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.
“I can tell you that any time that many family members are on the payroll of one church or one charity, that is going to be a sticking point with a lot of folks in the congregation,” he said.
Former church members said Jerry Johnston even let other employees go so he could replace them with his relatives.
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“His family is all running that church, and if you question any of that, you’re gone,” said Ron Moore, who spent four years setting up the church services in various rented buildings on Sundays before it built its permanent home. Jerry Johnston said his family members were highly qualified for the positions.
“We have nearly 100 employees here at First Family, and quite frankly, I’m doing everything in my power to keep major ministries from hiring some of my family members away,” he said. “They’re very gifted, and they could go to any major church in this country today and be employed.”
Johnston, however, won’t discuss his salary or those of his family members.
“Our board of directors employs a respected auditing firm that conducts an independent certified audit, a compliance audit, then annually that accounting firm conducts a salary study,” he said. “And they establish my compensation from a salary study that’s a comparative basis of other churches. I have absolutely nothing to do with my compensation or voting on my compensation.”
Although a church can pay its staff any amount it wants, it must abide by some government restrictions to keep its tax-exempt status. One condition is that the church can’t pay unreasonably high salaries.
But the Internal Revenue Service has been reluctant to enforce the restrictions, and the law does not define the amount of compensation that would be considered unreasonable. Few nonprofit organizations have had their tax-exempt status pulled for paying someone too much.
Most religious organizations and charities are required to file a Form 990 with the IRS, providing financial information that includes the salaries of the top officers. Churches, however, aren’t required to do so.