, home of the Houston basketball team, became available for lease. The Osteens and their advisors decided that would be an excellent opportunity to answer the church location's problems of access and growth.
It had easy access from all of the Houston highways; it would hold in its auditorium nearly 17,000 people at a time; and, it would have adequate parking facilities on its campus.
The Osteens applied to the City of Houston, who owned the property, to lease it for $12 million for a total of 30 years. Initially, the Osteens' plan was to spend another $90 million to renovate and convert the facility to Lakewood Church.
They had about one half of the money they needed. They would have to raise the rest by a short-term loan, to be paid off by donations. It worked.
A few years later, the City of Houston agreed to cancel the lease, and sell them the property for $7.5 million.
From its beginning, this was serious stuff. Without going into confidential details, I was retained to serve with a group of advisors to determine if the Osteen family could, first and foremost, keep their end of the financial obligation. But secondly, there was concern that their financial records might not impeccable. If that were the case, leasing and/or selling to the church could quickly bring criticism to the Houston City Council and the city itself.
For me, it was an interesting assignment, no matter how small the part was that I was to play. Frankly, I couldn't wait to serve and see how the Osteen family performed.
The bankers who had known them for years told me, "They are as real as rain. There is no way they could be any more humble, There financial records are stable and hold up well to third-party audits. There will be no evidence found of hanky-panky.
I saw that to be 100% true as we poured through documents that told their story.
The family members I met were charming.
However, one guy who worked for them had a hostile attitude. In fact, he emailed to me once an off the wall, hateful message. I said nothing because it was inconsequential to what I was retained to do. But it was only months before he apparently was no longer on their team.
As the church began its development under Joel Osteen and in its new facilities, it became obvious that he had movie star-like qualities.
He was encouraged to write a book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," and it seems to me that it was published in October 2004.
Patty and I were living in League City. He sent us a signed copy with a nice personal message.
By Christmas 2004, that book had sold 500,000 copies. To date, it has sold in excess of 4,000,000. That success led to others, the next one being on the stands two years later.
The publisher's advance to him for one of his more recent books was $13,000,000.
He and his wife, Victoria, began adding a monthly in-person program in major facilities throughout the US.
The title is "A Night with Joel and Victoria."
The cost of production and staging of each is enormous. Lakewood Church does not provide financial assistance to these programs. The risk and the net return are the sole burdens of Pastor and Mrs. Osteen.
A bit of research shows that Joel Osteen's annual net income is now about $3.5 million.
None comes from the church, where his salary until he stopped taking it in 2005 was $200,000 a year.
He and his wife pay Federal Income Tax just like you and me.
The Osteens' net worth is now reported to be about $40 million.
It is interesting to note that the Osteens, year after year, are the largest financial contributors to Lakewood Church.
One of the evilest and surreptitious problems that ministers must prepare and deal with comes from those who are anxious to sue them.
You see, spiritual interpretations, by definition, come with no third-party proof. Every part of it is intangible.
So ministers are frequently sued for what the plaintiff claims were advice they were given that was based on no proof. The more prominent and financially responsible the religious leaders are, the more likely they are to be sued and for exorbitant amounts of money.
Most carry liability coverage commonly referred to as errors and omissions insurance, but the premium costs are very high, and insurance carriers advise their clients to keep as much of their wealth as possible in forms of assets that are, for the most part, legally protected from judicial judgments.
Some investments not open to judgment and that are used include life insurance policy cash values, homesteads, and elaborate automobiles.
In the case of Joel and Victoria Osteen, critics continue to call attention to a large mansion they own and occupy in Houston's tony River Oaks.
Depending on who you believe, the value seems to be about $14 million.
While it may be true that they don't really need a home of that size, opulence and value for two adults and two children, their legal and financial advisors, no doubt, recommended the investment as a vehicle to shield $14 million of their net worth.
It is not tax exempt. It is their homestead and they pay ad valorem taxes on it as would anyone else with a $14 million home on the tax rolls.
Finally, some years back, I wrote about a personal experience I had with an airplane ride in terribly bad weather from New York to Houston. As we bounced around and luggage flew out of storage bins and down the aisle, the young lady on my right held my hand tightly and told me that, by accident, a couple of years before, she was in Gallery Furniture Store on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. All of the televisions in the media room were tuned to John Osteen's sermon from old Lakewood Church.
She said he looked at her through the screen and told her if she would come to Lakewood, she could find a new life. She did the next Sunday. Since then she had a remarkable recovery from drug addiction, and at the church, she met a cross-country truck driver, who she was now flying back to Houston to marry.
She asked me to help her to pray that we would arrive safely.
Dodie Osteen, Joel Osteen's mother, read that piece I wrote on their television broadcast a few weeks later. She sent me a DVD copy of the service. It had been heard by millions around the world, as evidenced by the emails I received.
Like I said, when I started this piece, the Osteens are the real McCoy. I'm pretty sure of it.
Copyright - 2016 William S. Cherry
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