Saturday, August 11, 2007

Preachers Flying in Style

An interesting article from The Door Magazine (May/June 2004) concerning the lavish aircraft owned by some of America's most popular preachers.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked for a company near my home. I'm not going to say the name, because, believe it or not, they are still in business. I imagine they would get really mad at me for telling the truth on them, and they probably have some really nasty lawyers. I just don't need the "ag." Anyway, they considered themselves a "Christian" telemarketing company. It grew out of the fundraising arm of one of the popular TV "ministries" of the day - and became a separate company in its own right. Mailing lists for various televangelists were compiled, cards were generated for each past donor - which included a summary of their donations.

Stacks of cards were given to reps who would call the donors one by one on the phone. There was a script which included the rep giving a fake name, as well as an assurance that "Rev. [so and so] has asked me to call you personally..." followed by a spiel. Clients of this company included Rex Humbard (whose hideous unfinished 500 foot eyesore of a tower still graces my childhood hometown), Peter Popoff (a faith healer who was caught fraudulently using radios to communicate with his wife who fed him information that appeared to come from God), Robert Tilton (comically altered footage of whom seemingly suffering gastric distress has become popular on YouTube of late), and other big names in 1980s televangelism. Each "ministry" had its own approach. Humbard had a planned "crisis" every quarter - including dire warnings that "Satan is attacking this soul-winning ministry like never before" and that nefarious men are trying to destroy Rex unless the caller was willing to make a pledge. In fact, "creditors have stripped the office down to its bare walls, and unless you send in your one-time sacrificial gift..."

Promises were also made that the televangelist would "personally" pray for the individual donor. People actually believed it.

The donor was asked for pledges up to three times - in decreasing amounts each time they said "no" - based on a formula involving the donor's highest pledge in the past. The last high-pressure request was often for a donation of as little as ten dollars (many of the donors were elderly and/or poor people). Various "objections" were handled by the script, which used slick marketing principles to get the conversation back on track for collecting the money. Some of the scripted "objection" handling involved outright lying.

Workers were under immense pressure to produce. The pledges they received were calculated and compiled on computer printouts. The big producers were given better "leads" (which were color coded according to the size of the individual's past donations) - as well as incentives and bonuses. Those who could not get donors to cough up the cash were fired. Many of the workers were single mothers and uneducated folks who couldn't find more satisfying work. It was an utterly cut-throat business. Think Glengarry Glen Ross.

I had a cousin who later worked for them as a "gofer". He would pick up the celebrity televangelists and their entourages from the airport and show them a good time while in town as the marketing department tried to sell them on the company and its services. I won't go into the details about what kinds of entertainment my cousin claimed was going on, but let's just say my cousin was not a candidate for teaching Sunday school.

I was working for this company part-time as a second job while attending university. I think one of my co-workers at my other job told me about it. I was appalled at the business practices of this "Christian" company. However, I somehow justified it in my own mind and kept working for them. However, as a reliable worker, I was permitted to make "verification" calls to a random sample of those who had committed pledges - since incentive to lie on the part of the callers was so high. It was a kind of internal policing. At least I wasn't required to fast-talk little old ladies with a high-pressure sales pitch to get them to finally pledge ten bucks for the latest faith healer. But I should not have worked for them just the same.

I did the job for a few weeks, and then quit. I learned a lot more than I cared to about some of America's most beloved and popular preachers.

In fairness, I have no idea if this company has amended their practices. However, I suspect some of the same "usual suspects" from the 1980s are still financing their "religious empires" using telemarketers (from some company or another) with scripts, banks of callers in boiler rooms, computer printouts, lead cards, fake names, and planned financial crises. There is nothing new under the sun...

So, if you've ever had a high-pressure telemarketer call you claiming to be "Bob Johnson" from XYZ Ministries with a sob story about how Rev. XYZ is going broke unless you send in your generous donation of ten dollars, well, at least you can take comfort knowing that thanks to you, these "humble servants of Christ" don't have to fly coach with the "hoi polloi" - but instead have private planes.


Kletos Sumboulos said...

Father Beane,
I know where you're from, because I live right down the street from Ernest Angely's "Bible college" and have been acquainted with "Rex's Folly". I'm a transplant from Texas. I think you got the better end of the deal, going north to south.

Steve Hayes said...

Now for the exam question: Is this contextualising the gospel for a capitalist society, or is it out and out syncretism?