On clergy compensation — a prophetic voice, or a young idealist? — My interview with Wesley Sanders

wesley sandersI met Wesley Sanders in 2010. He was just out of college and preparing to start seminary at Candler School of Theology.

Wesley is unusual. Already in 2010 he had sharper theological insight than most seminary graduates and a more thorough understanding of the United Methodist Church than I will ever have. (He said he had watched every second of the last UMC General Conference on his computer—like it was an edge-of-your-seat movie. I told you he was unusual.)

So I wasn’t shocked to hear that just out of seminary, Wesley was already influencing major decisions in the North Georgia Conference where he serves. Last year, he urged his conference to alter its budget—rejecting several proposed raises—and they accepted his proposal by a wide margin. This year, the conference is again proposing raises, and Wesley has again urged voting members to reject them. This time he sent a written letter to members of the annual conference and plans to speak again when they discuss the budget.

Because I’ve written about clergy compensation (see the “Related Posts” below), I’ve received several messages about it from people in the North Georgia Conference. I think this is important. North Georgia is the largest conference by membership in the UMC and one of the wealthiest. If they begin to change their attitudes toward clergy compensation, they could lead the way for many other conferences.

So I asked Wesley if he would share more. Here’s an interview I just did with him (Note: It’s long. I didn’t want to cut it short for those of you who are interested…) 

Last year, you were all of a few months out of seminary, and you decided to speak up against raises for your conference’s Cabinet (who happen to be, in many ways, your boss[es]). This year, it seems you’ve gone a step further, writing a letter in advance to urge people to vote against raises. That doesn’t seem like the clearest path to ordination and career advancement. Can you say some more about why you’re doing this?

Quite frankly, I am doing this because I think our current practices as a denomination, as they relate to clergy compensation, are far too influenced by American capitalism. This is not unique to the United Methodist Church by any means, and we do better than some others—the nature of itinerancy actually helps to keep our highest-paid clergy in our largest churches at a much lower salary than the pastors of the largest churches of more congregational denominations.

But in my opinion, when we talk about clergy compensation we are not influenced enough by Scripture or the Wesleyan tradition, both of which recognize the real danger that wealth can present. You’ve written extensively on this, so I won’t rehash the arguments you’ve made, but I think this subject has been ignored for far too long in our denomination and in American Christianity as a whole. So, even if I don’t succeed and the raises pass, I hope that by speaking about this, it can begin conversations among clergy and laity alike about how we most faithfully use the resources God gives us. 

The raises will have little actual impact on me. I did the math; it will cost my congregation about $45 more in apportionments next year if the raises pass. But the danger of not having a theological conversation about clergy compensation is much bigger than the actual financial impact.

clergy compensationBoth our denominational average compensation and our conference average compensation went up consistently even in the depths of the recession, while our laity suffered job losses and US household income declined significantly, as did income in Georgia. At the local church and conference level, we cut staff positions, turned away clergy candidates because there were not enough appointments, and reduced spending on missions, all the while full-time clergy continued to see pay increases (not universally, of course, but the average compensation level continued to rise). It’s not just about the cabinet—it’s about the whole nature of compensation of clergy. In some ways, I worry that we’ve made itinerancy primarily about salary sheets and tenure rather than about matching the right gifts to the right ministry setting.1

As far as career and ordination, last year I raised an objection at conference that we shouldn’t obligate ourselves to a series of proposed raises because we hadn’t paid our denominational apportionments in full for many years; I’ve got the same concern this year––that we shouldn’t be giving out raises while we aren’t meeting our obligations. As you mentioned, the proposed raises didn’t pass last year, and after my speech on the floor of conference, several people told me that they like what I’m saying, but I should have waited until I was ordained to say it (I had been commissioned as a provisional elder less than 24 hours earlier). I didn’t take that advice lightly, given who some of those people were, but I concluded that I could not wait until I had a lifetime job guarantee to begin speaking about issues that I am convinced the church must address.

I’ve seen a bit of what our Cabinet in the Kentucky Conference has to do. It seems like a tough job. A thankless job, in many ways. Do you not think these people are due a raise?

Let me be clear: this isn’t really about the cabinet or a sense that they are undeserving of honor or a fair salary for doing such a challenging job. Having been only on the side of receiving appointments and knowing how stressful that process is, I can’t imagine the weight of being on the other side and having to assign clergy to all 930+ churches we have here in North Georgia. I’ve seen superintendents have to take the brunt of some very unchristian behavior from both laity and clergy when something was wrong, and I’ve rarely heard of a case where someone calls the DS just to say how happy they are with the pastor and how glad they are that their apportionments went up; it’s a tough job to try to be both the pastor and supervisor to all the clergy under one’s care. These are just a few of the things that make it an unbelievably challenging task they have, and I don’t envy them one bit.

However, I believe the package offered right now is generous. Assuming their spouse does not work, the current package puts the members of the cabinet in the top 5% of income-earning households in our state when you include the housing benefit (and I think you have to, since all other household income in the state includes the portion of the income used to pay for housing). It’s already a well-compensated position, and I can’t help but think that we need to realign our financial priorities.

For example, I received a fundraising solicitation just a few days ago, describing the need for bicycles and Bibles for UMC pastors serving in the villages of Africa, and I found myself wondering whether our priorities are straight when, on the one hand we have clergy who don’t have the very basic tools for ministry, while here we have clergy who have turned down an appointment to the cabinet because the compensation package was too low. I think it’s hard to reconcile that with the call of the Gospel.

I’ve had a lot of friends tell me they could be making more in the business world. Maybe their feeling is best captured in a tweet I saw a few weeks ago: “Pursuing a call should not require one to resign oneself to a less than competitive salary. #umc” What do you say to that? Are you advocating for “less than competitive” salaries?

I suppose in a sense I am advocating for less than competitive salaries, if you assume that we as clergy are simply one profession competing against others for the best people for a given job. In that sense, we very well may lose out on some very talented, gifted people who could probably do some fantastic things for the kingdom of God, but feel their talents are better used in an environment where they can earn a salary directly commensurate with what the free market would set for their experience and education. There’s a valid argument to be made for that, and it was made very well by Dan Pallotta who gave a TED talk on the issue of nonprofit compensation last year. And if we were a secular nonprofit, I am wholly convinced that high compensation levels would be appropriate and perhaps even necessary.

From a secular point of view, salary and benefits are the primary way you attract good talent, and we might lose some good talent by paying less than the business world might pay for comparable jobs (setting aside for a moment the question of whether that assumption is even true when you consider our housing, pension, disability, and health benefits which are often unstated when people complain about clergy salaries). But, of course, our theology of ordination and calling doesn’t say we want the most talented people for ministry. We want people called by God for the life and work of ministry, trusting that by God’s grace and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they will be empowered with the gifts and the grace of God needed for the task.

We pay clergy not so they can become wealthy and experience the dream of upper middle class American life. We pay them so that they can be free to devote their whole time to the work of ministry.

And, frankly, we pay full-time ordained clergy well. Even minimum salary clergy in most conferences make around the median household income in the US when you factor in the value of housing. We won’t become wealthy, but if we use our resources wisely, it is plenty to live off of and plenty to retire off of. I am grateful to serve in a denomination that has minimum salary standards, a defined benefit pension, disability benefits, and healthcare, and I am grateful for all that the church has given me to do my ministry. 

If you got to make the rules, what would you do? What’s the right answer here for clergy compensation?

That’s an interesting question, and I have two answers.

If I were starting a denomination from scratch, I think I would have a standardized pay scale for all clergy based on education and perhaps number of children, with an adjustment for higher cost of living areas, paid centrally by the annual conference (of course apportionments would be much higher, but churches wouldn’t have localized clergy salaries, so the new cost would theoretically be the same). This would really free us to do itinerancy more freely, and recognizes the cost of education and the additional cost of raising children––it brings us back to what I think should be the fundamental idea of clergy compensation, that we are providing for the needs of our brothers and sisters who are leading the church.

There are, of course, a lot of practical problems with this idea that make it almost impossible to implement, and I’ll name just two. The first problem is that the Judicial Council has consistently ruled (Decisions 213 and 461, in particular) that the charge conference has sole authority to set clergy salaries, and any attempt at standardization from the annual conference is dead in the water from that perspective. The second is that central deployment coupled with centralized salaries begins to weaken our argument to the IRS that for income tax purposes, the local church is the employer of clergy rather than the annual conference. That has some huge tax implications that would make our clergy and annual conferences subject to certain mandates under the Affordable Care Act and other laws, and that could end up increasing the cost of regulatory compliance substantially. Those are just a few of the reasons I can’t ever see something like that coming to fruition.

So, I support something like Holly Boardman’s proposal that came to General Conference in 2012 and is likely to return in 2016 (assuming we talk about anything besides human sexuality at GC2016!). Rev. Boardman’s proposal, based on 1 Timothy 5:17, would have assessed an apportionment on any local church that paid its clergy more than double the minimum salary standard of their conference: a dollar-for-dollar surcharge for any amount above minimum salary. So, for example, in my annual conference the minimum salary for full connection elders is currently $34,000 (plus housing and benefits). So, if you paid the pastor $70,000, your church would have a $2,000 apportionment surcharge in addition to the regular assessed apportionments. That surcharge would have to go to equitable compensation funds, which could then help to support ministry either within your annual conference or to support central conference clergy.

I like that idea because it facilitates the sharing of resources with others. I might modify it so that it doesn’t just support equitable compensation funds, because I’ve sometimes seen equitable compensation used as a way to simply bolster ineffective clergy or dying churches, and I don’t think that’s the best use of church money, either, particularly if you are taking it away from a vibrant ministry. But I think something that disincentivizes unfettered growth of salary packages would go a long way toward making sure we are using church resources in the way that most honors God.

You’re not even 30 years old yet, and you have no children to support. I’m sure some people have called you young, naïve, and idealistic. What do you say to them about that?

They might be right! This is an ideal, and I have no illusions that I am going to fundamentally change the system. I may very well be naïve and idealistic, but I think a little idealism is sometimes a necessary check to a system driven by pragmatism.

But to answer a few possible objections: although I don’t have children, I do have a wife who is in graduate school for neuroscience and has several chronic health problems which last year cost us about 20% of our household income in doctor’s visits, prescription costs, hospital stays, etc. So, my cost to support a two-person household is higher than the typical two-person young adult household. That doesn’t probably approximate the cost of raising a few children, but there are a lot of pressures on my finances that some other young adults may not face. All that to say, I am not totally naïve as to how expensive life can be.

I have also become very aware of how easy it is to let your lifestyle rise with your income. Last year, I went from being a part-time local pastor to a full-time provisional elder, an increase in annual pre-tax income of almost $30,000 when including my housing allowance (though I am now in a parsonage). I thought the substantial increase in income would make life a lot easier financially, (and it did!) but I managed to let my lifestyle rise with the increase in income in many ways, even with our medical expenses tempering it to some degree. I’m the first to admit that I have a long way to go before I have begun to live up to the gospel’s ideal for money. Every time I read John Wesley’s sermon “On the Use of Money,” I am convicted, especially when he lays out his fourfold test for whether a particular expenditure is appropriate––I can think of a few expenditures just this week that fail that test miserably. This realization, that despite my best efforts my lifestyle rose with my income, has forced me to more carefully budget and to rethink my relationship with money. Thinking about this issue on a personal level has made me see how easy it is for me to let my life be ruled by money and how easy it is to waste money. 

So, I am sympathetic to the concern that a pastor who is making $200,000 a year plus housing has planned his/her life around that kind of income, and so to reduce it to $118,000 plus housing by asking him/her to become a superintendent would require a substantial lifestyle change, and that is not easy. But, I also know it is possible because many of our laity have faced those kinds of circumstances, whether through layoffs or through a decline in their business income. It requires us to rethink our relationship with money, and it requires us to change our priorities. It also requires us to take much more seriously the question we are asked at ordination, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” I wonder what would happen if all of us as clergy had to ask ourselves that question a little more often.

You started with a concern that we’re too influenced by American capitalism and that wealth presents some real dangers. What do you say to the successful business person in your congregation who comes to you and says, “So you think I make too much money?”

Let me begin this response by saying that I love capitalism, probably more than a lot of my United Methodist colleagues and friends. I disagree with a lot of the assumptions that underlie our section in the Social Principles about the Economic Community. I think capitalism really is the best economic system there is so far, and although it isn’t perfect by any means, I really believe it can generate the most financial security for the most people in the long run compared to other economic systems.

And so, to the successful businessmen or women in my congregation, I would tell them that as long as they are not ruled by their money and are earning it through honest work, (not exploiting their workers, not engaging in some inherently sinful trade, etc.) and giving away enough so that it actually hurts (which probably means more than a tithe!), I have no problem with them making lots of money. I once again return to John Wesley’s “On the Use of Money” as a guide; probably he or she, like me, could stand to re-evaluate how much they spend on certain things, but I think gaining all one can through honest capitalism is not inherently bad.

But there is a big distinction between a business person making money through his/her trade and the use of church revenue. Once someone gives money to the church, it is, as John Wesley described it, “sacred to God and the poor.” Although all money should be seen as God’s, money given to the church has a very particular function, and that is to do the work of the Kingdom of God and to take care of the needs of our brothers and sisters. Part of this should be caring for the needs of pastors and their families who devote their whole lives to ministry. Ben Witherington makes a good case in his book Jesus and Money that Paul never intended tentmaking ministry to be a required norm for church leaders, and so I see nothing wrong with salaried clergy in principle. But when we begin to go far beyond caring for the needs of our brothers and sisters to a money-driven ecclesiology, we’ve got a problem in my opinion.

——————-

  1. Notes on the chart: 

    1. The DAC and CAC are lagging indicators – for example, the 2012 DAC is the average for 2010 compensation data. Thus, in this chart, DAC and CAC numbers are adjusted accordingly, so in other documents that reference the 2012 DAC, for example, this chart places that number alongside 2010 data.
    2. DAC and CAC also include housing (either cash compensation for a housing allowance, or a 25% factor for clergy living in parsonages). The cabinet figures factor in a steady increase in housing allowance––from $19,000 in 2001 to $37,749 today

A world that wants Easter but needs to see Maundy Thursday

crossWhy have so many people given up on Christ, the Church, and Christianity?

Whatever their reason, I don’t believe it’s because they reject what Easter promises.

Easter celebrates that Christ’s followers went to a tomb that first Easter morning expecting only a corpse and instead found the living Christ.

Easter’s promise is that we continue to find life where we expected only death.

Our world craves that promise. I believe God has created us with that craving. This is why we cry and mourn at funerals. We love life and hate death. This is why broken relationships rock our lives the way they do. We crave reconciliation. This is why so many are plagued with guilt. We crave forgiveness. Everywhere that it feels like something has died, we long for new life.

In a world that craves the promise of Easter, why have so many given up on the Christ, and the Church, that offer that promise?

Could it be because they need to see Maundy Thursday and too rarely see it?

What Maundy Thursday is about

In a typical Maundy Thursday service, you might hear these words from the Gospel of John: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” He had all things under his power. That makes the next line startling: “so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” And then he proceeded to wash his disciples’ feet.1

Imagine that scene––the One who took dust from the ground and formed a man in the beginning was at his Last Supper, where he got up from the meal, knelt on the ground, and cleaned the dust off the feet of the ones he created!

And then, shortly after Jesus got up from washing his disciples’ feet, he said this: “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

But that wasn’t much of a new command. “Love your neighbor as yourself” had been around quite a while. What he said next makes it new: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” That’s the mandate that Maundy Thursday is named for.

Living the mandate of Maundy Thursday

To believe that Easter’s promise is true, it would help our world to see the Church live the mandate of Maundy Thursday.

For most, the problem isn’t that they need more “evidence that demands a verdict,” proving Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s that they need to understand Christ––to understand Jesus in all his divinity and all his humanity, to understand a God who humbles himself so low that he becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Are his disciples today making that humility evident by loving, even as Christ loved us? Are his disciples found kneeling, a towel wrapped around their waists? Wherever we’re found instead jockeying for power and fighting for what we’re “due,” we may be the stumbling block.

This is why it seemed so right to us that Pope Francis left the comfortable confines of a Roman Catholic cathedral last year to wash the feet of a young incarcerated Muslim woman. Why it seems so right to us that Pope Francis refuses to live in the palatial residences offered him and prefers public transit to a limo.

To our world: if your impression of us, Christ’s followers, is that we spend more time arguing over who will be greatest than seeking to serve the least of these––I’m sorry. We’ve misrepresented our Savior often. Where you’ve seen us seeking greatness and riches, you’ve seen a Church that has not understood––or has not chosen to follow––its Savior.

But let me be clear about this, too… Christ’s disciples have been falling short since the beginning. At the Last Supper––almost immediately after Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and predicted his betrayal and death––what did they do? They began to fight over who was the greatest!

We come from a long line of disciples who have misunderstood or ignored Christ’s call to be found among those who serve. But that ignorance and misbehavior has never negated the promise of Easter. If you are refusing the promise of Easter because you aren’t seeing the Church take Jesus’ new command seriously, can I plead with you to reconsider? Christ’s promises are true, whether or not you see them lived out in those who claim him. Don’t miss the perfect goodness of Christ because of his Church’s flaws and failings.

And I should be clear about this, too… We, the Church, are flawed and often fail. But we are also, many of us, seeking Christ. We’re seeking to live according to his humility, his self-giving love, his grace and truth. I hope you’ve seen at least a bit of that. Where we fall short, bear with us in our attempts to get it right, as we trust Christ bears with us.

If you have been hurt by the Church, I apologize. I’ve been hurt before, too. Admittedly, some of the times I have been hurt were because of my own pride. At its best, the Church is full of grace and truth, just as her Savior is. And there are times that truth, even presented with grace, has a bite. At her best, the Church must continue to be full of truth, and we can’t apologize for that, but where you have heard truth with no grace––or supposed truth that was no truth at all––I apologize. Where you have heard a presentation of “truth” that was seeking power or status, rather than hoping for reconciliation, I apologize.

And so I plead with you again––if the promises of Easter are true, if they even may be true, don’t miss them because you haven’t seen the Church living out Christ’s new command.

To the Church: may we follow the command of our Savior. How can we be found on our knees rather than exalted? Serving our world rather than expecting to be served by it? Found among the least of these in our world rather than the greatest? How can Pope Francis’s example encourage all of us toward greater simplicity and generosity?

May our leaders be known for commonly rejecting privilege and power, wealth and prosperity, not for climbing ladders toward more power and more money. May we, as congregations, ask more questions about how we can serve the world than questions about whether we are being served properly.

May we be an Easter people––celebrating life where before there was only death––and celebrating that life best by joining our Savior on his knees and at the cross.

I lay out more specifically what I mean by Easter’s promise in the post Why I Love Wesleyan Theology.

————

  1. John 13:3–5

Removing the speck from Steven Furtick’s eye

Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church

Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church

This story about a pastor’s new house has gotten a lot of attention. Enough that a half-dozen people have sent me links to it.

A summary: Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church, is building a 16,000 square foot house valued at $1.7 million.

People across social media and the news media have rushed to share their opinions — most of them disapproving and condemning. I’ve seen two objections from people — one about the church’s money, the other about extravagance.

1. “A church shouldn’t pay their pastor enough that he can afford this kind of house.”

Some people have heard this story and concluded that Elevation Church is paying Furtick too much. Not many people in North Carolina can afford a $1.7 million home.

Let’s suppose that’s the case.

How much compensation is too much for a pastor?

Let’s assume Furtick’s salary + housing allowance is $680,000. That’s what CNN Money suggests he’d need to earn to afford this house. Is $680k too much?

How do we decide what too much is?

Every time I’ve questioned pastors’ pay within my denomination, other pastors have rebuffed me: “We have managerial-level jobs and professional degrees, why shouldn’t we have incomes comparable to other managers and professionals?”

If these arguments are valid, couldn’t we argue that Furtick is worth every bit of $680,000 per year? He started a church in 2006 with 14 members and leads a congregation of more than 12,000 today. That kind of talent is rare.

If we see no problems with a $130,000 package for pastors who have inherited and maintained congregations of 500, why should we object to paying Furtick much more?

Or is there a simple ceiling? $500k? $300k? $100k? Anything that would put our pastor’s household in the top 10% of the region? Top 5%? Top 1%?

Without having a line, what grounds do we have to criticize Furtick’s church and not our own?

Now if you read the article linked at top, you’ll see that Furtick says in defense, “I didn’t even build that house with money from the church. I built it with money from my books.”

In Furtick’s mind, the criticism is because people think he’s receiving too much from the church, and this proves that they’re wrong. (His church doesn’t disclose what he makes — a major transparency problem, in my opinion.)

Others might say, though, that the problem is extravagance.

2. “A pastor shouldn’t live this extravagantly.”

Perhaps the story is getting attention because of a gut reflex people have — something telling them that the gospel and extravagance are ill-matched — the same reflex that endeared Pope Francis to so many when they learned that as a Cardinal he rejected chauffeured cars and palaces and opted for the city bus and a simple apartment.

If this is how they feel, they have plenty of support from the church’s best theologians. Saint Augustine called extravagance (along with its opposing tendency — avarice) a mistress that enslaves people to its temporal lusts. John Wesley urged people to spend nothing on the pleasures of taste, expensive apparel, or vain purchases for the sake of status.

Furtick reveals no felt tension between gospel and extravagance. I suspect many people are reacting because they think his choices are unnecessarily lavish. “Who needs 7–1/2 bathrooms?”

But when do we cross the line from appropriate to unnecessary?

Is a $600,000 house in a gated community too extravagant? How about a home with 5 bathrooms and 6,000 square feet? House in a good school district, 1,200 square feet, and a big screen TV?

And what if we learned that Furtick gives half of his income to charity? Would that make the 16,000 square foot house more acceptable?

It’s hard for many of us to say that we’re living according to Wesley’s standards: never indulging in food, apparel, or other material things more expensive than we need to survive. So why have we determined that Furtick’s extravagance is unacceptable while ours is okay?

Taking the speck out of Steven Furtick’s eye

I began to feel a bit sorry for Furtick in all of this. We’ve raised him in a culture that bases pastors’ income on market rates and sees no problem with them living like their professional peers. If Furtick followed those same principles, who can fault him for accepting a CEO-type income and living like his celebrity peers?

Unless we’re constantly grappling with our own extravagance, why are we spending so much time looking at the speck in our brother’s eye?

Examining our own eyes

What level of pastoral income or extravagance is too much? Many people resort to the “I’ll know it when I see it” test. That’s what has happened here, isn’t it? People saw it, and it was clearly too much.

But the “I’ll know it when I see it” test fails. We grow soft with time. Gradual accommodation lulls and deceives us. Endless clichés prove the point: the slippery slope, the boiling frog, the married couple that forgets to keep dating, “first they came…

In short, when we stop scrutinizing our own lives, we lose our edge. I think that’s true of any areas of our life — our health, our work, what kind of media we’re consuming, our parenting, our romantic relationships, the list could go on. Autopilot may work for a while, but stay there for long, and we’ll discover we’ve lost ground.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you’ll know that I have some pretty strong feelings about clergy income and about Christians living simply and giving generously. (By the way, that’s Christians — not just clergy. Where did some people get the idea that only clergy should avoid extravagance?)

What I may have failed to share is that this is a constant tension in my life. I have plenty of areas of extravagance remaining, and I know it. I go back to these words of Augustine regularly and ask how far off I still am: “Let the rich keep to the habits their delicacy requires, but let them be sad that they cannot do otherwise… So if the poor man isn’t proud of his beggary, why should you be proud of your delicacy?”

I’ve begun to think I’ll probably struggle the rest of my life with how much is too much (or too little) in several areas of life — simplicity, generosity, the media I consume, my use of time, etc. I used to lament that, but I believe it’s a good tension. 

To be clear, if I become obsessive or paralyzed by these questions, it’s a problem. But if I ever get comfortable and complacent about these, I wonder if it will be a signal that I’m caving — either to my own desires or to hopeless despair about never knowing exactly where to draw the line.

What I may have also failed to share is that when the lines aren’t black and white, I don’t dare call people to hold the same line that I’m holding. My line is at least somewhat arbitrary and still being worked out.

But does that mean we say nothing at all?

Drawing lines when we can’t identify black and white

In some cases where the lines are too difficult to draw, we give up trying and excuse anything — or only go after the most extreme cases. This seems to be what happened to Furtick. None of us know where the line is, but his case is extreme enough to call out. Similarly, we don’t know where to draw the line on pornography, so we only worry about the stuff that’s classified as X-rated. We don’t know how to draw lines about appropriate sexuality, so we tend to ignore all but the cases that offend our own sensibilities most…

In all, it seems that Christianity’s inability to draw hard lines has caused us to accept as neutral a lot of things that have no business in the lives of Christians. We don’t want to speak too forcefully — and don’t want too much accountability — when we’re not sure exactly where to call something enough. Or on the other end, we draw an arbitrary line and walk it as tight as we can (think high school dating relationships) rather than constantly asking if we might be walking a bit too close to the edge.

Though we can’t draw hard and fast lines, we still have to do our best to discern what’s appropriate for us, and we should err on the side of prudence. For pastors, we have a duty to warn people, saying something like, “I don’t know where the line is, but I’m pretty sure this is over it…” That was my attempt in a post on pornography. That has been my attempt in talking about church salaries and justice.

In conclusion, I don’t actually defend Furtick’s decision to build this house. I believe his house is too much. It’s unnecessarily extravagant. I think the burden of proof is on him to show how this use of God’s money (it’s all God’s money) is most glorifying to God. And if his church is paying him anywhere near $680,000, I think it’s a horrible misappropriation of the church’s collection — which is sacred to God and the poor, not to enrich pastors. But is it Furtick’s mentality, or only his means, that’s so far different from many other pastors’?

I say all this because I believe it’s true and should be said. But I say it also with trepidation, knowing that I need to spend a lot of time examining my own life, my own income from the church, and my own indulgences before I spend any time pointing out the speck in Steven Furtick’s eye.