Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]
May 22, 2023
By Maina Mwaura, Jon Bullock and Mark Wingfield
In modern terms, Johnny Hunt is an “influencer.”
Over the last 40 years, he has become someone with the ability to influence thousands of other pastors and even an entire denomination.
Perhaps that’s why his naming in the 2022 Guidepost Solutions report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention sent shockwaves across the SBC. “Pastor Johnny,” as he likes to be called, is not just any pastor.
He is one of the most influential and affluent pastors in the SBC. Dozens if not hundreds of pastors owe their jobs to his recommendation. And he has built a vast empire of side businesses that support him and his family and friends through a web of connection with other pastors, churches and denominational agencies — all while marketing his brand.
But it wasn’t always this way. This is a rags-to-riches story, and a story of how to get rich by double- and triple-dipping in a denominational system that makes it possible.
By his own account, Hunt grew up in poverty and was raised in a family dependent upon welfare.
He was born in Lumberton, N.C., as a member of the Lumbee Native American tribe. His father abandoned the family when Hunt was 7. He recounts in his book Out of the Poolroom how he became an alcoholic and gambler at a young age and dropped out of school at age 16 to manage a pool room.
He frequently tells how a troubled young adult found Jesus, was radically transformed, experienced a call to ministry, graduated from Gardner-Webb University and then Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — all improbable accomplishments based on where he came from.
Like most young Southern Baptist pastors, he took on pastorates at small to mid-sized congregations — Lavonia Baptist Church in Mooresboro, N.C.; Falls Baptist Church in Wake Forest, N.C.; and Longleaf Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.
And then in 1986 he landed a pastorate at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga. — a town of fewer than 5,000 people about 35 miles due north of downtown Atlanta. Once a rural town, Woodstock was destined to grow to more than 35,000 in population and become part of the far-flung metro Atlanta area.
Just as Hunt arrived in Woodstock, the population of the entire region began to boom. And another nearby Baptist church experienced a split.
Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., was a traditional Southern Baptist congregation founded in 1961. Located in Cobb County, the church benefited from an influx of new residents.
By the late 1980s, Eastside took a path many other traditional churches were considering — pivoting to a “seeker sensitive” format modeled by Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago and Saddleback Church in Southern California. This change in worship format and organization did not sit well with traditionalists in the church.
While Eastside is a thriving congregation today, the change in format created an exodus of core members at the time. Old-timers recall 100 people leaving Eastside on a single Sunday, including the chairman of deacons, to join First Baptist Woodstock.
Old-timers recall 100 people leaving Eastside on a single Sunday, including the chairman of deacons, to join First Baptist Woodstock.
Fueled by the rapid growth of the region and the decline of some other area churches, First Baptist Woodstock took off.
Hunt’s natural charisma also aided that growth. As the church grew, so did his reputation and influence in the denomination.
In 1996, Hunt was elected president of the SBC Pastor’s Conference. In 1997, Southeastern Seminary established the Johnny Hunt Chair of Biblical Preaching. In June 2008, Hunt was elected president of the SBC, a role he held for two years.
It was the summer after his presidential term ended — 2010 — when the alleged incident between Hunt and the wife of another pastor happened at a beach condo. The independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions regarding mishandled knowledge of sexual abuse in the SBC reported the woman’s account of that event in detail.
Hunt has acknowledged inappropriate behavior but denied all charges of abuse. He confessed this incident with another woman to a small group of church insiders soon after it happened, but members of the church and leaders of the SBC knew nothing about it until the Guidepost report was released in May 2022.
Meanwhile, under Hunt’s leadership, First Baptist Woodstock had grown from 1,000 members to 19,000 members, making it one of the largest churches in America.
Capitalizing on a network
As his fame grew among Southern Baptists and beyond, Hunt was one of the early pioneers of what used to be called a “tape ministry,” meaning physical recordings of his sermons circulated across the world every week in pre-internet times. He was aided in this enterprise by his relationship with Jerry Falwell and Liberty University, where both his daughters attended and where Hunt later served as a trustee.
He also began writing books and accepted numerous invitations to speak at other churches and at conferences.
This, in turn, put him in a position to mentor young pastors and help get them placed in churches. Conservatives in the SBC revered Hunt as an exemplary preacher and mentor.
He also became an astute businessman.
In 1981, a contemporary Christian music group named NewSong formed at Morningside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Ga. Later, the members of that group migrated to First Baptist Woodstock and one of Hunt’s daughters married a son of the group’s lead singer, Eddie Carswell.
Through these family ties and through the success of NewSong, Hunt became connected to another network of profit-making and ministry.
He is related to no fewer than 10 nonprofit and for-profit businesses.
Today, he is related to no fewer than 10 nonprofit and for-profit businesses, as attested by tax records, event publicity and other legal filings. All are intertwined with his family.
His wife, Janet, operates as the family bookkeeper for some of the businesses. The Hunts have two daughters, Holly and Deanna. Holly is married to Pete Hixson. She runs her own business called 3H Travel, while Pete is a speaker, consultant and special needs advocate. Holly manages most of Hunt’s travel. Deanna serves as treasurer of a Hunt-related nonprofit called It’s a New Day and is married to John Carswell, son of Eddie Carswell. John owns several businesses, including a motorsports company and several of the conferences that platform Johnny Hunt and Pete Hixson. The Hunts have five grandchildren some of whom are part of the family businesses.
There is one non-family member in the Hunts’ world: Jim Law, who was Hunt’s trusted executive pastor at First Baptist Woodstock and later joined Hunt on staff at the SBC North American Mission Board, where Law still works full time while maintaining affiliations with several of the Hunt businesses.
In 2018, at age 66, Hunt left the Woodstock pastorate and became senior vice president of NAMB, which has headquarters not far from Woodstock, in Alpharetta, Ga.
There, the entanglement between the denomination and the Hunt family business grew more intertwined.
NAMB has been a frequent client and collaborator with the Hunt enterprises — meaning while he drew a salary and benefits from the SBC agency, he apparently had the influence to direct denominational business to the financial gain of himself and his family.
Hunt and his wife own three homes, including two valued at well more than $1 million — one in suburban Atlanta and one a beach property in the Florida panhandle.
BNG contacted both Hunt and a NAMB spokesman for response to the content of this article but received no response from either.
BNG contacted both Hunt and a NAMB spokesman for response to the content of this article but received no response from either.
Specifically, BNG asked Hunt: How do you explain the network of family businesses that seem to feed each other and draw on denominational funding? How is this not a conflict of interest?
And BNG asked NAMB: What has been NAMB’s relationship with Johnny Hunt Ministries, NewSong Ministries, WinterJam, Xtreme Conferences, Jubilee Conferences, It’s a New Day Ministries or any other business affiliated with Johnny Hunt? Do NAMB’s policies allow an employee to direct business to organizations they lead or benefit from financially? And does Jim Law still serve on board of Hunt-affiliated businesses?
Although NAMB is one of the most secretive organizations within the SBC, seldom answering questions about its personnel or finances, BNG obtained a 2019 copy of NAMB’s Conflict of Interest policy.
It states: “All NAMB team members are expected to follow the policy as stated by Article XVII, Business Procedures of the Business and Financial Plan, SBC, which states: ‘As a normal operating policy, each entity of the Southern Baptist Convention shall refrain from entering any business transaction with a trustee or employee (team member), or a business enterprise in which a trustee or employee (team member) has an interest. An exception to this policy may be made, at the discretion of the board of trustees, in any case wherein it appears that a commodity or service is unavailable on a more favorable basis from any other source, or a commodity or service, at the discretion of the board, is found to be in the best interest of the entity. Competitive bids should be taken if possible. In any case being considered for exception, the extent of trustees’ or team members’ interest shall be disclosed to the entire board.’”
It is unclear whether NAMB’s board of trustees was aware of the various ways one of their vice presidents — who earlier had been a trustee himself — was benefiting from NAMB.
Johnny Hunt is connected to a web of businesses, some of which share a mailing address — 309 Bell Park Drive in Woodstock, Ga., which is owned by 309 Bell Park LLC, which is owned by John Carswell. Here’s a rundown of the Hunt-related organizations, with data drawn from publicly available documents:
Johnny Hunt Ministries Inc. With reported assets of $1.4 million, this nonprofit is the hub of Johnny Hunt’s conferences and speaking engagements. This personal business is distinct from both the church at Woodstock where Hunt served as pastor and from NAMB, where he served as executive vice president. However, NAMB was — and may still be — a client of this ministry.
Listed officers of this organization are Johnny Hunt, CEO; Jim Law, CFO and board president; Janet Hunt, officer and bookkeeper; John Carswell III; Eddie Carswell; Pete Hixon.
In 2020, Johnny Hunt Ministries reported total revenue of $937,548 and total expenses of $408,088.
It’s a New Day Inc. With reported assets of $34,866, this nonprofit feeds several other Hunt-related enterprises. In 2020, It’s a New Day Inc. reported revenue of $194,340 and expenses of $173,926.
The stated mission of this nonprofit is to “distribute religious material.”
Johnny Hunt is listed as chairman of the board; Jim Law is listed as a director; Deanna Hunt Carswell is listed as secretary of the board and treasurer; and John Carswell III is listed as CEO and board president.
Since 2013, on their Form 990s submitted to the IRS, It’s a New Day has answered “no” to the question, “Did any officer, director, trustee, or key employee have a family relationship or business relationship with any other officer, director, trustee, or key employee?” This is despite the fact that three members on the board are family (Johnny Hunt, John Carswell III and Deanna Carswell) and Jim Law served as a long-time employee for Johnny Hunt at both FBC Woodstock and NAMB and sits on multiple boards with Hunt.
New Song Ministries Inc. / Xtreme Conferences. In addition to managing the band New Song, this business manages concert performances, including the Xtreme Conferences for students and WinterJam Tour, a concert series. These events are promoted in Southern Baptist churches. Hunt and his family benefit financially from this side business.
With reported assets of $1.1 million, this organization in 2020 took in $12.9 million in revenue and reported expenses of $13.3 million.
Those involved in leadership are Johnny Hunt, past CEO and frequent headliner; Eddie Carswell, CEO; Pete Hixson, speaker; and the Hunt grandchildren, who are employees.
This organization does business with NAMB, as well as Carswell Motorsports (doing business as Midnight Coach) and 3H Publishers, both with ties to the Hunt family.
Jubilee Conferences. This organization creates multiday events for senior adults in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Branson, Mo.
Johnny Hunt typically has been a headliner for these conferences. The business is owned by John Carswell III. The Hunt grandchildren and Deanna Carswell are employees.
Jubilee Conferences does business with other Hunt-related businesses, including Carswell Motorsports, 3H Publishers, New Song Ministries and 309 Bell Park LLC.
Financial information for this business is not publicly reported.
Timothy + Barnabas. This ministry to pastors and their families aims to prevent clergy burnout. Founded by Hunt, its primary offering is conferences at high-end destinations such as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and beach resorts. In 2018, Hunt gave the ministry to NAMB.
Before its transfer to NAMB, Johnny Hunt was the CEO; Janet Hunt was listed as agent; and Jim Law and John Carswell III were listed as board members.
Since 2012, Timothy + Barnabas has answered “no” to the question, “Did any officer, director, trustee, or key employee have a family relationship or business relationship with any other officer, director, trustee, or key employee?” on their Form 990s sent to the IRS. Both Johnny Hunt and John (Jake) Carswell are family and Jim Law was an employee of Johnny Hunt’s and serves on the board of several of the organizations connected to Hunt.
In 2018, this ministry reported income of $897,000 and expenses of $923,000 and had net assets of $55,000. The previous year, it reported $1.1 million in revenue, $1.1 million in expenses and $223,000 in assets.
Travel arrangements for the conferences were made by 3H Travel, and publications were handled by 3H Publishers — both Hunt-related businesses.
Eventually, NAMB rebranded the ministry it had been given.
More recently, Johnny Hunt has restarted a new version of Timothy + Barnabas as a ministry called Advanced, “facilitated through Johnny Hunt Ministries and 3H Travel,” according to Hunt’s own publicity.
3H Travel LLC. This is a travel agency run by Holly Hunt Hixson. Among other business, it books travel for Johnny Hunt and some of his conferences. By public record, Johnny Hunt spent more than $300,000 on travel across his ministries in each of multiple years before the pandemic — apart from whatever travel expenses were covered by his employment at NAMB.
3H Publishers Inc. This is the publishing arm for Johnny Hunt’s books and products. Any organization that uses Johnny Hunt materials interacts with 3H Publishers. That has included NAMB, Johnny Hunt Ministries, New Song Ministries, Jubilee Conferences, Timothy + Barnabas, and It’s a New Day.
Jim Law is listed as board president, and Janet Hunt is listed as CFO and board secretary.
Carswell Motorsports LLC. John Carswell III owns this business that provides tour buses for concerts and conferences through its brand Midnight Coach. The business also handles Carswell’s race car.
The Hunt grandchildren are employed here. The business provides paid services to NewSong Ministries and Jubilee Conferences, among others.
309 Bell Park LLC. This is the business that owns the property in Woodstock where several Hunt-related businesses share an address and pay rent. John Carswell III is the listed owner of this business, which is used by Jubilee Conferences, Carswell Motorsports and It’s a New Day.
JLaw Ministries. This unspecified ministry went from $0 to $730,000 in assets in less than 10 years with less than $35,000 in annual revenue or expenses. Jim Law, who serves on the board of four Hunt-related ministries, is listed as a board member.
How to cash in as a pastor and denominational leader
More than perhaps any other pastor or denominational leader in the SBC, Johnny Hunt has created a system that sustains him and his extended family financially through his networking connections.
He’s not only a preacher, he’s the head of a family empire.
That’s likely one of the reasons him being named as a sexual abuser in the Guidepost Solutions report made such waves and why Hunt and his allies have sought to quickly “restore” him to ministry at age 70. He’s not only a preacher, he’s the head of a family empire.
That also may explain why he’s suing the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC Executive Committee and Guidepost Solutions for defamation and invasion of privacy for making public the story of what he calls a “brief, inappropriate, extramarital encounter with a married woman” in 2010.
Even before he formally joined the staff at NAMB, Hunt drew income of $92,000 — with no contract — from NAMB while he was SBC president, according to Mary Kinney Branson, a former marketing director for NAMB and author of the book Spending God’s Money.
When he became senior vice president at NAMB, he was able to use his position to influence NAMB hiring or contracting with his family organizations.
For example, NAMB created a project called the Who’s Your One Tour. NewSong, the group related to Hunt’s friend and business partner, became the band for the tour.
However, one of the most egregious examples of this is the WinterJam Tour of 2022.
The WinterJam Tour is the product of NewSong Ministries and has several Hunt family members on staff. That event uses Carswell Motorsports for tour buses and 3H Publishers for materials. Johnny Hunt often headlined the tour, but in 2022, he had a full-time NAMB employee — Shane Pruitt, director of NextGen evangelism — do 41 events in 41 cities over the span of three months for the WinterJam Tour.
This is similar to Hunt’s Advanced Conference offered through Johnny Hunt Ministries. Hunt’s books were bought through 3H Publishers, his travel was booked through 3H Travel, and NewSong was hired as the event’s band.
How is this possible?
Despite NAMB’s stated conflict of interest policy, the SBC operates within an ecosystem of trust that allows decisions to be made based on personal relationships and recommendations. High-profile pastors carry great influence.
By the accounts of multiple insiders, NAMB’s second president, Geoff Hammond, who served only two years before being forced out by the same trustee board that had hired him, reportedly threatened Hunt’s influence at the missions agency. At the time of Hammond’s abrupt resignation in 2009, Hunt was SBC president, which made him an ex-officio member of NAMB’s trustee board.
Hunt reportedly used that influence to collaborate with others who wanted Hammond removed.
Less than a year later, NAMB trustees named a new president, Kevin Ezell, who had closer ties to Hunt and hired him as the agency’s senior vice president.
From that moment, Hunt’s constellation of family enterprises appear to have been back in business at NAMB and within the SBC.