Thursday, January 13, 2011

Standards

Three years have passed since Senator Chuck Grassley started his investigation into the activities of a group of high-profile prosperity gospel preachers.  It feels like forever ago because it was forever ago, but by Washington standards it's about the best we can do.

In the unlikely event you're not familiar with this particular subset of the faith community, these are the folks who tell you that the point and purpose of Christian faith is to prosper.  To prosper, you need to show your commitment to God.  And you show your commitment to God by tithing and sending love offerings to God's emissaries on earth, meaning the prosperity gospel preachers.  To meet your need, you have to plant a seed, as they say.  It's a very common approach to faith, one that can be found all over religious broadcasting networks like the peculiarly-named Daystar. 

These pastors do quite well for themselves.  The most successful of them live lavish lifestyles, which they present as evidence of how much God has blessed them.   You have Creflo A. Dollar and his wife Taffi, who fly private jets and are driven around in Rolls Royces.  You have Kenneth Copeland, who lives on a palatial Texas estate and receives $1,000,000 "love offerings."  In the instance of "Bishop" Eddie Long, the expectations of what his parishioners were expected to contribute may have gone a little further.  To meet your need, you have to...ahem. 

Sen. Grassley's concern was, frankly, that such folks were just charlatans and hucksters who were taking advantage of the nonprofit status of their "ministries."  His investigation targeted six prominent teevee preachers.  Of the six, only two cooperated fully...the generally folksy Joyce Meyer and, surprisingly, the wacky white-suited huckster Benny Hinn.  The rest stonewalled.

As the results of Grassley's investigation closed up this last week, it's clear that at the end of that stone wall, there isn't going to be any legislation or criminal action.  Instead, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability...an excellent institution...will form a commission to consider the issue.   That, I suspect, was where it was headed all along.  The practice or non-practice of faith is not something that the state should regulate or mandate in any way.  If folks want to follow obvious charlatans, I suppose it is their right to do so. And it's the responsibility of Christians who understand the gospel...both conservative and progressive...to call those folks out.

All of this just seems so very strange to me.  The prosperity gospel so clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with the teachings of Jesus.   But the idea that a pastor's worth is measured by their manifest material well-being is also utterly alien.  Within my own ministry, for instance, I've been able to pretty much set the terms of my pay every year.  Creflo and probably I have that in common.  My standards, though, are that a pastor's wages should be adequate but modest.  In the context of my little church, I could well have demanded more.  But even though our small endowment could have supported a higher pay grace, I've consistently indexed my salary to the minimum standards of Presbytery.  A church that is reliant on endowment reserves to meet basic expenses should not pay a pastor more than that.  Period.

This year, given the transitions in my community and my role here, I demanded a significant cut in pay, because it was objectively necessary.   But even if I was in a large, vibrant, and thriving community of faith, I'd still be really reluctant to ask for more than my family needed to live simply. 

If you're a pastor, once you get to the point where your daily bread is taken care of, meaning you don't fear for want for you or your family, much more seems unnecessary.  That certainly isn't the standard of the world.  But then, since when was that the standard of Jesus-followers?

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