How Much is a (Progressive) Pastor Worth?

Last week, several members of the famous Riverside Church in New York City filed a suit in the state supreme court to block the installation of their pastor-to-be, Brad Braxton. Behind the suit were allegations of secretive behavior by church administrators that resulted in a lucrative financial package for Braxton, and allegations that the minister sought to steer the church in a more conservative direction, one that countered its progressive tradition.

New Yorkers could not miss last week’s headlines:

Church Members Sue Over Minister’s Pay

NYC minister’s $600G-salary package causes flap

New Riverside Pastor’s Compensation Splits Congregation

Headlines like that get the attention of all those interested in either money or religion—so, really, everyone. It should have been a week leading to the validation of Brad Braxton, as he made ready for his installation as full-time senior pastor this past Sunday. Instead, the church was defending itself against the press. And against headlines that, in a recession like this one, only vilify those implicated.

Knee-jerk headlines elicit knee-jerk responses.

But as we know, headlines don’t tell the full story. They attract readers—as many as they can get. Writers described the situation at Riverside as “causing quite a stir” and as being in “a nasty battle with its own congregation,” while in reality, only four members of the congregation were behind the suit petitioning to discontinue Braxton’s installation. From the sound and fury of things, you would have thought a civil war had broken out inside the gothic cathedral in Morningside Heights.

Riverside has always made itself a headline grabber. It’s one of the largest ecumenical, multiracial, progressive churches in the nation. Just the kind of place many outsiders are either looking to in awe (or waiting with bated breath for its implosion). It was the home of Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloan Coffin, and most recently James Forbes—all movers and shakers on the side of social justice.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech condemning the Vietnam War came from the Riverside pulpit, and the home has played host to Nelson Mandela and recently Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The church’s own history and nostalgia for those figures sets a high bar for any incoming leader. The most recent news sought to undercut that tradition, and questioned Braxton’s commitment to his predecessors/tradition. So leading up to Sunday, the question remained: can a church professing a mission of social justice pay its pastor $600,000 in total yearly compensation?

How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity

So, Sunday morning. The chairman of the Church committee, Billy Jones, opened with an announcement, explaining to the congregation that Braxton’s pay package was actually closer to $450,000 a year in total compensation, with a base salary of $250,000 and a monthly housing allowance of $11,500. Those numbers, Jones asserted, had been presented to the whole congregation three times before Braxton was ever officially announced as Forbes’ successor. Jones ended his announcements by invoking Psalm 133: “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity.”

The majority of the congregation rose and cheered.

Braxton’s sermon, entitled “Fear Not,” soon followed.

Riverside’s new pastor urged the congregation not to mistake molehills for the business of moving mountains. With that line, things got political real quick. Braxton hit the climax of the sermon, and, channeling the voices of Fosdick and Coffin, he urged his congregants to fight against immigration injustice, fight sexual bigotry, support civil unions and gay marriage, fight against Christian imperialism—and most provocatively, he urged those at Riverside to be on the side of promoting condom use to curb the spread of AIDS in Africa, “unlike other religious leaders.”

That string of declarations (including that last one, a swipe at the Pope) was intended to address all those who suggested that Braxton lacked the social justice edge the church required. And he finished with, “I wonder if that will make it to the front page of the news.”

It was a good show for the new pastor—as it had to be. But because of last week’s headlines, when most people think of Rev. Braxton they will also think of a dollar sign. Is it a lot of money? You bet your sweet financial recession it is. But the church is betting that to be a big influential progressive church, they have to make a big financial investment in their leader.

Is it too much? Most of his new congregation doesn’t seem to think so. As Braxton began to finish his sermon, you didn’t hear him so much as the congregation on its feet, cheering.

Later that day, at Braxton’s installation: protests, maybe? Well, no. Governor Paterson spoke on Braxton’s behalf, and I did get a sweet commemorative bookmark out of it.