Steven 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, meaning 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.
When 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 such 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.