It’s an indelible image: the wealthy televangelist who fleeces parishioners with an inspiring message while emptying their pockets.
Anyone who remembers Jimmy Swaggart tearfully confessing to his sins, Jim Bakker’s scandalous affair or Ted Haggard’s anti-gay moralizing while hiring a male prostitute, has seen pious religious leaders who weren’t everything they seemed to be.
Fairly or not, critics of Joel Osteen—the Houston-based senior pastor of Lakewood Church—accused him of exemplifying that archetype this week for his apparent reluctance to house victims of Hurricane Harvey. (He did say early on that his church would be available if shelters reached capacity, but not before.)
His megachurch—an arena once home to the NBA’s Houston Rockets—seats 16,800 people, but rather than offering it as a place of refuge to a city in need, Osteen tweeted this:
That seems innocuous, but his tweet got “ratio’d,” meaning that it generated more replies than retweets. When a tweet is ratio’d, the replies are usually scathing—as they were here. Twitter users were quick to call out the apparent hypocrisy of a man of God—whose net worth is reportedly north of $56 million—failing to step up and offer more than prayers when his hometown needed help.
A torrent of rebukes
Those accusations of hypocrisy intensified after Lakewood officials stated Sunday that the building had “severe flooding,” a claim that came into question when photos showed little water near the church or in that part of Houston’s, which was spared the worst of the flooding.
Some of the initial Twitter commentary struck me as unfair—it wasn’t clear that the first people to criticize him had made any effort to contact him to learn whether he was working behind the scenes to help. Within hours, news organizations tried—and failed—to reach him, noting that calls to his office went unreturned.
This week, Osteen granted several TV interviews to give his side of the story. Among his points: The city of Houston hadn’t asked him to set up a shelter; there was another shelter four miles away with a 10,000-person capacity that he never imagined would fill; Lakewood was close to flooding itself; and the logistical and staffing challenges of opening Lakewood immediately would have been enormous and couldn’t have been done immediately.
If you’re cynical about televangelists, Osteen’s tone in the “Today” show interview probably struck you as smarmy and self-satisfied. If you’re one of the millions of people who watch his sermons and read his books, you probably viewed him as sincere.
Timing isn’t everything
Regardless of your perception of his tone, what’s undeniable is that he’s on the defensive as a result of failing to respond sooner and, arguably, more selflessly. There’s a simple formula in many crisis responses that looks something like this:
Right response at the right time = Best chance of getting full credit
Right response at the wrong time = Partial credit (at best)
Wrong response at the wrong time = No credit
In this case, Osteen is somewhere between the second and third responses.
Much of what he said in the “Today” interview struck me as plausible. I can understand why opening a building of that size would require many staffers, many of whom are dealing with their own challenges during the hurricane and would have been unable to get to work.
An ounce of preparation
What strikes me most is that Osteen apparently hadn’t had serious discussions with City of Houston officials about what role the church could play in a major disaster. Lakewood could have had an established role and put into place procedures that would have helped the mega-church to serve its community in a crisis from the start.
His claims that no one could have anticipated a crisis of this scale aren’t credible; Houston has long been at risk of a major flood, as many reporters have noted. Any communications pro drafting a crisis response plan would have had “hurricane” topping the list.
Beyond being a communications failure for Osteen, it’s also a missed opportunity. He had the chance to offer Lakewood as a refuge or to do something else substantive to help.
If he had plans to do so, his failure to communicate his intent moments after (or even before) criticism began to mount allowed an incorrect narrative to take hold.
Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”