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Riverside pastor to receive $600,000 a year; NY congregation divided

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 27, 2009 | 1:42 pm

I should have gone to seminary. Seriously.

In fact, I’ve met a handful of religion reporters who in a previous life—well, previous period of this life—had been ministers. They often joked that reporters and men of the cloth had a lot in common, primarily a pauper’s life.

But now I’m not so sure.

Ascending to the pulpit at New York’s Riverside Church is like making it to The Show. And New York is an expensive place to live. But a $600,000 salary for a minister?

I’m not buying it, and neither are some members of the Riverside congregation. From The New York Times:

In a motion filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the group said that the new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton, and the church board that selected him last September after a yearlong search, had dismissed their calls for transparency in financial matters. They also complained that Dr. Braxton was moving Riverside away from its tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice.

On Tuesday, a Supreme Court judge, Lewis Bart Stone, effectively denied the motion by adjourning the case to the end of May, a month after Dr. Braxton’s installation, which is scheduled for Sunday. The judge urged both sides to reach an accommodation in the case, which was reported on Wednesday by The Daily News.

The church, a Gothic cathedral built in 1930 by John D. Rockefeller at 120th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan, stood for many decades at the most heavily trafficked juncture of religious faith and social activism in the United States. Its pastors were early civil rights advocates who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and invited him to speak in the pulpit. Its best-known leader was the fervent civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activist, the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin Jr.

By the dissidents’ account, Dr. Braxton’s compensation package includes an annual base salary of $250,000; a monthly housing allowance of $11,500; pension and life insurance benefits; entertainment, travel and “professional development” expenses; an equity allowance for the future purchase of a home; money for a full-time maid; and private school tuition for his 3-year-old daughter.

Rick Stone, a longtime parishioner who served as pro bono lawyer for the petitioners, said Dr. Braxton’s package was roughly twice what his predecessor received.

“This is a huge amount of money to be paying at a time of such economic crisis,” said Diana Solomon-Glover, a 30-year parishioner, a member of the choir, and one of the plaintiffs. “But equally of concern is Dr. Braxton’s style of governance, which is highly secretive, and the direction he has been taking the church, toward a more fundamentalist brand of religion.”

Through a spokesman, Dr. Braxton declined to be interviewed.

I remember when, seven years ago, President Reagan’s church, which was and is my church, hired the Rev. Mark Brewer away from a Denver church. I remember being told that he took a pay cut to relocate his entire family and experience the SoCal cost of living, and I learned then that the going rate for a much-sought-after pastor isn’t peanuts. (Brewer’s pay was slightly more than what young Big Law attorneys make.) And it was well worth it. He is not only a gifted speaker but an inspirational leader and a solid community builder.

But a massive chasm has to be cleared to get to $600k—by comparison, UCLA’s new chancellor earns about $450,000 in annual compensation—and I just don’t know how you focus on the work of the Lord when you’re taking home that kind of a paycheck. Just ask Bishop Eddie Long of the ministry bearing his name. From 1997 to 2000, Long received $3.07 million in salary and benefits, including a $1.4 million mansion and a $350,000 Bentley.

When asked about these expenditures in 2005 by Atlanta Journal-Constitution religion reporter John Blake, Long responded with a statement that four years later I can’t shake:

“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” Long said. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.

“You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.”

What’s that line again, Jesus?

“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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