Affluent pastors use wealth differently: Some give back; others buy yachts

DALLAS (ABP) -- There's a rare breed of creature often spotted in exotic locations leading a large pack. No, it's not a yellow-tailed wooly monkey. It's a wealthy pastor, and its very existence is controversial.

Success in many professions is expected to bring riches. With pastors, however, luxurious lifestyles are traditionally frowned upon. Some people have a hard time listening to sermons against greed and false idols from a pastor wearing a Rolex and a new Armani suit.

Nonetheless, the wealthy pastor is not an endangered species; the growth of megachurches, big book deals and media stardom have increased their number in recent years.

“Church size translates directly into market power,” said a Duke University study on the topic. “To attract entrepreneurial clergy, some very large churches are paying entrepreneurial salaries.”

How those pastors handle their wealth varies widely. Some admit to being millionaires. A few forgo church salaries and tithe 90 percent of their income. Ultimately, though, there are about as many ways to spend pastoral wealth as there are to earn it.

A 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article detailed accounts of the wealthy pastors club. According to the article, Creflo Dollar drives a black Rolls Royce and travels in a $5 million dollar jet; Benny Hinn lives in a $3.5 million home and drives an $80,000 Mercedes-Benz G500; T.D. Jakes has 2 mansions; Robert Tilton's ministry owns a 50-foot yacht; Randy and Paula White's ministry owns a jet airplane, a Cadillac Escalade and a Mercedes-Benz sedan.

Salaries for these ministers are typically kept confidential. But in a 1997 CNN interview, Hinn said he earned between $500,000 and $1 million annually.

The Compensation Handbook for Church Staff annually calculates average senior-pastor salaries by including base salary, housing, life and health insurance and educational benefits. While the national average salary of pastors is $77,096, according to the 2006 handbook, a select few pastors are earning much more.

An increase in worship attendance is the biggest factor to heightened pastoral and staff compensation, according to the 2007 handbook. Excluding insurance and educational benefits, senior pastors with a worship attendance of more than 1,000 people made an average of $111,052. That's 73 percent more than the $64,266 paid to pastors with a worship attendance of 300 people or fewer.

The rise of the megachurch apparently has made the wealthy-pastor club less exclusive, according to Becky McMillan and Matthew Price in a 2003 report for Pulpit and Pew, the pastoral-leadership research center at Duke Divinity School.

But an $111,052 annual salary isn't considered extreme wealth, according to the handbook, How Much Should We Pay the Pastor. So what makes some megachurch pastors super-wealthy?

It's the extracurriculars. All the highest-paid pastors mentioned in the Post-Dispatch article have nationally televised sermons or profit from successful book sales.

The New York Times reported in 2006 that Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, could earn as much as $13 million on the contract he signed to write his second book, Become a Better You. His first book, Your Best Life Now, remained on the Times bestseller list for two years and sold more than 4 million copies. Seven million Americans view Osteen's weekly sermons on television, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Shortly after the success of Your Best Life Now, Osteen appeased many critics by discontinuing the $200,000 annual salary he received from Lakewood in order to live off the book revenues and worldwide tours run through Joel Osteen Ministries.

Even though Osteen's messages continually focus on fulfilling potential prosperity, he told the Times that his sermons don't deal directly with getting rich.

“I don't believe I ever preached a message on money,” he said. “But I do believe … God can want you to have a better house. God wants you to be able to send your kids to college.”

Alternative salary systems

At the other end of the salary spectrum is Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas. Since its formation, the church has paid all of its staff members the same annual salary, which is currently $26,400. The only difference in pay is compensation for dependents -- $400 a month for a spouse and $275 a month per child for up to four kids.

“Our view is that God doesn't value the work of the pastor more than he does the secretary because God called us all to use our spiritual gifts,” Jeff Abshire, Antioch's administrative pastor, said. “Aren't we all called to fulfill the Great Commission? Aren't we all called to preach the gospel?”

Abshire said Antioch pays low salaries because it wants to preserve its ministers' calling from God.

“We believe that we'll have greater integrity with our people if we're living off a salary that is similar to what most of the people in our church earn,” Abshire said. “It's easier to preach about finances when the pastor has as much faith-need for God to provide as the congregation does.”

Abshire acknowledged that many might perceive Antioch's payment system as unusual. “We're not saying this is for everybody,” he said. “We felt called to set up salaries this way, but we're not saying that some other church is doing it the wrong way.”

Scriptural references to salary

Invariably when issues pertaining to pastor compensation come up, many Baptists look for a biblical example.

Ohio pastor Steve Clifford interprets the Apostle Paul's reasons for not accepting financial support from Corinthian churches to mean that pastor compensation is a personal matter for individual pastors and their churches to work out.

“Jesus didn't condemn wealth,” Clifford said. “He condemned the love of it.”

In addition to serving as a part-time pastor, Clifford is a certified financial planner and an enrolled agent that specializes in preparing clergy tax returns. As such, he sees the issue of pastor compensation from multiple perspectives.

Clifford said there is justification for paying pastors more than other professionals. “What value can you place on someone who regularly leads others to eternal life?” Clifford asked. “Ballplayers and Wall Street executives get a lot more money for doing something that's not nearly as important.”

Churches usually keep clergy salaries private. This means many churches lack the financial transparency of public companies, which are legally required to open their books, Clifford said. It's considered impolite to ask about salary, so many congregation members wouldn't think of asking their pastor such a question.

Gary Fearn, the pastor of a 30-member church in Pueblo, Colo., was willing to reveal his $9,000 annual salary to the entire nation for Parade magazine's annual “What People Earn” issue. He was formerly one of three pastors at a megachurch in Las Vegas, but he said he felt a calling to start a church from scratch. Now, Fearn earns his salary on a commission proportionate to the money gathered from collection plates. He supports his income by working two part-time jobs.

Though Fearn's salary is meager compared to other pastors, he said he doesn't hold any animosity toward those who earn more. But he does think wealthy pastors should spend their money wisely.

“I don't look at money as being the root of all evil,” Fearn said. “It can be very beneficial to support different missions or charities. I think pastors should be paid a living wage based on the average salary of their congregation. If they earn more than that, I think the rest of their money should be used to help other people.”

On the opposite end of the financial spectrum is Don Loomer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Elk Grove, Calif., who said he is about to retire with a net worth of over $1 million. Loomer said much of his wealth came in the three years he has spent at First Baptist. His salary is higher there because it is much larger than churches he previously led and because the area has a high cost of living, he said.

Loomer said that when all of his kids finished school, it enabled his wife and him to give away more than they had previously given. The Loomers made a decision to increase their tithing from their traditional 20 percent to 35 percent when he became the pastor of Elk Grove. When he dies, the bulk of his estate will go to designated churches and charities, since his kids are already established financially, he said.

Unlike Osteen, Loomer hasn't written any books yet, but he said he plans to write more often when he retires. He will tithe any money earned from future books sales, he said.

Tithing in many forms

Tithing is an established -- though seldom practiced -- Christian custom. Traditionally, 10 percent of one's income is given to church and charity purposes. But some pastors like Loomer choose to give significantly more.

Rarer still is the practice of "reverse tithing” -- giving back 90 percent of one's income and living off the remaining 10 percent.

R.G. LeTourneau wasn't a pastor, but he was perhaps one of the most famous reverse tithers. The renowned inventor made large sums of money in the earth-moving industry but tithed 90 percent of his personal and business income, according to his autobiography.

LeTourneau's famous saying was: “I shovel out the money, and God shovels it back to me. But God has a bigger shovel.”

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., became a reverse tither after the success of his Purpose Driven Life books. He detailed the motive for his decision in a 2006 interview with Beliefnet. He said he told God, “OK, God, I don't need this money.… What are you doing with this? I don't need this. I'm a pastor.”

Warren said he and wife, Kay, looked to Scripture for answers. Like Osteen, Warren decided not to take a salary from the church. But he didn't stop there. He added up all the money the church had paid him over the past 25 years and gave it all back. So the 10 percent the Warrens now live on is 10 percent of the income Warren earns from book royalties and additional ventures.

The Warrens have vowed never to change their lifestyle. They have lived in the same house for 16 years. Warren drives the same Ford truck he had before the book came out. And he owns the same two suits.

Warren told Beliefnet he's aware of the stigma that pastors are in it for the money, but he said every pastor he knows would serve for free if possible.

“There are so many easier ways to make money,” Warren said in the interview. “Believe me, if you want to make money, don't be a pastor.”