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.