Paying the Piper

Furtick_300x500Steven Furtick, young pastor of a growing megachurch, has recently been in the news.  The reason?  Accusations of financial excess surrounding a rather large new house that he is having built for his family.  In a similar vein, the Roman Catholic bishop of Limburg, Germany, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst has been officially relieved by Pope Francis for spending 31 million euros in excessive renovations to his residence.

I cannot say much about the situation in Germany except that it seems to represent both an egregious violation of propriety and an appropriate response on the part of the Pope.   When considered in light of this, Furtick’s $1.7 million dollar home seems rather modest.  The issue, though, is not about comparing one excessive residence to another, but rather asking what the wisest or most appropriate course of action should be for ministers.  This isn’t an attack piece–it is an examination of what is best.

To ask a broader and more provocative question, I’ll say this: how much should a pastor make?

Now, I have been a pastor and am still an ordained minister…so I can tell you this is a sensitive issue.  Money is a touchy subject to begin with, but when you add in matters of faith they can become even more complex.

I posted a link to the Furtick article on my Facebook wall last week for discussion’s sake.  I received some thoughts that have been helpful to me as I’ve considered related matters and they’ve helped inspire what I’m writing here.

A first way to look at the issue is to consider two somewhat different answers: 1) a pastor should be able to make (from salary, outside speaking engagements, book sales, etc.) as much as he or she legitimately earns.  If that is $30,000 per year, fine.  If it is $1 million, OK; 2) nearly all Americans (and most Westerners, for that matter) make more that most of the rest of the world, meaningjohn-chrysostom-01 that we all live in excess.  The response to this is that we should all consider sacrificing and making do with less.

While the story of Christianity has always seemed to provide for the path of self-denial or asceticism, the life of riches and excess has often been looked at somewhat askance.  While we know it is possible for the Christian to be rich, such a life can be a difficult and dangerous one.  In the interest of safety and propriety, then, I stand on the side of those who feel that ministers need to be careful about how rich they get and generous with how much they give.

Am I singling out pastors as different from the rest?  Maybe, and I realize this might be a little controversial.  Coming out of the Reformation is the powerful idea that there ought not to be a strong distinction between the pastor and the laity. Being a Christian minister, in other words, is no better calling that being a Christian businessperson or plumber or teacher.  Overly criticizing Furtick, some would say, means that I am placing him as a minister in a separate category than other rich Christians.  According to a certain line of thought, this is a problem.

While I would affirm that ministers are not “better” kinds of people than others of their brothers and sisters in Christ, I do believe that because of their role, influence, and visibility they are to be held to a higher standard.  I have no qualms about this.  While all Christians must be yielded before God, I believe that the pastor must be more accountable.  He or she is a leader of believers, a representative of God in the eyes of many, and a direct recipient of money often sacrificially given.

Luther-Wittenberg-1517When I consider the role of the minister, I am constantly reminded of James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  This is a haunting reminder for those of us who serve in this role.  It means that all of our arguments about what is right and true and all of this need to be subsumed to what is wise, appropriate, and best for our flocks.  I understand that it might not seem fair that a pastor needs to be more careful about what they say or do or spend, but you know what?  That’s just the way it is.  Our financial choices are just as pastoral as the counsel we provide or the sermons we preach.

Please note that this does not exempt everyone else from making wise and godly decisions with their life.  It just means that the impact their decisions have may not be nearly as widespread within the community of faith as a poor choice by a Pope or bishop or Steven Furtick or whomever.

The questions surrounding pastors and finances are not meant to resolve around what is possible (i.e. how much can I make and still get away with it), but rather what is wise.  Is it legitimate that a leader of a successful multi-thousand member group, published author, and sought-after speaker would make enough money to build a 16,000 square foot house?  Absolutely.  Does it makes sense for a pastor to allow themself to do so?  No.  Is it wise?  No.  Is this going to help the ministry to which God has called them?  I can’t see how.  I can only see it causing the kinds of problems it does.  Sometimes we have to give up what we think we deserve.

I don’t know the average salary or cost of homes in North Carolina, but I can tell you that houses this size cannot be the norm.  If Furtick were pastoring in some parts of the world his home’s price (but not the square footage) might be a little closer to the average, but even then there would be some serious questions.  A helpful answer, in light of this, would be for pastors–if possible–be paid or only accept reimbursement (from any source) according to some metric of what an average localized professional salary might be.  I think pastor-salarysuch a rule has potential, for it guarantees a liveable wage even while is does not allow the pastor to face accusations of earning “too much.”

I’ve heard one suggestion that this could be tied to what teachers or administrators at a local public school might be paid.  More than this would put the pastor out of alignment with his or her community.  While some churches might not even be able to afford even this number because of their size, this locally based figure might be a kind of benchmark for a maximum salary: whether it is a church of 200 or 2000 or 20,000.  Having more people in your church might make you feel like you should earn more, but this does nothing to change what the average person in your church earns or sacrificially gives.

What to do as a celebrity pastor with all the other money that comes your way from speaking and writing books (the latter is, of course, where Furtick has said the money for his house derives)?  Well, a good deal of it probably ought to be given away…and in no case ought it to be used in the pursuit of excess.  Wisdom, prudence, and real servant leadership demands otherwise.  That’s just some of what being a pastor is all about.

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9 comments on “Paying the Piper

  1. Teddy Ray says:

    Joshua – I’m so glad to see someone else taking up a discussion I’ve been trying (with much resistance and animosity from clergy) to generate. And I thought it was funny that you also chose my favorite picture for your post.

    A starting point for some things I’ve written on clergy pay, if you’re interested: http://teddyray.com/2013/10/09/church-staffing-and-justice-two-stories-some-numbers-and-some-questions/

  2. wcosnett says:

    I understand that you’re blog post is primarily about the issue of clergy compensation and that the Furtick story was one of the recent events which brought up the subject, but I do think it should be made clear that the controversy with Furtick wasn’t really about the size of the home. He didn’t simply take his profits from a book he wrote in his spare time and buy a house with them, he bought the house through a trust owned by the CFO of the church, then claimed that the book sales and the house weren’t tied to the church in any way. So to me the main issue is the problematic mixing of personal and church finances. It seems to be in the same realm as buying a corvette for yourself, but having it registered as a church vehicle so it’s tax exempt, or to get cheaper insurance. When is a manse not a manse? It’s paid for from the profits of media sold in your church store and on your church website and bought at a subsidized discount through a trust own by a church employee. If he ever leaves the church, who owns the house? If I buy a book from the church website, am I supporting the church, or helping pay for the pastor’s mansion? For me this is more a cautionary tale about how complicated it can get when a pastor or a church gets into publishing and merchandising through the church itself.

    • Will,

      Admittedly, the Furtick situation was a “jumping off” point for me here. This said, I do think that the cost/size of the house is somewhat in question here. The trust is is and may be as well. Someone on my Facebook wall did offer a possible explanation of why this might have been set up this way (privacy? oops). The question of who owns the house in the long run is a good one.

      All of this underscores the potential for pastoral pitfalls when it comes to large amounts of money.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Let me begin by saying I agree that Pastor Furtick may have not used the best wisdom in building a house this large. Wouldn’t 6,000 -8,000 feet of space be enough? Also, wcosnett comment above about the trust and the co-mingling of funds is mega cause for concern in my opinion. How that works and how it benefits the Furtick family and the tax ramifications, I am ignorant of.

    I would like to throw out some rough thoughts on clergy compensation.
    Assuming the compensation of the senior pastor (who functions in our culture as the primary leader, visionary, CEO, founder, teacher/preacher, cultural architect, bearer of the most responsibility) should be paid the same as a school teacher, to me, is ridiculous.
    The responsibility, work load, stress, demands, family effects, spiritual warfare, leadership needs, integrity, character, etc. of a senior pastor cannot be compared to a school teacher, college professor, or general business person. They are simply not comparable.
    A better assessment might be a business owner/founder in your church. A person who brings primary leadership and vision to the organization. A business with a similar yearly budget and with about the same number of employees and people involved in the church. If that were the case what would a CEO of a company like Elevation make yearly? FYI: Elevation’s cash income was $20 Million last year and they have probably another $20 Million in property. Whether you agree or not with all that happens at Elevation, the impact to the normal person and family has been sizable. The millions and millions of dollars that is donated to local charities is huge.

    What if you had a man in the church that owned a business that has a yearly budget of 2 million dollars and a employee base of 75 people. If that business owner made $125,000 each year would it be safe to say a senior pastor with a church of 1200 people and a yearly budget of the about 2 million should make a similar amount? I would tend to say yes, that makes sense.

    Thoughts? Forgive me for my ramblings…

    • Thanks for your comments, Jeremy. I see what you are saying here, and understand your reasoning. This said, my first thought is a theological one: the Kingdom of God need not (perhaps must not) operate according to the principles of the world. So, in some sense, the business/numbers analogy may be flawed. A church ten times bigger should not mean a 10x salary increase.

      Further, though, please note that teachers can make into the 80s or more (sometimes much more for administrators, which might be problematic), depending on experience, seniority, and the local community. I was only using this as a benchmark. Because there is a lot of talk in our world about CEO salary excess and “golden parachutes,” I’m less comfortable tying salary to that model.

      Bottom line, if a pastor is faithfully serving their church according to God’s calling in a small church setting, why should they be paid less than if they are serving God according to their calling in a large church setting? I guess this is the operative question. I can imagine there will some different answers to this, but it is a good question.

      The one caveat is this, though: because most families are dual-income in our world, hiring a pastor for a salary like this and expecting the spouse not to work outside of serving the church might not fly. If the church wants this to happen (and the spouse is amenable), then paying the pastor more makes some sense.

      P.S. Some teachers might disagree with you about the workload! 🙂

  4. Jake Packett says:

    This was the most mature, and well thought out response to this situation I have seen yet. Thank you!

  5. Steve says:

    In full disclosure, I live in Charlotte, have been to Elevation Church a few times, but do not go there, am not a member, and do not financially support it. I do not know Furtick but have listened to a few of his sermons on their app, and I think he is a very gifted preacher. I don’t agree with him on some things, but do appreciate what he has done here and this can only be explained as possible through the grace of God.

    I understand the dilemma here, and think most of the issues have to do with potential for the appearance of impropriety more than impropriety itself. At least I haven’t seen any accusations of such regarding Furtick, and I’ve never come across any evidence of such. While we cannot control what others think, it is prudent to take all reasonable steps to avoid what a normal man would wince at. This is why we are biblically required to avoid such appearances, as it may diffuse and create a distraction to our witness.

    That is where I think Furtick has probably failed. So what if he made quite a bit of money on his books and has it in the bank? He worked for it, has paid taxes on it, and he’s entitled to the rest. That falls well under Christian principles, so long as you are also generous with it and pay the Lord his share. But when the money is in the bank, that information isn’t out there front and center, more or less flaunting it to the public. He would have retained ownership of his assets, achieved whatever sense of security is gained by that for his family, and those appearances would not now be problematic. But when you buy property or build a house, then it is front and center, and curious people will look and compare it to their own and their personal standards of propriety. In some people’s mind, this is shouting about it, bragging, and making it an issue. I don’t necessarily think so, but it could be viewed that way. I think it can also be damaging to your kids to bring them up in an environment where they feel elite, above others, or don’t recognize the hard times that many others go through.

    The question of the house being in the trust is an easy one though, it makes sense, and it is commonly done where someone has a high public profile. Charlotte has a real estate look up system where any user can go online and search properties by name or address. The problem that this causes is that it causes severe security risks to people with that high profile. It’s not just curious people that will look you up. Those who would do you harm also have this silent and secretive tool at their disposal. Therefore, many sports figures, politicians, high profile business people, entertainers and similar folks put their real estate in a trust in the name of someone else or a foundation.

    Many people who don’t understand why a person would hide their personal property might automatically assume the worst and that the person is embarrassed or feeling shame. But that is rarely the reason. High profile people, (and let’s face it, successful and high profile Christian pastors) tend to raise the ire of hateful people who have an anti-Christian or anti-God agenda.

    If I were such a pastor, I would want to do everything I could to protect my wife, kids, myself, and my private time from these people who have ill intentions, people who might show up to the door with an agenda or wanting something. Targeting a well known pastor his property and family, or trying to take him down is hardly a new or unreasonable concern. And with 10s of thousands of people in your church, you will most certainly have those who think they have a right to the pastor, at their whim, any time of day or night. Some folks are just star struck. It just happens. Like it or not, a pastor of a church of 20,000 who also writes, speaks in a lot of other places, and has a family to raise, doesn’t have the time or ability to personally serve his congregation. He must delegate this out.

    As far as how the trust is handled from a legal perspective, contracts easily dispense of that issue. It’s done all the time.

    I suspect Furtick has also learned much from this experience. And I hope he has very good mentors and counselors. And while I do think there have been some unfortunate mistakes made, I think Christians should also give him just a bit of grace and recognize some basic things.

    1) He’s a very young pastor who has not had a lot of experience or even a formal religious training experience. For his youth and inexperience, he’s made remarkably few visible mistakes for a guy who started this church in his (I think) mid-20s. Yeah, this kind of controversy should have been foreseeable. But we all makes mistakes, and perhaps youth and inexperience were part of this one. I know I made my share, far bigger, and thankfully — I didn’t have a press and a bunch of people who have a penchant for digging around, displaying my mistakes for the world, and trying to topple the biggest guy in the room.

    2) He’s done some pretty remarkable things other than build this church from scratch including writing more books in a few years than 99.9% of preachers will write in a lifetime. Whatever gifts God has given him, he has used very well and with remarkably little self-congratulations. That’s got to count for something.

    3) His message has built a church out of largely young people who many of which would not be in church today if not for what this church has offered. He saw a door, an opportunity, and a need, and he is dedicated to filling it. You don’t build a church of this size with this many young people in such a short time either as a slacker, a conman, or just dumb luck.

    4) By all accounts, Furtick is very generous with what he makes back to his own church. This is the report by those who would know and I have no reason to suspect they are lying on his behalf.

    5) This generosity is backed up by his own directives that have resulted in over $10 million over the years going back into local ministries and the community, along with hundreds of thousands of man hours in volunteer work each year (yes, you read those numbers correctly), mostly by young people who would be spending their money and time doing far less fruitful things if not for Elevation Church. Getting young people engaged in such measure is no small thing, as they are the church and will be the leaders of the church when their parents can no longer fulfill those rolls.

    Maybe this kind of thing needs to be censured, but it should be with Christian dignity and grace, and measured as the small part of the totality and the context in which it has arisen.

    Thanks for avoiding the temptation to jump on a bandwagon and blast away as so many have done.

    .

  6. Tom says:

    So what I get out of this is: A) Furdick should (‘ve) give (n) 170,000 (personal) dollars to his church since his home costs 1.7 mil, just so God’s happy. B) Nothing C) So you would affirm that ministers are “better” people that those who are not brothers and sisters in Christ? D) Why do we care what he spends money on? E) uhh… F) I could go on forever…point is, none of this matters.

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