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.

6 thoughts on “Removing the speck from Steven Furtick’s eye

  1. Amen. I will join you in admitting my own faults. Last year on Ash Wednesday I offered a pastoral confession to my congregation. My biggest wrestle is with Envy. I see the megachurch pastor driving a brand new Mercedes while I drive a used car with many many miles. I see his church growing by leaps and bounds while mine struggles with faithful folks. I have seen his nice home in the gated community while my parsonage sits in old transitioned neighborhood amongst trailers and homeless folks.

    I confessed to my folks that this is not his issue, but mine. I am the sinner falling short of God’s glory every single time I complain, whine, moan, gripe about him. I will continue to repent every single day.

  2. This is such a wonderfully written piece; so articulate and “grace”-ful . . . just a few comments in general to agree.
    We always have lines that we must draw in our own lives; whether it deals with the language we use, the media we consume, foods we eat, etc. For instance, if i say “who gives a poop”; is that really any different than saying “who gives a #%*!”? The intent behind the words is (probably) the same, but just using a different word can garner very different feelings/reactions. But, someone has drawn a line there-for me I have drawn a line in using any profanity for years–but, when I say poop instead of the other is it really different??? That isn’t rhetorical, I don’t honestly know . . .
    So, I would think the same can be applied to this pastor you speak of above, or anyone else for that matter when it comes to drawing lines in the sand or making certain decisions. I think it is why Jesus didn’t answer many questions directly . . . HE always told a story so that we would consider intent instead of action.
    Just my 2 cents–thanks for a very thoughtful piece.

    1. Hey Ryan,

      Thanks for this comment and your encouragement. Re: language, media, etc. How do we judge? Good question. I think about Jesus’ words, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” This goes not just for the mouth, but for all actions, right? The way that we speak and behave (and even think) reveals the true nature of our heart. That’s made me stop and consider what’s in my heart at several points — when angry or prideful words came out, when I made a selfish decision with my money or an indulgent decision with what I consumed (food, media, etc.) Regarding what we consume, you’ve got the whole thing about it not being the things we take in that defile, but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles. But I think that was some specific commentary on Jewish food laws. I’d say we’re foolish if we don’t think the things we consume affect the condition of our hearts.

      I know in all of this I can end up coming off as a hapless prude. That’s not the point, and I don’t think it’s where some of these things lead. I think a lot of the things I mention above can serve as symptoms to give me insight into my heart. And I agree with Augustine — our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The more my heart is conformed to the desires of God, the more peace and joy I think I’ll have. So I suppose I’d call my prudence hedonistic. What does that mean for you saying poop? You might have to evaluate that for yourself… 🙂

  3. Before we can remove the speck from Steven Furtick’s eye, we should remove the LOG from our own eye…..

    I do feel that many UMC Pastors live soooo well that they forget what it is like for members of their church; many of which don’t have two nickels to rub together. Because of their wealth(deserved or otherwise), they lose sight of their purpose as ministers as well as the many things that Christ taught us about having many riches.

    The 18th Book of Luke-18-30 comes to mind when a certain ruler asked Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded in part……Vs 22….Sell all you own and distribute the money to the poor…..

    That my friend is part of the answer.

  4. This blog is the first I’ve heard about this pastor and his house. It does seem indulgent, but being poor doesn’t make you holy and being wealthy doesn’t mean you are unholy. I have known some very wealthy people have given to others and never made a big deal about it. They use the blessing of wealth in God’s kingdom. The relationship with Jesus is what’s important and , the Holy Spirit is the only way one who can tell this pastor what is correct for him. The money that the pastor has may not be the real reason that folks are complaining,perhaps they are jealous without even realizing that they feel that way. Many mega churches are very extravagant but they are able to reach to a group of people that others couldn’t reach, some of them do amazing ministry that a small church cannot do. God cares about the salvation of the wealthy as well as the poor. It is easy to judge others by what we think we know. I did say , the blessing of wealth, people who love Jesus can do so much good with the things God has provided! If this guy was a wealthy business man who was providing money for soup kitchens, work programs for the homeless, missionary support, etc most people would not complain. Wealth can be a stumbling block in a persons walk with God but it doesn’t have to be. May The Lord give us grace to judge only ourselves and no one else. May we all love The Lord with all of our heart, soul , mind , and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

Join the Discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s