Ministry for Hire?

I understand that journalism is a contact sport and that the competition for readers is intense. That does not justify the exploitation or creation of controversy, but it does help explain it.

Recently I was directed to an article in the Huffington Post on the compensation of those who head up some high profile religious organizations. Also popping onto the radar was the story of the suspension of the German bishop by Pope Francis after the bishop reportedly spent $42 million to upgrade his residence. As well, a report was recently released charting the compensation of a variety of college majors, in which religious professionals come in near the bottom (at around $42 THOUSAND, not million).

All this attention calls for comment, particularly given our human love for scandal and judgment.

The Huffington Post article especially brought out the worst in my judgmental spirit. That proponents of the so-called prosperity ‘message’ (I can’t call it ‘gospel’) show up near the top of this list, is no surprise to me. I find it odious, but at least their lifestyle is consistent with their message.

Harder to swallow is the presence in this list of those heading up organizations devoted, ostensibly, to ministry to the poor. Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse reportedly receives $500,000 annually, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners $200,000. I could only think of how our small church in Bradenton a few years ago scraped together boxes of basic supplies to be shipped to needy kids overseas under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse. If these reports are true, Graham could have used pocket change to hire someone to provide these in our place.

Such reactions, however, are precisely what Huffington is after. Scandal used to sell papers; now it produces hits, and hits add up to advertising dollars.

I don’t question the figures (though they are inflated as they include all benefits, something that most in calculating their salaries never do). But we who see such figures should not be so quick to judge.

After the wave of condemnation passed over me, I pondered the situation of Jim Wallis. We do not know what happens to this money once it touches his fingers. The article does not ask those questions. We know nothing of his lifestyle, we know nothing of his giving habits. For all we know, he’s living on $42,000 of it and giving the rest away. He may not be. But we do not know, and yet we judge.

But why is he being paid $200,000 in the first place? Perhaps that is not his request but rather the wise judgment of a careful board. They of course will see Sojourners as an important ministry doing significant work, and they have to know that it takes an extremely talented person to manage, inspire, and oversee such a work. They may be astute enough to know that though Jim Wallis as the founder may be willing to do that work for far less, not everyone would be. Responsibly, then, they build into their budget what would be required to replace one such as Jim Wallis should something sudden happen to him. To be responsible to the ongoing viability of the work, they pay their leader not what he demands but what it would require to replace him. They may do this in order to prevent a crisis in the ministry in the face of his sudden death.

I don’t KNOW that this is the case. I’m just saying that it is a very real, and in my judgment a very responsible, possibility.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, had in the last years of his life an unusually high income, due largely to royalties from his published works and sermons. He no doubt would have made Huffington’s list and we would have wagged our heads in judgment. But would such judgment have been deserved?

Wesley died with almost nothing, having resolved early on to give away nearly all he made. He had vowed:

“If I leave behind 10 pounds, you and all mankind bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber.”

The point is, giving only one side of a story generates page hits and stimulates our judgmentalism. But it does not necessarily give us the truth.

I don’t know the backstory of these figures. But what I do know is that our sinful and judgmental hearts find in scandal the opportunity at self-justification, giving the occasion for us to stick in our thumb, pull out a plum, and say, “What a good boy am I.” Jesus condemns greed, for sure. But he condemns the judgmental spirit as well. And both are in need of a gospel cure.

A $42,000,000 home makeover may be scandalous (though, again, the backstory and the bishop’s defense never make it into our tweets). As well we may want to judge the average pay for pastors as scandalously low.

But clearly scandalous is our tendency to leap to the most judgmental conclusions on which the worst in journalism and politics depends.

6 thoughts on “Ministry for Hire?

  1. Such a potent display of the hidden greed and envy in our hearts, isn’t it? If we’re honest, this bothers us not because those monies could be used to “do the work”, but rather that it is being deposited into a bank account that doesn’t have our name on it. And to think that those at the helm of ministries, and all nonprofit organizations, aren’t worked to the bone is plain ignorant. A friend of mine is a VP for a local NPO, and I’ve never seen anyone work harder or longer or more passionately than Eddie. He is intimately familiar with the financial structure of NPOs, and how that relates to efficacy. According to him, every successful NPO pays salaries that are competitive in the for profit market. Infrastructure is pivotal to the efficient implementation of humanitarian aid, and the stronger the infrastructure, the farther each dollar can be stretched. Good stewardship doesn’t have to mean poverty.

  2. Kedric

    I’ve seen several articles that mention the need to offer competitive salaries at or near what is found in for-profit companies because, with the hours and commitment needed, very few would be willing to do the job if the money was lower. That would leave out many qualified people.

  3. Of course, I immediately clicked on the Huffington Post link – before commenting I needed to see the whole list for myself, you know!

    Seth’s comment that our biggest outrage is that the money isn’t being deposited in our accounts is telling and truthful. However…

    While you and the first two commenters do a nice job of coming up with possible justifications, I’d like to suggest this: that when Catholic Charities pays a front-line worker a barely livable wage ($25-28,000 in my city) and expects them to work hard and long hours (ads in Minneapolis often say 40 hours plus some evenings and weekends), the CEO has no business as a priest pulling in over $200,000 a year – regardless of what good he may do with the money. He should make less and the front-line social worker, senior care provider, etc. should make enough to cover her/his rent and basic needs. OR the money goes directly back to the good works of the organization. (I’ve never had a job that paid me more so that I could donate the “extra”, have you?!)

    Additionally, the idea that nonprofits need to be salary competitive with for-profits is misguided in my opinion. The whole point of religiously-affiliated nonprofits is that they stand for a different way of viewing the world – they are supposedly about changing the status quo, not encouraging everyone to buy into it. Many, if not all, who are committed to working within these organizations understand this. For years, I worked at a small, private, religiously-affiliated university knowing that I would never make a salary competitive with what my colleagues in public universities were making. That I accepted the trade-offs (working for a mission I believed in, being able to address student’s needs in a holistic manner, etc.) in lieu of the greater financial package was part of viewing my work as vocation.

    Finally, suggesting that finding talented, hard-working leaders is only possible if we pay them what they would make in the for-profit world is tantamount to saying that celebrity equates with talent. I believe Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and a slew of others disprove that theory. We are too quick to hire for personality rather than for character. Some of these organizations would do well to re-evaluate their assumptions, their social-justice focus, and their executive hiring practices.

  4. I so appreciate the debate this has sparked. It confirms to me that these issues are complicated ones… and Jenny, I do appreciate that there often is, or perhaps should be, a willingness to accept less in order to serve the mission one believes in. But there is logic built in to that thinking that can and does backfire on those who are making their living serving that mission. Should a church increase it’s mercy ministry budget by $10,000 or pay the pastor $10,000 more? If the decision is made to put the money toward the mercy ministry and defer the pastor’s pay increase, those making those decisions have in effect asked the pastor to make a $10,000 contribution to the ministry. Often those decisions are not made by people who are willing to make the same sacrifice they are imposing upon the pastor.

    I’m not, by the way, saying that I’ve been ever placed in that position. But I have faced that logic. The decisions in ministry compensation are always more complex than a tweet or a journalist can convey. You all have helped me see some of that complexity, and I appreciate that.

  5. Eva

    Excellent post, Randy! Wish it would make the Huffington Post editorial pages. Like you said, we know nothing for sure. But it is wise to not jump to the wrong conclusions. Thanks for the reminder!

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