A pastor and his pay

riversidebraxtonThe Rev. Brad Braxton's trials at Manhattan's famed Riverside Church have been much reported since a few members of the congregation unsuccessfully sued their new pastor in April for receiving a pay and compensation package that exceeded $600,000 annually. Monday night, only nine months into the job, Braxton decided he had had enough and email to congregants announcing his resignation.

"The consistent discord has made it virtually impossible to establish a fruitful covenant between the congregation and me," he said.

The New York Times responded yesterday with a story that did a nice job explaining the theological tension within which Braxton was drawn and quartered. Though the Times reporter only obliquely referenced the sweeping gains in membership evangelical churches have experienced at the expense of dwindling mainline, and particularly urban, Protestant churches, the reporter showed how Braxton's Baptist approach was out of line with enough of Riverside's big-tent congregants to create a vocal faction.

According to dissidents, Dr. Braxton went about that by bringing elements of evangelical tradition into church services. They said he called on worshipers to come forward and bear witness to their faith, favored the gospel choir over the church's traditional choir, and preached at times what they considered a Riverside heresy: that Jesus and only Jesus was the way to salvation.

Some members of the congregation may believe that, said Constance Guice-Mills, a member of the church. "But his focus on personal salvation, on the individual, was diametrically opposed to the tradition of Riverside. Here, we believe you achieve salvation by doing social justice. Out in the world. And we have people from all backgrounds. Buddhists."

According to supporters like Ms. Schmidt, the council chairwoman, Dr. Braxton's theological views were consistent with the Riverside culture. But he also recognized the great challenge facing liberal Protestants -- the extraordinary growth of evangelical churches for 30 years.

Oddly, the Times does not mention money until the third-to-last paragraph. Now, I know you're supposed to avoid talking about money around friends and that finances are one of the top stresses on any relationship, but this placement seems like a major oversight.

By comparison, Religion News Service mentions Braxton's salary in the second paragraph of its resignation story -- though RNS fails to evaluate church officials' claims that "the package was consistent with that of similar high-profile pulpits." The Daily News also accepted that assertion without seeking confirmation.

I'm not sure how one would seek out comps -- Riverside Church is in its own league -- but that really wasn't what was needed. What each of these stories was lacking was any -- any -- sort of a theological perspective on money.

Christians are taught from an early age that the love of money is the root of all evil. Can someone who earns more than half a million a year not love money? We know well Jesus' parable of the challenges a rich man will face if he wants to enter heaven. But what is rich? And how does a pastor's salary play in a church with historically liberal values?

While these stories don't let us in on answers to those first two questions, the last question seems pretty self explanatory -- at least in the Rev. Braxton's case.

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