I’ve been loving the PreachersNSneakers Instagram ever since the anonymous account started posting side-by-side photos of megachurch pastors and their shockingly expensive footwear.
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Of course, the Air Yeezy and Jordan 1 Retro High on the feet of those who preach the good news are just a metaphor for the exorbitant lifestyles of these pastors.
Steve Furtick lives in a 16,000 square foot home that checks in at $1.6 million.
These pastors’ large churches and celebrity followings land them book deals that can increase their net worth by millions and frequently appear in People Magazine on lux cruises and in celebrity circles. Rick Warren’s current value is $25 million.
In a country with an increasingly cavernous wage gap, where everyday church goers are drowning in medical and school debt, where access to basic needs is difficult for many people in the pew it would seem hard to justify the excess of these pastors.
That’s the conversation I hope is spurred by people who encounter PreachersNSneakers. I don’t know anyone who wants to spend their time policing pastoral footwear (although I would ask anyone who sees me wearing multiple Yeezys to church to pull me aside for a Come to Jesus conversation). Behind the account is a lingering question: how does the Gospel offer the church space for radical experiments in economic equity?
In the PreachersNSneakers comments the most common justification for rocking the Gospel in Guccis is the wealth nihilism defense. After all, if someone in rural Rwanda lives on a dollar day aren’t we all wealthy in America in comparison. The truth is, all wealth is relative within a culture. We develop communal understandings of what it means to live excessively and what it means to take only what we need. We need others to help us figure out how to live.
I am not a man (the single most common megachurch demographic), I don’t believe churches should get much larger than 250 people before they church-plant again, and by some unexplainable grace God allows me to be in relationship with the one’s God calls blessed, the economically vulnerable.
As it is, there is very little chance I’ll ever find myself on a stage before 10,000 people wearing Yves St Laurent. But I have thought about my own wealth commitments, the kinds of commitments that reveal the sort of world I believe Jesus initiates with God’s reign.
If that will begin anywhere in earnest, it will begin in the church where wealth inequalities are radically reworked, where God draws together a community of the dispossessed.
I hope I would have the good sense never to take the job as a lead pastor where I am paid more than double the salary of the lowest paid full-time church worker. That means if I make $100,000 a year, the full-time church custodian ought to make at least $50,000. If I have benefits, she should too. Churches should set the bar on living wage for all staff.
If I did manage to have a church that could pull in a serious tithe, I hope that we’d begin by paying off the debts of those in the church, redistributing wealth among ourselves. I’d want to see if we could practice our own form of reparations by putting wealth creation back into black neighborhoods by supporting home purchases.
I’m curious about experiments in land redistribution to the tribes from whom our church property was once plundered. I’d like to know how we can develop economic models of thriving within the church.
But don’t you get what you pay for? If you want the best, you have to pay the best. And here is another myth persisting in the background, the belief that a flashy preacher with meme-able quotes and a million Instagram followers designates flourishing pastoral ministry.
Every summer I teach a summer course to local licensed pastors in the Methodist church. They’re all second career, often bi-vocational, holding down a part-time job and serving multiple churches. One pastor I taught drove a four hour circuit every Sunday to get to three different churches in rural Nevada.
They aren’t flashy preachers or creative church-growth experts. They make the bottom level wage of all the pastors I know. And most are faithful and kind, selfless and brave. Often my concern is to get them to pay attention to their self-care as they find themselves on the front lines of opioid addiction, hurricane recovery, and teenage suicide, grinding out weeks of pastoral care for mourning families and providing mental health support for communities who have access to few other treatment options.
It’s these beloved pastors who I think about when I imagine pastoral success. They’ll never see a stage, they’ll never end up with a Lamborghini or a New York Times best-seller. But these are pastors who have committed their lives to the frontline of embodied Gospel ministry right where Jesus tells all people of God ought to be – among the vulnerable and the oppressed.
The irony of PreachersNSneakers is that the primary labor problem in church is not excessive pay but chronic underpayment, lack of benefits, and limited time off for church staff, especially those without the protections of a denominational structure. The vast majority of churches in the U.S. have under 200 members, most with an average budget of $90,000. These are churches that can barely afford their pastor, and struggle to keep the lights on.
While megachurch pastors take up much of the cultural air we breathe, most of us are not these (mostly) white men in Guccis dropping the mic every Sunday. Most pastors I know are trying to get by, but know that God is with us, and somehow, on most days, that’s enough.
What keeps me returning is the hope that church can be a laboratory for uprooting racist meritocracy, undoing the prosperity gospel, and rerouting wealth to communities of color who have been plundered by white supremacy. In spite of it all, I continue to hope church can be an experiment in upending capitalist’s assumptions of excess and influence that run down the PreachersNSneakers posts.