It's too early to say whether the adultery and alleged extortion scandal that has hit Christian television network Daystar represents a rough patch or major, long-term trouble.
But the financial stakes are large, and founders Marcus and Joni Lamb promise they'll aggressively safeguard a ministry they've built over 25 years.
I have a fiduciary responsibility to protect Daystar and all the people that are ministered to by Daystar, Marcus Lamb said at the network's Bedford headquarters. We will do whatever it takes.
Daystar claims to be the second-largest Christian television network, using its 90 TV stations, as well as satellite and cable coverage, to reach 90 million U.S. households and more than 200 countries.
How many are watching Daystar is an open question. Christian networks speak of footprint, not ratings, and some outside experts believe the audience is largely limited to a portion of the conservative evangelical faithful.
But such well-known preachers as Joel Osteen, John Hagee, Bishop T.D. Jakes and Kenneth Copeland have chosen Daystar as a vehicle to get their messages out.
The Lambs themselves are familiar to Daystar audiences through their own advice and encouragement programs, but they're perhaps more notable for building their network from little more than scratch.
In the beginning
Marcus Lamb grew up in Macon, Ga., beginning to preach at age 15, later graduating with honors from the Church of God-affiliated Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn.
He met Joni Trammell in 1980 in a Greenville, S.C., church where he'd come as a traveling Pentecostal evangelist. They married two years later, and soon took a trip to the Holy Land.
While I was on the Mount of Olives, the Lord just spoke to my heart and said, 'Go to Montgomery, Alabama, and build a Christian TV station,' Marcus Lamb recalled last week.
The revelation wasn't as surprising as it sounds. Marcus Lamb had preached in Montgomery, and knew of foundering efforts to establish a Christian TV station there.
He chokes up describing his and Joni's trials in TV, but they were able to get station WMCF on the air by October 1985, and eventually sold it for enough to help finance a move to the much bigger market of Dallas-Fort Worth.
That's always our motivation how can we reach the most people for the Lord, Marcus Lamb said.
Here, by 1993, they had Christian station KMPX (Channel 29) on the air, with much better equipment than they had in Montgomery. They next acquired stations in Denver and Macon, Ga., and in 1997 launched Daystar Television Network with a live broadcast from the Potter's House mega-church in Dallas.
Joni Lamb's memoir Surrender All describes how a handful of buy-low-sell-high TV station moves, favorable FCC rulings, and the advance of cable and satellite television helped Daystar expand rapidly.
These days, Daystar employs more than 300, the large majority at its state-of-the-art production facility in Bedford. Ministries pay $49 million annually for time on Daystar, said Arnold Torres, the network's chief financial officer.
The network uses those funds to pay for operations, including salaries.
Twice a year, Daystar also has a Sharathon in which it uses air time to ask viewers for money. Donations which Torres put at about $31 million a year go for ministry, but that includes buying more television stations and funding other efforts to expand evangelistic reach.
Daystar a nonprofit that enjoys considerable tax advantages is debt free, with a book value of $230 million, Torres said.
We are blessed, Joni Lamb said.
But on Nov. 30, the Daystar story took a sharp turn. That day the Lambs used a live broadcast of their program Celebration to acknowledge Marcus' past infidelity and allege that three people were trying to extract millions from Daystar in exchange for not taking the story to the media.
A day later, former Daystar marketing director Jeanette Hawkins sued the network, alleging fraud, contending Marcus Lamb and a female executive (no longer at the network) were having an affair even as they hired her to work in an environment they promised would be strictly Christian.
The Lambs promptly countersued, alleging that Dallas lawyer James Fisher represented Hawkins and two other former employees in demanding $7.5 million from Daystar for not taking the adultery story to the media.
Bedford police quickly ended their investigation of extortion, saying they saw no evidence that a law had been broken. Fisher maintains that he did nothing more than responsibly try to reach an out-of-court settlement.
The Lambs are not backing away from the extortion claim and insist they and Daystar can handle whatever scrutiny litigation might bring.
There is much more to this story that will be coming out, Marcus Lamb said. We can't wait to have our day in court.
Just before they went public, Marcus Lamb called more than 30 ministries that buy time on Daystar, giving them a heads-up and asking for support.
So far, they seem on board.
But the Lambs have another constituency the viewers who send Daystar money and acknowledge they're not sure what the response will be when their next Sharathon gears up in several weeks.
The Lambs have had to explain why they continued to represent themselves on the air as a happy Christian couple, only going public with their troubles after the contact by Fisher.
Our professional Christian counselors advised us to keep this private as long as we could, to heal adequately, Marcus Lamb said last week.
Marcus Lamb has described the former employees' demands as an attempt to get God's money. But the scandal is certain to bring more attention to the Lambs' stewardship and lifestyle.
The Lambs hold tight reins on Daystar they and another family member occupy three of four board seats but they do make public an independent audit. It doesn't, however, include the Lambs' salaries as president and vice president.
They said they take about a third of the pay an outside consultant recommended, given the size of the organization.
We make way less than most mega-church pastors, Marcus Lamb added.
They live in a 7,000-square-foot home appraised for taxes at $1.4 million. Marcus Lamb reiterated that donors' contributions do not go toward salaries, and said much of their income is from long-term stock and real estate investments.
As for Daystar's 12-seat jet, the Lambs said they use it only for ministry work, and that it lets them and the Celebration band make evening church appearances and get back in time for daytime broadcasts.
Ready for court
The Lambs have gone on such mainstream network programs as Good Morning America and Dr. Phil to say Marcus' infidelity was several years ago, that their marriage is now whole, and that they want to do all they can to help other married couples stay together.
J. Gordon Melton, distinguished senior scholar with Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, believes the Lambs have handled the public relations battle well so far, but may have asked for trouble by claiming to have been extorted.
If it turns out that's a cover story, that it doesn't have much substance, then that will not help, he said.
Certainly Fisher promises to do his part to make life difficult for the Lambs. The lawsuit he filed alleges tawdry e-mails and hush money.
Fisher, who deposed former President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, wouldn't say what else he will try to prove.
But told Marcus Lamb looked forward to going to court, Fisher replied, We are happy to oblige him.