I do want to offer this correction from the comment below. According to this Open Letter from the Church Council at Riverside Church, Rev. Dr. Braxton’s total compensation was $460,000 – not $600,000. This is helpul information to have – though I think the underlying questions still pertain to the situation.
The Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton has resigned today from his position as Senior Pastor of Riverside Church (details here). Braxton has served Riverside for just 9 months before submitting his resignation. Many of you probably first heard Braxton’s name when the NY Times ran the story about his compensation package back in April of 2009. According to those who were labeled as “dissidents,” they said his package was over $460,000 and included:
- Annual base salary of $250,000
- Monthly housing allowance of $11,500
- Pension and life insurance benefits
- Entertainment, travel and “professional development” expenses
- An equity allowance for the future purchase of a home
- Money for a full-time maid
- Private school tuition for his 3-year-old daughter
First, let me say that I have heard some really wonderful things about Rev. Braxton. He is a fellow FTE Fellow and was a part of an FTE Conference a few summers ago. I was also very impressed with him after watching this segment from a Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Report. I have also been to Riverside Church for worship before and know that it is an historic church for our country and would be quite the place to try to step in and begin to serve. It is also a congregation that has dealt with a lot of controversy in its rich history.
However, I’m guessing that this story is being used as a very complex case study in seminary classrooms all around the country, because I think it brings to the fore a lot of questions about terms of call, pastoral responsibility and stewardship, among other issues. Also – many who have commented on the situation thus far – have said that there are many issues of racism at work in this story, which is also very sad and brings up many justice-related issues.
As I asked around on Twitter & Facebook this morning, I’d say that *most* people felt pretty comfortable with Braxton’s compensation package. Some said it seemed fair compared to what other pastors of large churches make. Some said that it’s appropriate because it’s NYC, an historic congregation, the most prominent US church, high income tax in NY State, cost of living, etc. There were others who question its appropriateness, some thought it was ridiculous and one person said very eloquently that it’s “just too damn much money for a pastor.”
Sarah and I were talking about it this morning, and she feels pretty strongly that on a whole, pastors are generally underpaid. And I’d certainly agree with that. How many other professions are there where you can go to college, graduate school, attain advanced degrees and then struggle to pay off debt and live above the poverty line in some places in our country? So, I do agree with her that pastors are on a whole underpaid.
And again, I don’t know anything about the circumstances of Braxton’s family life and situation that all contribute to his salary package. And I believe that pastors (and youth pastors) should really be given more in terms of continuing education, travel reimbursements and professional expenses. Another interesting thing would be to know the median income of those who attend Riverside Church. Are these dissidents in the congregation people who are receiving similar compensation packages from their employers, and just think pastors don’t deserve to make that much money? Or is it in fact a race issue, and if it was a white pastor who was called to Riverside, would people still think a package of $460,000 is exorbitant?
There are clearly many things we don’t know – and so I want to offer the thoughts below with the knowledge that I may be missing a lot of the facts. However, when a compensation package for a pastor reaches close to $460,000 – even if the person is the Senior Pastor of one of the most prominent churches in the United States – I think there are some important questions that need to be asked.
Is it okay for a pastor to make $460,000?
I really don’t know. When I first heard that Braxton was being offered a $460,000 package – I was pretty stunned. As I’ve said above, there are more than likely a lot of things that I don’t know about the situation and all the details. Who knows, maybe $460,000 is not the actual amount. But, my gut still tells me that $460,000 is too much.
I don’t think that pastors need to necessarily live at the poverty line – and certainly they need to be able to provide for their families’ needs. I’m certainly not of the opinion that pastors don’t “deserve” to make a decent living. After all, one day they won’t be pastors anymore, and they need to have been able to save or provided with a pension to provide for their family and be able to enjoy their retirement. However, I think that even someone who is serving one of the most prestigious churches in the states, and someone who is living and doing ministry in New York City, can do this for much less than $460,000/year. It does sound like “just too damn much money for a pastor.”
I know that many of you will disagree with me. And let me say – I do agree with my wife and many others that pastors are underpaid, and I think they should be more adequately compensated for their life of service. Heck – I certainly enjoy some nice things (MacBook, iPhone 3G S) – and I don’t think that pastors shouldn’t be able to enjoy some nice things in life. And while this is easier to “say” than even come close to “living by” – but what about when Jesus said:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Again – for those of you about ready to leave a comment like this – I’m not going to go out and sell my iPhone today. But it seems like there is some tension between a $460,000 compensation package and Jesus’ reminder that our treasure will be in heaven.
Is it good stewardship for a church – especially in our economic climate – to offer their pastor a $460,00o compensation package?
I don’t know about this one either. I don’t claim to be familiar with Riverside’s annual budget or how they handle their money. I do know they are a church radically committed to social justice. And it seems a little odd that a church that committed to social justice and to fighting the injustices in our society would decide to offer their pastor such a generous compensation package.
What does it say about the church’s call to stewardship when they offer their pastor such a package?
I thought it was interesting that in this video, one of those who was not supportive of Braxton (for theological reasons – not related to his compensation package) said that some thought the compensation was fine because that’s what “other churches of our size” pay their ministers. And she said, “Since when does Riverside Church do things because OTHER people are doing them?” Riverside Church has always seen itself (and, rightly so perhaps) as a church that is leading the prophetic witness for radical welcome, hospitality and inclusiveness in this country. As a prophetic church, it seems that they might want to also be prophetic about their use of money – being away that poverty and issues related to money are what Jesus spoke the most about in scripture. Paying their Senior Pastor a compensation package that is equivalent to what some CEOs of corporations make seems to be moving away from their prophetic witness.
I could be wrong
I realize that I could be totally wrong about this. I also know that if the Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton and I sat down with one another, I would really like him – and hopefully he would see me as a fellow colleague in ministry. I do want to say that while there are some from Riverside Church who are claiming that he’s a “fundamentalist” – I can’t see where they’re getting that. With his connections alone to the Fund for Theological Education – an organization that I was a Ministry Fellow with and still stay connected to – I know he’s certainly no fundamentalist. So, my critiques of Braxton and the situation don’t have anything to do with his theology.
It’s just that in my gut, I feel that when a church offers a minister a compensation package to the tune of $460,000 – that’s “just too damn much money for a pastor.” What do you think?