Remember the controversy Tony Campolo caused back in the day when he announced that you can’t own a BMW and be a Christian? Well, the recent revelations about Bill Hybels’ treatment of female colleagues raise the question about whether a pastor should ever own a private jet or a luxury yacht.
Many years ago I recall a Baptist minister telling me how, after moving into the manse or parsonage of his new church, he noticed there were metallic handrails sticking up out of the middle of the back lawn. When he asked the church elders what the handrails were for, he was informed that the church had purchased the property years earlier at an extremely good price but it had a swimming pool in the backyard. The elders felt that it was too ostentatious for a pastor to have a swimming pool, but the house was so cheap they couldn’t pass it up.
Their solution: purchase the property, but fill in the pool and plant lawn.
Those handrails remained poking through the grass as a tangible reminder of two things – the church’s thriftiness and its modesty.
The story about the underground pool always got a laugh and a roll of the eyes every time he told it. Those were the days when pastors were expected to display unstinting prudence and discretion. Even though the Baptists demurred on the Catholic vow of celibacy they shared their belief in a vow of poverty (or at least the appearance of such).
Similarly, I know one minister who was astonished and delighted to discover he had won a luxury vacation after renewing his subscription to a news magazine. His elders debated long and hard whether he could even take the holiday (was it the rewards of gambling?) and finally agreed he could as long as he kept the destination secret from the congregation.
It’s not like that anymore, is it?
We’ve all seen that clip of Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis defending their need for a private jet in order to serve God. But even those of us forced to schlep it on commercial airlines still consider the days of austerity in the ministry behind us. Most ministers wouldn’t be hiding their holiday destinations from their congregation anymore. Most churches wouldn’t be insisting on sub-standard housing for their pastors. It is generally assumed that ministers of religion are entitled to a decent salary and nice things.
And yet, has something been lost in this move away from austerity and frugality in the ministry?
I’m not proposing that we start filling in our swimming pools (not that I have one), but I do think it’s worth asking whether there’s a happy medium between that pastor who had to hide his vacation destination and Creflo Dollar asking for a $65 million jet.
I raise this because of the recent revelations about Bill Hybels, the former pastor of the megachurch Willow Creek, by former Zondervan president, Moe Girkins.
While insisting that Hybels made no overt sexual advances towards her, Girkins revealed some interesting aspects of the pastor’s work life.
In 2008, Moe Girkins secured a book contract with Bill Hybels. He then insisted that he work personally with Ms Girkins on the project, which they did at various times in his church’s private jet, at his beach home, on his yacht, and at restaurants near Hybels’ summer home.
On one occasion, he docked his boat at a slip near her home and asked her to pick up a bottle of wine and some dinner while they worked on the book.
Girkins also reveals the sexually inappropriate ways he spoke with her during those meetings, but my point here is to raise questions about the ostentatious lifestyle of a megachurch pastor who owns his own jet and yacht.
Are some pastors just too wealthy?
With wealth comes a sense of privilege and autonomy not afforded to others. They have the power to insist on private meetings in private jets. Like all rich people, they can become beyond accountability, unquestioned by their elder boards or diaconates.
And when this happens the opportunity for greed or lust to take root is increased.
I understand that being wealthy doesn’t necessarily make you unsafe toward women.
Joel Osteen is worth an estimated $40 million and there has been no whiff of sexual impropriety coming from him.
Rick Warren’s net worth is around $25 million, thanks in no small measure to some phenomenally successful books. He has never been charged with sexual misconduct. In fact, he and his wife consider themselves reverse tithers – they live on 10 percent of their income and donate the rest to charity.
“I drive a 12-year-old Ford, have lived in the same house for the last 22 years, bought my watch at Wal-Mart, and I don’t own a boat or a jet,” Warren once said.
In this, Warren embodies the old advice of John Wesley who said that the duty of every Christian is to work as hard as they can, to make as much money as they can, to spend as little as they can, so as to give away all that they can.
That’s because wealth brings power and can foster the conditions where your worst impulses go unchecked.
Why did Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Bill O’Reilly and all the others caught up in the #MeToo movement get away with their serial offences for so many years? Because they were insulated from the repercussions of their actions by their wealth and power. They could act with impunity (I address this topic here)
How much more concerning is it when ministers of religion who already wield male power, ecclesial power, spiritual power, and organizational power, add financial power to that mix!
Moe Girkins admits that when Bill Hybels asked her to accompany him on his private jet to seal the book deal for Zondervan, she left her ill husband, recently hospitalized with heart problems, to take the flight. Such was the attraction of getting Hybels’ signature on the contract.
Back in the day, when Tony Campolo was grousing about Christians owning luxury cars, he justified it by saying,
“Money is more dangerous than most things because it molds consciousness more than anything else. Few things control our behavior more than our economic status.”
I’m not suggesting it was Bill Hybels’ wealth alone that allowed him to make the choices he made toward women. Neither am I advocating a return to grinding austerity and the mere appearance of poverty by ministers of religion. I own a nice home and take overseas trips to beautiful locations. I know people will ask me to identify exactly how much wealth a pastor can accrue, and I won’t be able to answer. It will be different for different people. Rick Warren can cope with great wealth without giving in to temptation, but Bill Hybels couldn’t.
Nonetheless, I do think we need to ask how much is too much for those whose primary task is to preach the gospel and shepherd God’s people.
Postscript: Since publishing this, I have been informed by a few sources (including one person commenting below) that Bill Hybels doesn’t own a private jet. There is some confusion as to whether Willow Creek owns it or a wealthy benefactor leases it to the church. Secondly, his boat is a sailboat, not a yacht. I’m not sure what the difference is, so I used the descriptor Moe Girkins used in her comments. And thirdly, the Hybels’ beach home is a small cottage on Lake Michigan. It wasn’t my intention to imply that Bill Hybels is as wealthy as some of the other preachers mentioned in this piece, but to point out that access to planes, boats and beach houses, no matter their provenance or size is dangerous for a person with poor boundaries.