Billy Graham's everlasting business legacy

When Billy Graham, America's best-known evangelist, passed away Wednesday, he left more than survivors. America's pastor also passed on a business model for running a corporate church -- one that would catapult him to success and leave a blueprint for future mega-pastors, even as it proved nearly impossible to duplicate.

He leaves behind two nonprofits: Samaritan's Purse, an internationally focused humanitarian group that took in $680 million in revenues in 2016, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Incorporated in 1950, the BGEA had $110 million in revenues in 2014, the most recent year for which records are available.

Graham wrote nearly three dozen books and a weekly newspaper column, hosted a radio show and had a hand in the production of hundreds of movies. And he was involved in founding two magazines.

Rising from modest roots in North Carolina, Graham became America's best-known pastor, preaching to over 200 million people over the course of his career -- arguably more than any religious figure in the history of the world. If that's true, religious scholars say, it was Graham's organizational strategy that made it possible.

"I used to get a lot of phone calls from reporters asking, "Who's going to be the next Billy Graham?" and my answer was always, 'no one,'" said Randall Balmer, a professor and chair of the department of religion at Princeton University.

"He was one of the first of the preachers to adopt a corporate-style management for his organization, and they were very, very efficient," Balmer added. "He understood the importance of corporate-style management in order to get his work done."

As a young man, Graham was influenced by the traveling evangelical preachers of the 1940s. Unlike most of them, he developed friends in the business community who persuaded him to incorporate his organization, which he did in 1950. The Billy Graham Evangelical Organization, which at various times maintained headquarters in nine countries, was followed by Grason Co., which published and distributed books and pamphlets.

Graham authored 33 of these during his life, including the bestsellers like "Just As I Am" and "Living in God's Love: The New York Crusade." Book royalties contributed up to $2 million a year to the BGEA's coffers in the mid-2000s, according to IRS filings.

Graham's radio show, "The Hour of Decision," at its peak was broadcast on 900 stations in over 30 countries. The show ran for over 60 years, ending in 2016, but a four-station radio operation, Blue Ridge Broadcasting, remains. Graham's film company, World Wide Pictures, was involved in production and distribution of over 100 movies, including perhaps its best-known film, "The Restless Ones," released in 1965. Graham received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989, joking at its dedication that, as "the only clergyman... I feel a little lonely out there."

Graham helped found two magazines, Decision and Christianity Today. At its peak, Decision had a bigger audience than The Atlantic, Harper's and Esquire combined. Christianity Today remains the most widely read evangelical magazine, according a biographer of Graham's. Subscriptions contributed more than $1 million annually to the BGEA's balance sheet in recent years, records show.

Graham was the first modern religious figure to successfully use mass media, whose influence grew concurrently with his, to spread his message. (The fact that his words were suitably nonsectarian and early support from the Hearst chain of publications undoubtedly helped.)

"He came to prominence at a unique point in history when there were a number of new media technologies, and he seized on them and made himself into a religious celebrity the likes of which, with the possible exception of the pope, we just don't have," Balmer said.

The broadcast success fed attendance at his Crusades, some of which saw attendance in the millions. "Those events were the heart of Graham's ministry. It became where you wanted to say you'd been to one," said D.G. Hart, professor of history at Hillsdale College.

In the 1970s, Graham purchased a thousand acres in North Carolina for a spiritual retreat and training center, Billy Graham Evangelical Center at the Cove. A two-night seminar there goes for $109 to $447 per person, according to Time magazine. Today that space is shared with the Billy Graham Library, which reportedly cost $27 million to build.

Graham's precise worth isn't known, but the religion website Beliefnet puts it at $25 million, on par with other nationally popular preachers Rick Warren and Creflo Dollar. It's not higher partly because Graham was less protective of his name and brand than the religious celebrities he inspired, said Hart. "Even though he was a celebrity, he didn't hog that celebrity for himself -- he was willing to serve these other institutions," said Hart.

In addition, there's a Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, Graham's alma mater, and the Billy Graham School at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"He wasn't protective of his name, he didn't let it become merely a brand, which a lot of celebrity types today do," Hart said. "That generated a lot of goodwill, but it also ended up increasing his market share, as it were."

Graham also avoided the fate of many of the preachers he inspired in never being credibly accused of corruption or malfeasance during a career spanning 50 years. There, too, the structure of a corporation played a role.

"You look at the cautionary tale of these other people, and they were accountable to no one," said Balmer. "Graham made himself accountable to a board of directors."