The Great & Powerful Oz: Behind the Curtain of Teen Mania Ministries
It was February 2008 and I was standing in an expansive crowd at the New York City BattleCry. I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of young people lifting up the name of God in worship. It should have been the very pinnacle of all my ministry experience, but it wasn’t. I felt disappointed, I felt disgusted with the information I knew, and worst of all I felt like I had let God down. I had just been told by Ron Luce himself that I had committed a fatal mistake that had the potential to ruin his entire vision for this event, and he was clearly disappointed with me.
In late 2007 I had been hired to be Ron Luce’s assistant, director of his Executive Office, and the 2008 New York BattleCry had been my baby. I was responsible for literally every minute of the event with regard to the VIP’s and had been given the directive to spare “no expense” to ensure that we handled our ultimate VIP with “world class” attention to detail. I was tasked with being the liaison for Bishop T.D. Jakes and to do absolutely anything (and everything) possible to ensure that he experienced world class VIP treatment.
While the ministry was sending out donor letters explaining the dire conditions of the ministries need for more money to stay solvent I was executing a plan that seemed quite contrary to the need. The following can and should be verified by the reader in a demand for a public viewing of Teen Mania’s financial statements. I can assure you that not a single bit of this information is exaggerated or misstated in any way.
However before I continue I want to be clear about a few points. I am not angry with Teen Mania Ministries or Ron Luce. I do not harbor ill will towards him or this ministry. On the contrary, my experiences absolutely and completely broke my heart because of the incredible lack of accountability, and how Mr. Luce’s power remains unchecked. I was so passionate about fixing this problem prior to my resignation that in a last ditch effort to help turn the ministry around, I wrote and presented to Mr. Luce an exhaustive report about the “real problem” with Teen Mania Ministries. The problem could be summed up in two words:
Ron Luce. It obviously fell on deaf ears…
Like so many of you I grew up with Teen Mania. I have gone around the world on mission trips with Teen Mania. I loved Ron’s heart for ministry and felt compelled to join the ministry full time to make a difference. What I found when I got there was something that I abhorred and absolutely broke my heart for the ministry and those who have been scarred by it. I am publically calling for Teen Mania to show their accounting records in full disclosure to the public. This is the only way that this problem can be fixed and for others to avoid being hurt by this recklessness. The following is simply my retelling of the facts that occurred during my experience as Ron Luce’s assistant and Director of the Executive office:
Courting the Bishop
The premier speaker for the New York City BattleCry had been decided in 2007 (possibly even before that time). This event was designed to be the biggest and most extravagant display that Teen Mania had ever performed, but in order to do that we needed the “big dogs” of the Christian world to attend to attract a large enough audience for the event. Early on Ron fixed his eyes on Bishop T.D. Jakes. I still remember when I received the “engagement dossier” from Mr. Jake’s offices in Dallas. I opened it and began muddling through the contract, green room requirements, hotel requirements, and ultimately the “Honorarium.”
If you are not familiar with the term “Honorarium” then I will explain how that works in ministry as it exists in the church today. Notable and well known speakers in the Christian world are not much different than celebrities in the secular world in terms of their speaking engagement requirements. An “Honorarium” is synonymous with an “Appearance Fee.” This is the cost of what the speaker charges simply to come and speak in your church, event, or in this case the New York BattleCry. While the ministry was cutting back on salaries, expenses, costs, and was sending thousands of letters of year explaining the need for more money, I was hiring Bishop Jakes to speak at the NYC BattleCry.
His Honorarium was $100,000.00. Teen Mania Ministries paid every penny of that cost from the Executive Departments budget. But it didn’t end there…
Bishop Jakes also required a round trip chartered private Learjet from Texas to New York City. This would end up cost Teen Mania approximately $22,000.00. Additionally Bishop Jakes would need to stay in the Presidential suite of the Manhattan Ritz Carlton at approximately $2,200.00 a night. This too was paid by Teen Mania Ministries.
If that weren’t enough, Bishop Jakes required TWO stretch Escalade limousines to take him to and from his hotel and the event. I do not immediately recall the cost for this expense, but I am sure the reader can use their imagination for what two stretch Escalades might cost. I truly wish it had ended there. Ron was not satisfied with merely meeting the requirements listed in Bishop Jake’s speaking contract; he wanted to far exceed his expectations. So I was tasked with transforming his experience into something that exuded “world class excellence.”
At the instruction and approval of Mr. Luce we spared no expense and paid many thousands of dollars to have a local florist in New York City make rare and exotic imported flower bouquets for the Presidential suite at the Ritz Carlton. I know this because I delivered those flowers to the suite myself. We spent thousands of dollars buying rare chocolates, desserts, pastries and various imported gifts from around the world for the Bishop, his wife and his children. This included several hundred dollars of i-Tunes gift cards, i-Pods, and various expensive trinkets.
Mr. Luce had me draft a complete “minute by minute” of what Bishop Jakes would experience from the moment he stepped off his $22,000.00 private Learjet to the moment he entered the stadium for the NYC BattleCry. This included a green room that was fit for a monarch. We completely transformed the nicest available space in the arena into a virtual oasis of luxury for Bishop Jakes. We rented couches, furniture, lamps and brought the most luxurious items we could find in the city to his green room. The cost for this was astronomical.
When it was all said and done we had easily spent well over $125,000.00 (this is a very conservative number, it likely exceeded $140,000.00+, but in the interest of details I want to remain as factual as possible in my recollection) in courting Bishop Jakes, because Ron believed that if we could entice the Bishop to partner with Teen Mania then we would be headed to the Promised Land. Despite my best preparations it seemed we had an Achilles heel that none of us were aware of at the time. Bishop Jakes had arrived at the arena and within a matter of 20 minutes his handler had forwarded a complaint from the Bishop to Ron himself. It seems my office had told the Bishop that he should wear a full suit and tie to the event, and when he arrived seeing dressed down teenagers he was not happy.
If you didn’t know that during the time the Bishop spoke on stage (for approx. 50 minutes) you may not have noticed that the Bishop seemed bothered and uncomfortable during his short sermon, but Ron noticed and he was not pleased. Probably the most disappointing part of that experience was the fact that a young man had spoken a few hours before the bishop, someone that the ministry had not paid an “Honorarium.” He brought down the house and had the crowd on their feet at the end of his testimony. The Bishop did not have that affect, not even close.
Despite Ron’s best efforts the extravagant luxuries did not appear to have the desired effect. Our small mistake of telling the Bishop to wear the wrong clothes seemed to be far more important than any of the money we had blown courting him. I know this because I followed Teen Mania for years after my departure, and never saw the Bishop again as a reoccurring guest speaker for the ministry in any remarkable capacity.
A struggling ministry barely able to pay its staff, the bills, the ongoing operating costs of the campus, that was begging donors for money to stay afloat had literally blown over $125,000.00 on a man who spoke for about 50 minutes, and wasn’t even the best speaker of the event let alone that night. That is, in a nutshell, why Teen Mania has allowed the bank to foreclose. Reckless spending coupled with a leader who answers to no one is a recipe for disaster.
It also should be noted that Teen Mania also paid Kirk Franklin $25,000.00 to come and perform at the NYC BattleCry for his “Honorarium.” This also did not include his green room requirements and travel expenses. Maybe this is simply the norm in the business that has become Christianity today, but I for one am disgusted by these examples from our so called “leaders”. What happened to the example that Paul gave us in the New Testament? Not only did he refuse to be paid to come and speak, but he insisted on working and serving everywhere he went. I believe it is time for change, and it has to be demanded from those of us that he given so much to these men and women who we have trusted with our resources and lives.
Don’t Look Behind The Curtain
I really wish it all ended there. Once I started to delve into the financials of the ministry I was absolutely shocked and disturbed by what I found. The Executive Office (“EO”) had ZERO accountability to anyone, including the board. No one ever (or could ever) challenged Ron’s expenditures. I know this because one day I brought our department’s expenses to the Accounting department. The managing Accountant simply rolled her eyes and said, “I have stopped trying to figure out the EO’s finances, I just pay whatever I’m told to pay and keep quiet.”
Very few people stood up to Ron, but those that did were often shut down. This included Dave and Jon Hasz. My office that shared a wall with Ron’s and I was able to hear countless arguments that included disputes over expenses and costs with the main leaders of the ministry and Ron. But what shocked me the most is when I discovered what I still believe to be deeply disturbing.
In 2008 I was made responsible for preparing the Board of Trustees meeting that happened once a year. Ron made it clear that it was during this meeting that he put his best foot forward. He wanted to impress the board with the ministry and would have the marketing department make special brochures and marketing pieces to show them. Then I came across salary information. I will only direct what I know as it relates to Ron and his family, because that is where my concern remains. In 2008 Ron Luce’s salary (as awarded by the board) was nearly $100,000. That seemed very high considering the fact that senior staff members were being paid so poorly (in many cases less than $20,000.00 annually) and even laid off because of the ministries issues with funding. But the most shocking thing to me of all was that Katie Luce, Ron’s wife, was also paid nearly $50,000.00 annually as the “secretary” of board of the ministry. This didn’t make sense to me because I had literally never seen Katie on campus doing ministry work of any kind in the entirety of my tenure at Teen Mania. If she did work for the ministry that was certainly news to me because I knew the whereabouts of the family most of the time and my understanding was that she operated as the stay-at-home mom of the family. If the ministry was struggling then this simply didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.
Looking Toward the Future
Sadly this is merely a few of the dozens of stories that I have to tell. For the past many years this has eaten at me and I would have gone to my grave keeping these secrets for a ministry that I once loved so dearly, but I cannot in good faith sit back and allow this financial mismanagement to continue without speaking up. It may not appear this way, but I truly approach this matter with the deepest love for Ron, his family, and this ministry, and it is in love that I believe change must occur. In the weeks to come I will share others stories that I hope compel those who would hear me to stand up and demand change.
I hope and pray that God restores this ministry to what God initially intended it to be, but sometimes the Prophet Nathan brings bad news people don’t want to hear and it’s up to them to make the right choices once faced with the truth. I truly and sincerely hope Ron makes that choice…