Question: Is it okay for pastors to get rich by doing the work of ministry?
Over at First Things, James Duncan has written a brief essay with a provocative title: “Celebrity Pastors’ Walter White Problem.” He summarizes the problem for many celebrity pastors, namely that they make a lot of money from their churches, but then have a difficult time spending it, as no congregation likes the idea of a lavish pastoral lifestyle. Their situations are similar to that of Walter White, the anti-hero of the television show “Breaking Bad,” who made millions from dealing drugs, only to find himself unable to spend the money without clearly advertising his illegal activity. The post is worth reading.
On the One Hand, Yes: They Are Talented, Hard-Working Guys
I don’t know any celebrity pastors, but I do know a little bit about the pastoral ministry, and it’s obvious to me that the celebrity pastor church-growth types are enormously talented entrepreneurial individuals. Were they not in the ministry, they would be very effective leaders of other large organizations. Also, it’s impossible to be a celebrity pastor and not be an excellent public speaker. All of these guys, had they been generals or C-level executives, would be earning a lucrative living on the speaking circuit. Additionally, the celebrity pastor is almost always a best-selling author. It’s hard work to write a best-selling book–shouldn’t that hard work be rewarded?
It seems unfair to restrict their earning potential just because they chose to work for the church.
On The Other Hand, No: Pastoral Ministry Shouldn’t Be About Making Money
The talent of the celebrity pastor is not the issue–the issue is integrity. It is hard not to question the integrity of a celebrity pastor who becomes wealthy through the work of ministry.
Some Observations About Wealth and the Church
- The pastor’s authority is mainly a moral authority, authority that is enhanced when the pastor is seen to be living more simply than his or her peers, authority that is diminished when the congregation sees the pastor living at a standard far above most of them. I think the appeal of Pope Francis is due in large part to his well-publicized simplicity.
- It’s easy to criticize people who are in situations different than your own. Would I be able to resist the temptations to wealth that so many celebrity pastors face? I’m not sure.
- The vast majority of pastors in the world are faithful people who sacrifice for years, doing difficult work for very little pay.
- Compared to many (most?) pastors in the world, I am extraordinarily well-paid. My lifestyle and that of my grandfather, who pastored a rural church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia during the Great Depression, are vastly different; mine is much more comfortable than his ever was. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to throw stones at wealthy celebrity pastors while justifying my own lifestyle.
- On the other hand, it is not hypocritical for me to admit that both I and the celebrity pastor have a problem with money.
- But this problem is not exclusive to those of us in the pastoral ministry: anyone reading this is many times more wealthy than the majority of the people on this planet. We need to beware the self-righteousness that comes from comparing ourselves to a few wealthy outliers while ignoring our own unseen and suffocating materialism.
Conclusion: It’s All About Me
I don’t know any celebrity pastors, and so I can’t speak to the condition of their hearts. What I do know is my own heart, and it is a greedy thing, and materialism is my disease. It’s easy for me to criticize others’ financial choices, but much harder for me to live at a lower standard of living than I can afford. Maybe the benefit of the recent attention paid to the lifestyles of celebrity pastors is that it forces me to ask: “Lord, what do you want me to do with what I’ve been given?” One day, I’ll have to answer only for myself. I’ll let God be the judge of the others.