KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As the Podesta family traveled from Kentucky to Maine on vacation last summer, they stopped every Sunday and Wednesday at their favorite national franchise: Evergreen Christian Center.
"It was like we never left home," says Albert Podesta, 38.
For 12 years Evergreen Christian Center was just another mega-church in Tennessee. Then the church radically changed its ministry approach. It began franchising itself.
The franchise scheme was cooked up by several retired CEOs who landed on the church board at the same time.
"They asked for our input, so we didn't hold back," says one.
In 2001 Evergreen began gobbling up churches across the nation and turning them into Evergreen clones, with identical features, down to the doorknobs, ushers' jackets and sermons. Even the pulpits and Sunday school rooms are the same.
"We're like Burger King or Subway — a solid, trustworthy business," says Evergreen brand manager Stefan Borcht.
But ECC's growth strategy has caused alarm among many churches who fear being targeted in hostile take-over bids. After scouting a target church, ECC recruits a slate of church members to run for election to the church board. ECC woos church members with direct mailings, phone calls and pleasant emails. If ECC's slate is elected the church becomes an Evergreen franchise. Oftentimes the pastor is removed or demoted.
"They swallowed us whole," says one former pastor whose church was Evergreen-ed last year. "We didn't even know what hit us."
ECC targets medium-sized churches with a substantial asset base. Later it absorbs smaller churches in the area, a process they call "picking up the pennies." ECC franchise inspectors visit churches secretly to enforce specific guidelines.
Evergreen members swear by the model. The Clarke family moved from Seattle to Milwaukee, and their children never missed Sunday school.
"It eased the transition," says Dan Clarke. "The worship and preaching were exactly the same, down to the inflections. Even the pastor looked the same." •
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