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.