Josh Manning: Thanks for taking time for us again, Mark. We left off last week with a bizarre story where a church member was said to be demon possessed by the administration. Then the administration reversed itself, and denied having said that. You said that story was just the tip of the ice berg. Now, I'd like to talk with you about the bulk of that ice berg: the financial information that you have.
Mark Sharpe: Josh, I'm convinced there are questions that must be addressed by Bellevue's leaders.
JM: Could you take us sort of from square one with the financial info, and shed a little light on the rumors that are floating out there?
MS: In my opinion, Bellevue started down a road that had led us to where we are today when Mark Dougharty assumed his position at Bellevue. Mark has surrounded himself with a small group of men that have over the past 5 years assumed a tremendous amount of control over the church. One could almost say that Bellevue is "Elder ruled" without any church guidelines actually calling for that to happen. A lot of the financial decisions are made without the knowledge of the church body. I think it's safe to say that a lot of financial decisions have not been known by the complete finance committee.
All of these issues have been brought before the leadership these past 4 months. I along with others have requested that these issues be dealt with to no avail. In a 3 hour and 25 minute meeting with Mark Dougharty as recently as 4 weeks ago, I was asked to either leave Bellevue and find another church to attend or stay and be quiet and drop these issues. After further requests to bring this before the appropriate committees and members, my request was denied. I asked to be able to address the deacons last month and was told that I was no longer a deacon and that I would not be able to address the deacon body that I love and have served faithfully over the years.
JM: That's a lot of information, Mark. Maybe we can break this down and talk about it one piece at a time. First off, can you tell us what sort of decisions are made without the knowledge of the complete finance committee?
MS: The best place to start is at the beginning. While we were without a pastor and Mark Dougharty was our leader, some men who surround him decided it would be a good idea to give him a whole year's salary in the event that our new pastor didn't want him to stick around.
When I confronted Mark about this, he told me "I didn't have anything to do with that. In fact, it was their idea and I had no decision it.” I asked him if he had free will to say yes or no. In my opinion, he should have said “Thanks guys, but at this time, it wouldn't be the right thing to do. Nobody knows anything about it and it's a nice gesture on your part but I just can't take it without anyone voting on it.” You might ask yourself, "What's wrong with giving Mark Dougharty a whole year's salary?" There's nothing wrong with it as long as the church knows about it. The deacons certainly didn't know about it, and I confronted Mark about the whole finance committee not having any knowledge of it. He didn't deny that the complete finance committee didn't know about the transfer of money.
It would be nice to do this for our Associate Pastor, and I'm sure the whole church may have voted to do so. What needs to be checked is the fact that it was that easy for a large sum of money to be spent without the knowledge of the church. Not everyone has the luxury of getting this type of benefit when they loose their job. In this case, he gets it if he stays or goes.
JM: And Mr Dougharty never gave you an answer or any indication why this didn't come before the church?
MS: He would not give me a response.
JM: Mark, who were the men who made this decision?
MS: I don’t know who the men were. He wouldn’t say.
JM: All right. Well, was this the only financial decision that the congregation didn't know about and the financial committee didn't have oversight of? Were there other, or are there still, financial decisions that fall through the proverbial cracks?
MS: I wanted to touch on something that has really bothered me since the first day I heard of it. As I've said before, I believe that a man is either called to pastor a church or he isn't. If God indeed calls a man to pastor a church, I believe that compensation should not be a reason for coming or staying. God will provide for the needs of all of us. With that said, I am told that our search committee offered Steve Gaines a compensation package that was on the level of our former pastor. The offer that our church made to Steve Gaines evidently was not enough for him to live on. Mark Dougharty did tell me that he didn't think that Steve Gaines renegotiated his compensation package before he accepted the call. He believed it to be after the call. Either way, does it really matter? Without the knowledge of the church, the finance committee, and at least 70% of the search committee (I’m told), we now have a pastor that is ridiculously compensated and the structure that was changed that allows him to set his own salary. I'm told that the only checks and balances that are in place now for the pastor's salary are Steve Gaines, Mark Dougharty, and whoever is the Chief Financial Officer of the church. (I believe we are now without one.) What we pay the pastor is not as important as the process that is in place to allow something like this to happen. For being concerned over this issue, I've been demonized over and over. Why not let the church know how much we love our pastor. Why not have more faith in the membership to let them know how we take care of our pastor. The question I have been asking our leadership is this; "Would it be embarrassing to our congregation if they knew what was going on with compensation inside the pastor and associate pastor’s office?"
JM: Mark, you just said that you were told many of these things. Who told them to you? Are they on good authority?
MS: Before I blew the whistle, I had to know the information was good. This information came from the office of administration that included the finance office at Bellevue. Keep in mind, I was the chairman of the insurance committee at Bellevue, on the executive missions committee, and very involved with staff members some of whom have left Bellevue in the past 6 months. I've had one of these men say over and over again that he will be glad to come into a room with the men involved at Bellevue who are responsible for these activities as long as there are men who are ready to find the truth and get to the bottom of these issues. I can tell you that I've been stonewalled and pushed away time after time. It's very frustrating. Just because someone says it isn't so doesn't mean it isn't so. There is a paper trail that will get to the truth. I've said from the start that if these things did not happen then "Praise the Lord." The proof would take about 15 minutes to gather the documents that would put these issues to rest.
JM: So you're saying that the head of finance at the church has given you this information? This is the man who is willing to sit in a room with legal authorities and the leadership and tell what he knows?
MS: Yes. This man who is no longer employed by Bellevue has stated that if that day ever comes, he will tell state the truth in all of these matters. I know this man to be a dear man of God. Nobody can imagine the pressure a man faces when standing up for the right thing in an ocean current that is coming at you. He who controls the platform has an incredible advantage to information flow—especially in this case where every fiber of your being wants to believe the office of the pastor.
JM: So, money is being set aside that the finance committee doesn't know about; and salary control for some of the administration, as well as oversight, is now out of the hands of the finance committee according to conversations you've had with this person. Is that right?
MS: I told Mark Dougharty in our recent meeting that to my understanding, the finance committee gives to the pastor's office now a lump sum of money to distribute by department anyway they want to. For instance, let's say one department had $1,000,000 set aside for compensation. The pastor could at his discretion give one minister half of what he wanted to give another regardless of the number of years that person may have served here at Bellevue. Mark Dougharty described the new setup to me. I also let Mark Dougharty know that I personally didn't like it because there were not enough controls in place. He told me that he didn't want the congregation knowing what he made. When I reminded him that most every SBC church in America knows what the ministers make, he let me know he didn't agree with that. I told him that I believe if the Bellevue congregation knew what he and the pastor made, they would be appalled.
JM: Mark are there other financial concerns? We've heard something about credit card charges that might not be entirely proper. Can you tell us if there's any substance to those rumors?
MS: I don't know if there is or isn't. It was brought to my attention and I went to Mark Dougharty and told him what I'd been told. I told him that improper credit card charges by the pastor were brought to him in the first couple of months of the pastors calling. Mark Dougharty was asked to address these issues and refused to do so after several months. When I confronted Mark Dougharty about this, he didn't deny it. All he said was that a recent audit that was done showed everything to be in order. I reminded him that Enron and WorldCom had just had multimillion dollar audits done that showed everything was fine. Most financial people know that there are different levels of audits that are done. In this case, I told him there would obviously be a paper trail to show otherwise. Just produce the monthly statement and the reimbursements back to the church. That would take about 10 minutes to produce. He informed me that wasn't going to happen. I told him I had heard that each month there was a long list of personal expenses. Mark Dougharty not once denied it. What conclusion am I to come to after a discussion like this? I also asked about a membership to Colonial Country Club that was purchased in Steve Gaines name and he said that was so he could get away from the church and have some privacy when needed. We have a wonderful facility at Bellevue with a professional chef that cooks wonderful meals and we have some lovely fireside rooms that can be used for privacy. I shared with Mark that I believe the church needs to know about these things. Why would we not want to share this with the congregation? If we can't share it with the congregation, we probably don't need to be doing these things.
JM: You bring up the country club membership. I had heard, though never confirmed, that this was part of the package offered by the pulpit committee. Do you know if that's true? Also, do you have any idea how that committee and Dr Gaines interacted before, during, and after he was called? In other words, were there "negotiations" about compensation?
MS: I can't answer that. This is a question for a member of the search committee. All I know about the interaction between Steve Gaines and the pulpit committee, I've gotten from Steve Gaines and his address to Gardendale on the night of his calling. In the past month with talk about the pastor renegotiating his contract swirling around, I've heard that the renegotiating went on after he accepted the call and not before. I still don't understand why a package similar to what our former pastor was making would not be close to enough for Steve Gaines to live on. That is worrisome.
JM: Thank you for not answering something that you don't feel you've got enough information to comment on.
You say that you've brought these concerns before the leadership for months. We know you've talked to Mr Dougharty, but were there others to whom have you talked--Dr Gaines for example--and can you give us an idea of how many times?
MS: I've talked to Dr. Gaines on two occasions in person and several more times over the phone. I've talked with Mark Dougharty, Chuck Taylor, and numerous other current deacon officers. I've talked so many times in person and on the phone with these men that I honestly can't remember the exact number. I believe at least 15 times in the past 4 months collectively.
JM: You say that during some of these meetings, you've been told that you should simply leave the church. Is that correct?
MS: That is correct. Two men have said that to me numerous times. Steve Gaines and Mark Dougharty. In fact, Mark Dougharty said the only way my family should return to Bellevue is for me to drop this stuff and act like it never happened. He said also that "I know this statement looks like I'm just trying to protect myself."
JM: Have you asked to take your concerns to the deacon body?
MS: Yes, I've asked that I have the opportunity to take these issues to the deacon body. They have refused to allow me to speak to the deacons. The deacons at Bellevue really don't have any authority. To the congregation, it may appear that they do but at Bellevue, the deacons are there to serve. Their main function is to counsel at the services, serve the Lord's Supper, and man the phones when people call in. To the average member of Bellevue, they need to know that outside of that, there really isn't any authority in the body that the current church government allows. I believe a lot of decisions inside the church are made hiding behind the deacon body. To the church, it looks like deacons approve everything when in fact they don't approve anything.
JM: I understand. Let me ask you another question, have you considered taking this to the congregation itself?
MS: The only reason I'm doing this interview with you is to give the congregation a way of hearing this. I believe the membership of Bellevue has a right to know these things and demand accountability. The accountability may come from the congregation and not the deacon body. It's hard for a man to take a stand when he is facing losing something but I came to the point where I was convicted to be more concerned with what God wanted me to do instead of what man could do to me. As I said earlier, this is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Nobody in their right mind would do this unless they knew for sure this was the right thing. I've got nothing to gain from this. In fact, my family feels like we've had a death in the family. Our church has been hijacked and nobody is willing to stop it. What my family has had to go through the past 4 months has not been easy. You have to remember Bellevue has been our home for 17 years. We were here long before Steve Gaines came. I've heard from so many members who have called us or sent cards in the mail echoing these thoughts. A lot of people know something isn't right but they know there is something out there.
JM: I'm so sorry to hear that Mark.
Thank you again for coming out with this information. I know you say that the deacon body doesn't hold much power. Do you think the deacon body will do what they need to do to build accountability into the system?
MS: I don't believe so. I love everyone one of these men. They really don't have any authority. Unless they hear from the congregation, I don't believe that will happen. Being leaders, they could wield some authority in the church but I'm not sure how many of them want to take a stand. It's hard to explain but I've been amazed at the men who I consider strong leaders just sit on the sidelines and do nothing. A person can either want to know the truth or not pursue it. I guess the easy road is to not know sometimes what the truth actually is. I don't believe God wants us to accept anything but the truth. I know that God is not going to honor any body of believers that participate in sweeping truth under the rug. I am praying that there are deacons that will rise up and search for the truth. I've said it before but these issues may not be valid but coming from the folks that are in these trenches and knowing that I've confronted these men and they haven't denied most everything I'm sharing—all of this leads me to believe there is truth behind these concerns. There is so much out there, it takes a while to let everything sink in because it's so bizarre when compared to what we have been used to here at Bellevue. Because of that, I think time will allow this information to sink in and men will start to get to the bottom of these issues. If not, I pray the congregation does. We've been operating for years with a pastor that had an incredible amount of integrity. He was a self-disciplined, self-controlled man you could trust. I don't ever recall an instance where he made me question his integrity. Our deacon body has operated for a long time with this level of trust for the office of the pastor. It's hard to not feel the same way.
JM: Well, I join you in praying that all of these rumors can be dispelled by the light of truth. I’d like to recap for a moment: Basically, what you have said here tonight is that you've found from the former head of finance at the church that large amounts of money have come under the direct control of a small group of men who are held accountable to no one other than the congregation (not the deacons and not the finance committee). These men refuse to disclose information about expenditures to that same congregation. When two were confronted, they told you that you should leave the church or be quiet. When you asked to take this information to the deacon body, you were denied the opportunity and told that you were no longer a deacon. Is this correct?
JM: I think that information should probably startle the Bellevue membership. Let me ask you about something else. There’s been a lot of talk about losing staff members and gaining new ones over the last year. Rumor has it that these new staff members are coming in at significantly higher pay than the ministers that were already here when Dr Gaines took over. Can you shed any light on this?
MS: I asked Mark Dougharty if any laymen saw the mega-church compensation survey prepared in 2005. The survey had been done to provide direction for the 2006 Budget Planning Committee. I asked if any laymen knew how Bellevue's compensation compares to Southeast Christian, Willow Creek, and Saddleback (churches with larger budgets and attendance than Bellevue). The survey shows that employees at the highest level at Bellevue make considerably more than comparable positions at other mega-churches. I asked what was the justification to start Jamie Parker at the same amount of compensation that Jim Whitmire was receiving when he retired (after 30 years of service to the church). I also asked how Steve Gaines could bring Bill Street (former college roommate to Steve Gaines, son-in-law to a member of the pastor search committee, and on-staff minister at Gardendale) and Ken Hatley (former member of Gardendale) on board at salaries over $80,000, bypassing loyal staff members who have been serving for years. I also asked Mark Dougharty why Bellevue gave one of the smallest pay raises in the past 10 years (while giving is up) but three people didn't fall under that umbrella; Steve Gaines, Mark Dougharty, and Jamie Parker. When I asked this question, once again he didn't deny it happened. Bill Street and Ken Hatley I'm sure are great men but why can't the church know of their hiring before they are hired. Is it wrong to ask about these questions? Is it right for the church to relinquish any knowledge of new hirings?
JM: Mark, does Dr Gaines now have sole authority to higher and set salaries?
MS: I can't say what changes have been made if any these past several months but according to Mark Dougharty, there isn't any written guideline for establishing Bellevue guidelines for hiring and or firing. The salary deal is like I stated earlier. The pastor has the ability to pay anyone he brings in at any salary he wants as long as he doesn't go over the pool of money set aside for a certain department. Let's say the pastor says we don't need 5 ministers in this department any longer and we can do it with three. Then there would be a lot of money in the pool to pay someone new coming in. Mark Dougharty told me nobody on the finance committee knows what the pastor, associate pastor, minister of music, or any new hire makes. This information is from Mark Dougharty himself.
JM: That's incredible
Let me ask one final question: Have you been intimated by any member of the administration?
MS: That's a good question. Last month, after repeated attempts to have the opportunity to deal with these issues behind closed doors, a group of concerned members of Bellevue prayed about getting together to discuss these issues and see what God would direct us to do. When word got back to the office of the pastor, Steve Gaines, Chuck Taylor, John Caldwell, and Mark Dougharty paid a visit to my home. I live in a gated community with a "no trespassing" sign at the entrance. They came to my neighborhood unannounced and uninvited. I believe when you have 4 men come see you and climb over a fence when they could have called my home to open the gate that it's intimidation. After they could not catch me at home, Steve Gaines called my home at 11:08 one evening and told me I was "Hezbollah" and that I was going to personally be sending people to hell if I went to this meeting. I informed him that I didn't have the power to send anyone to hell. Standing in my kitchen with my cell phone speaker on, my wife heard the conversation as did my neighbor. I have to admit, I was shaken by the words I heard my pastor speak to me. I was shaken to the bone but reminded that these were not the actions of a pastor. I don't have to fear what man can do to me, but I do fear what God will do to me if I don't do what the Holy Spirit prompts me to do. I know this information is going to be hard for people to hear but God is my witness that I'm not making anything up. I pray for our Bellevue and the leadership that knows what the right thing to do is. I pray for the congregation, that God will raise leaders up who have had a check in their spirit for some time now and do the right thing which is seek the truth.
JM: Mark, I'm sorry that it came to that, and I think that should always be our prayer for ourselves and our leadership. Do you have anything else you want to add tonight?
MS: Josh, On behalf of the congregation that wants to get to the truth, we say thank you for the forum you've provided. Nothing else needs to be said other than pray for Bellevue, pray for Steve Gaines, pray for Mark Dougharty, pray for Chuck Taylor, the leaders of the church, and the congregation. Pray that nothing be accepted other than truth. Pray for people to do the right thing. One thing we don't have to worry about is the truth. God is Truth and I believe god wants the truth to always be known. I talk with you this evening able to say that every thought I've uttered has been the truth as I know it. I pray for anyone who has spoken about these issues if they knowingly made false statements or they don't want to get to the truth. For anyone who is a Believer, the Holy Spirit is convicting. Conviction can and will get deep into any Believer to where it's very uncomfortable if they run from it. I pray for all of these men tonight who are my friends. May God have mercy on our church.
JM: Mark, again, I thank you for coming forward with this information. Since it seems that you’re not being allowed to directly air these concerns to the church, this seems to be next best (though still entirely inadequate) medium for finishing out the mandate of Matthew 18 and 1 Tim 5.
Thank you for sharing with us from your knowledge. Thank you for your honesty and transparency. May God make us all men who will stand up for what is right. This information is now in the hands of the church. They may do with it what they will. May God have mercy on us all.