Despite Scandals, Alabama Megachurch Invests Millions to “Restore” Pastors

By Julie Roys
Chris Hodges Church of the Highlands
Chris Hodges, founding pastor of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, says he wants to be known for restoring pastors who have fallen morally. (Source: Facebook)

Church of the Highlands (COTH)—a 43,000-member megachurch in Alabama, which recently sparked controversy for trying to rehabilitate a pastor accused of sexual assault—is building a $4.5-million lodge to “restore” pastors.

In July, COTH broke ties with Micahn Carter, a COTH pastor who had come to the church in 2019 for restoration. The separation came shortly after Carter’s former assistant disclosed online that Carter had sexually assaulted her while at Carter’s previous megachurch in Yakima, Washington.

This debacle, however, apparently has not deterred COTH from further pastoral restoration efforts.

In a “Legacy” report to donors in September, COTH announced it is “working on a design for ‘The Lodge’, a Pastoral Retreat Center . . . for pastors that need rest or restoration.”

An earlier pamphlet stated, “The Lodge would serve as a place where pastors, leaders, and their families could come to be mentored, counseled, refreshed, and restored. The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.”

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Church of the Highlands Lodge
Artist rendering of “The Lodge” (Source: 2021 Legacy Report)

Attempting to restore fallen pastors appears to be a passion for COTH Senior Pastor Chris Hodges and Outreach and Missions Pastor Dino Rizzo—someone whose past includes an “inappropriate” extramarital relationship.

According to Hodges, many of the pastors within his and Rizzo’s sphere of influence are experiencing moral failings—and restoring them is what Hodges wants “to be known for.”

“Pastor Dino (Rizzo) and I are in the middle of about 20 pastoral moral failures or restorations right now,” Hodges announced last spring at Gather 2021—a one-day conference, sponsored by the Association of Related Churches (ARC). “What was about three-a-year feels like it’s about three-a-month right now . . . That’s fine. I love doing that. I want to be known for that.”

Hodges said he’d rather prevent moral falls than clean them up, but added, “I don’t mind doing that. I’d just rather catch that on the front end.”

Restoring pastors also appears to be an emphasis for ARC, where both Hodges and Rizzo serve on the Lead Team with well-known Christian celebrities, like Christine Caine and Miles McPherson. Also on ARC’s Lead Team is John Gray, a megachurch pastor who’s faced multiple scandals for alleged infidelity.

ARC is one of the largest church planting organizations in the U.S., with about 1,000 member churches. It is headquartered next to COTH’s Greystone Campus in Birmingham, Alabama.

Restoring Pastors or Predators?

The Micahn Carter debacle is not the only scandal that’s resulted from COTH and ARC’s restoration efforts.

This year, two lawsuits have been filed against ARC or its Executive Director Dino Rizzo for negligence or cover-up in sexual harassment or abuse cases involving ARC pastors. In both cases, the offending pastors allegedly had a history of sexual misconduct.

One suit accuses ARC of allowing Joshua Mauney, ARC’s former national director of church planting, to plant an ARC church in Florida, where he allegedly raped a woman on staff.

According to the suit, ARC “knew or should have known of Mr. Mauney’s predilections toward vulnerable women.” It further alleges that when ARC found out about the rape allegations, it pressured Mauney’s victim to stay silent.

ARC President Greg Surratt denies the charges.

Dino Rizzo ARC
Dino Rizzo (Source: ARC)

Named in a similar lawsuit filed in Mississippi is Dino Rizzo. The lawsuit alleges Rizzo failed to protect an intern after learning she was sexually harassed by a pastor at  Vibrant Church, an ARC member church in Columbus, Mississippi. The lawsuit alleges that other victims reported similar misconduct by the same pastor to the church and Rizzo as early as 2016.

The Roys Report reached out to Rizzo and Vibrant for comment, but neither responded.

Rizzo has a history of sexual misconduct himself. Rizzo used to be a pastor of The Healing Place—an ARC member megachurch in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But in 2012, Rizzo took a sabbatical from the church, citing spiritual, physical, and emotional “exhaustion.” Two months later, he resigned, saying he and his wife felt God “moving” them into “a new season.”

About a year later, when Rizzo was restored to ministry at ARC and COTH, Greg Surratt admitted that Rizzo had been in an “inappropriate friendship with another woman.” Surratt added that Rizzo had submitted to a restoration process led by Chris Hodges and others and now was qualified to serve.

However, questions remain concerning the true nature of Rizzo’s misconduct and his honesty and transparency throughout this process. Rizzo and COTH have never released details about Rizzo’s inappropriate relationship.

Similarly, Hodges son, Michael Hodges, also experienced an undisclosed moral failing and was removed as a pastor at COTH’s Greystone campus in 2017.

In 2019, after a period of restoration, Hodges returned to the pulpit at Freedom House Church, an ARC member church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hodges now serves as special projects director at Highlands College, a COTH-affiliated school on its Greystone campus.

The Roys Report reached out to Chris Hodges and COTH for comment about these pastors and the church’s restoration process, but no one responded.

A Lucrative Endeavor?

Restoring and training pastors appears to be a lucrative endeavor for Hodges and others close to him.

Recently, Hodges and Lee Domingue, COTH Legacy Pastor, launched Grow Leader, a for-profit limited liability corporation (LLC) aiming “to grow leaders who grow churches and businesses.”

Grow Leader offers numerous services, including Hodges’ speaking services and professional coaching and consulting. Grow Leader also sponsors two-day Round Tables, where for $7,500 “lead pastors and leaders” can learn from Hodges and Domingue in an “intimate” setting. (For $10,000, pastors can bring their spouses.)

Recently, Grow Leader sponsored a Round Table in which 41 pastors participated, according to social media postings and comments Hodges made during a COTH service.

Grow Leader Chris Hodges
Pastors attending a $10K/couple Grow Leader Round Table gather for a meal. (Source: Instagram)

On Reddit, a post to an account called “Allabout COTH”—a group with 1.3K members discussing alleged financial and spiritual abuse at COTH—noted that the event netted hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Chris said he invited a guest speaker to speak this past Sunday because he had been busy training 41 pastors this past week,” the post stated. “What he failed to tell everyone is RoundTable cost $7500 for the Pastor or $10,000 if they bring their spouse,” the post said. “So he made a quick $307,500-$410,000.”

The Roys Report reached out to Grow Leader for more information about the organization and who gets its proceeds, but no one responded.

The Roys Report also looked into the financial arrangement between ARC and its  church planting pastors.

According to its website, ARC matches dollar-for-dollar the first $50,000 pastors raise for their church plants. The organization then asks pastors to “re-invest those dollars” through their “missions giving.”

Surratt confirmed to The Roys Report that ARC churches often give a portion of their annual income to ARC. But Surratt said percentages vary from church to church and the giving is voluntary, not contractual.

On an FAQ page for pastors at ARC’s website, it says, “We ask you to make ARC a part of your regular missions giving. While there is no minimum amount to become a part of the ARC Family, there are partnership requirements to participate in some of ARC’s benefits.”

ARC receives nearly $12 million in annual cash donations, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. ARC’s website states that all of its overhead and administrative expenses “are covered by the generosity of the ARC Lead Team,” which  “allows 100% of your giving to fund new church plants through ARC.” 

ARC CFO Derek Neece told The Roys Report that about 24% of ARC’s cash donations—about $2.8 million annually—goes toward ARC salaries. The Roys Report tried to confirm with Neece whether ARC’s Lead Team donates $2.8 million per year to ARC, but did not receive a response by time of publication.

According to Guidestar, ARC is classified as a church by the IRS so it is not required to file a form 990, revealing executive salaries and the identities of its board members.

Neece said ARC’s “non-officer board members” are not paid. He added that ARC’s key executive salaries are set by an independent compensation committee and are based on independent compensation data.

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29 thoughts on “Despite Scandals, Alabama Megachurch Invests Millions to “Restore” Pastors”

  1. I remember being in a greenroom at a Church where this clown (Hodges) was bragging about how little he pays lower staff members because “people are lined up wanting jobs at COTH.” The reason he isn’t building a retreat center for victims is because he sees upper level ministers/pastors as more important than your average lowly church attender. Hodges and his [..] band of professional pastors are the upper echelon of the church.

    1. Clericalism – only Clergy (Priests, Monks, Nuns, Ministers, Pastors, Worship Leaders, Full-Time Professional Christians) matter before God; Laity (everyone else) can all go to hell. Clergy = HIghborn, Laity = Lowborn.

      In my church (Romish Popery), Clericalism is recognized as a Heresy.

      500 years ago, wasn’t Clericalism one of the Reformers’ BIG beefs about Romish Popery?

  2. It strikes me that perhaps some churches–I’m wondering if “megachurches” are a key demographic–are more likely to attract those with “overly exuberant sexual behavior” or even “narcissistic personality disorder.” More or less, does the pastoral hiring process express the qualifications of 1 Timothy and Titus, or is it more heavily weighted towards personal attractiveness and magnetism–and thus many churches find out the hard way that they’ve selected pastors who are “bad boys”. If so, then a “rehabilitation” process makes no sense, because the person was not qualified for the pastorate in the first place. He needs to be Habilitated in the first place, and over a period of years, so he’s not a novice.

    Whether that holds or not, the timelines here suggest that the pastors are being declared “restored” long before one could actually get a good handle on how they are repentant of their sins, and long before one could see if the steps they’ve taken are adequate to prevent remission. I’m not absolute that certain things ban a pastor for life–if Paul can murder Stephen and become an apostle, that seems to exceed the Biblical restraint–but I do think that it’s key that a person demonstrate good behavior for a few years before resuming ministry. Paul waited something like 14 years, no?

    1. Restoration of relationship and ministry requires full disclosure and an acceptance of responsibility. That means acknowledging that an ‘affair’ or ‘inappropriate relationship’ between a pastor and his congregant is, in fact, abuse.

      1. Mark G, agreed. Rest and relaxation for overworked clergy members and spouses at a comfortable resort is one ministry. Restoration of the morally fallen is another entirely, and it must begin with godly sorrow as described in 2 Corinthians 7:10. Genuine repentance, heartfelt apologies, meaningful restitution, and long-term accountability should follow [add reporting to law enforcement in cases of sexual abuse, financial embezzlement, or other criminal behaviors], not glittering poolside dinners. Nor any promises of returning to pastoral employment.

  3. They need to get personal help. I had to. All the money spent to restore pastoral abusers should be used for the harm, pain, abuse, and suffering they caused their victims.
    I AM an RZ survivor. VickiBlue

  4. You state that “Restoring and training pastors appears to be a lucrative endeavor…” However, you only give examples of moneymaking in training pastors. There’s no evidence given that restoring pastors is lucrative. From my experience, I doubt seriously that restoring pastors is a profitable enterprise.

    1. I don’t know the background of the pastors enrolling in the Grow Leader training. But the person training them has a proven history of re-platforming pastors who have morally fallen, and earlier this year said he’s in the process of restoring 20 pastors. So, it’s quite possible some of the pastors involved in the Grow Leader course have checkered pasts. But again, I don’t know. I simply reported the facts I know. That said, the two lawsuits against ARC or Rizzo involve pastors sent by ARC, which has a nearly $12 million budget. And as ARC states, it has not only a personal relationship with the churches/pastors it launches, it also has a financial relationship.

      1. What’s disturbing about this article is that the facts aren’t known. Some facts are. Some aren’t. Many of the comments indicate circumstantial evidence or possible scenarios. Some discussion here is little more than speculation. Though The Roys Report has done much to create conversation about the sicknesses in the world of evangelicalism, much that is good and right (I loved the article about the Tomlin-Hillsong “experience), it often falls short of its stated mission: reporting the truth. How so? Much of what’s reported in this article is fact. But facts–partial, circumstantial, second-hand–aren’t synonymous with truth. In the case of Rizzo’s inappropriate relationship, we don’t know all the facts, much less the truth. And we shouldn’t. There’s no biblical authority or principle for the specifics of his failure to be shared publicly. To think otherwise is clear evidence the bible isn’t the standard of ethics. Further, to suggest or imply his restoration was ineffective or unbiblical is speculation at best and judgment at worst. The fact that it doesn’t meet the demands for disclosure from The Roys Report or its readers doesn’t mean it wasn’t biblical or effective. And though ARC seems to have a number of challenges and potential mistakes around leaders who fail morally, we still don’t have all the facts. Which means we can’t arrive at the truth. To think we can is just another example of the evangelical world’s sickness.

        1. David, I confined my reporting to facts that are substantiated, and stated what is known and what isn’t. There is no speculation or reporting of second-hand information in the article. As for wanting transparency regarding what happened with Dino . . . The biblical standard for an elder is being “above reproach” or “blameless,” so it is very difficult–if not impossible–to attain that standard after admitting to impropriety. Also, 1 Timothy 5:20 says that an elder who is sinning should be publicly exposed.

          So, this notion of “restoring” a pastor while keeping almost all the relevant details of his sin private does not seem biblical at all. If the leader wants to keep what he did private, that’s fine. But he should stay out of ministry and not expect a congregation to trust him. If, however, he has any hopes of being restored, he should be transparent about the sin, and then prove himself faithful over time so trust can be restored. But restoring a fallen pastor after a year at a new congregation that doesn’t even know him is nuts. And it doesn’t seem to meet the letter or spirit of the qualifications outlined in Scripture.

          1. Michael Whitener

            I was a member and my wife was a prayer partner at Healing Place Church in 2012. I once served Dino Rizzo, his wife and daughters while working at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse just before the scandal broke of him having the extra marital affair. It was his birthday. His wife and daughters left and then he ordered an alcoholic dessert. He let it slip to me about the “intern” from Oklahoma working on a video series with him. He was later found to be using church funds to put her up in a $1,500 per month apartment he also had a key to for easy access. Common criminal sexual predators are put on a list and neighborhoods they move to are warned about them. The same should be done with Dino.

  5. Difference between revenue and profit. “So he made a quick $307,500-$410,000.”?

    No, he took that amount as revenue. Minus expenses (cost of sales) we have to calculate the operating surplus then deal with general costs to arrive at a profit. Profit is what ‘he made’. And that number is…..don’t know.

    1. In the book, DeGroat mentions a church planting organization that he says, “Nowhere have I seen the narcissism-shame dynamic more pronounced than among church planters, some of whom have become megachurch pastors. Some church planting assessments I’ve seen practically invite narcissistic leadership.” I have often wondered if he was talking about ARC. It sure seems that way to me.

  6. When the manager of a baseball team fails he gets fired and then a year or two later another team will hire him as their manager. When corporate CEO’s fail they are fired and given a golden parachute and then hired by another company to be their CEO. It seems like Pastors have created a similar good old boys club where once you are in the club you are taken care of regardless of your failures.

  7. Overall a waste of time and money. “Moral failings” are a personal issue, and should be handled with private counseling for the person and their family. To waste money setting up a place for people to go to “restore” is outrageous. Shame on those people who agreed to donate money to such a cause. You’re only embedding their narcissistic crowns with more jewels.

  8. Nothing different going on in this church if the focus in discouraging the behavior in the first place. Nothing being mentioned about plans for trauma therapy and legal support for the victims including the pastors spouses and children. Nice business plan but that’s about it, if this will be real life changing kingdom work it remains to be seen. Personally this doesn’t seem to me like a safe church to be at.

  9. Sign: “It is a privilege to be on this stage thank you God for choosing me”. I find that sign to be pretty self-centered. The focus isn’t on exalting Christ from that statement, ex. “May Jesus be Exalted.” 1 Peter 4:11 challenges those who speak to speak as it were “the very words of God.”

    1. The sign also caught my attention. It seems to imply that we (in ourselves) are good enough to do God’s work for Him. In contrast, a sign that might better honor James + a vine-branch analogy perhaps would read, “I know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness; by your help, may I faithfully represent you today.” Just a thought (my sign also might need revision ;) ).

  10. “IT IS A PRIVILEGE TO BE ON THIS STAGE. THANK YOU GOD FOR CHOOSING ME.”
    — backstage sign on the pic at the top

    In the words of the prophets Emerson, Lake, and Palmer:

  11. Let me get this straight, a Pastor is caught in adultery or embezzlement, and these guys want to restore the pastor to leadership…???

    I think it would be better if the pastor sold insurance or used cars in the future….and not lead the church of Jesus Christ….

    Also does not the restoring of pastors typically happen at a higher denominational level….?

    Oh wait sorry, these are all independent churches doing their own thing and where transparency typically does not exist…. uhhhhhh never mind…..

  12. At first I was “put off” at what appeared to be putting down a ministry to restore ministers who fell into sexual sin. But as I read farther, I could see that there are serious concerns — not over the concept of helping to restore a fallen brother or sister, but of cover-ups of abuse, sordid financial gain from the “ministry,” and some sense that high-profile ministers are in a special class above “lesser” believers and have special right to their high positions. I don’t think that there is any sin that God can’t forgive, and no brokenness of soul or morals that can’t be healed, and that it should be our hope and goal that any fallen brother or sister should experience the fullness of such a work. A ministry that would help such people sounds like a good thing, although a good aspect of such a ministry might be to help a fallen prominent leader to transition to a different career — that being in a prominent leadership role is not a “right” or the only way a forgiven and restored believer can serve God. I believe it to be a sign that someone is not qualified for a prominent leadership role if that person cannot or will not do anything else.

  13. Do you think Chris Hodges is setting himself to take over when John Maxwell is no longer able to do conferences? From what little I know (I went to COTH for 2.5 years and one of their conferences with Maxwell), they are close to each other from what they say.

    BTW, I left COTH, because when I opened my Bible, I could not always confirm what Pastor Chris was saying. He seemed to come up with his points first, then filled in the scripture. I lost trust that I could not always believe they were properly teaching scripture.

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