The following will be hard for me to write. Not because of some grave mistake I have to confess but because the topic is as disappointing as it is complicated to me. I was considering titling this “Confession of an Over-analyzer, Part 3”, keeping with the theme of the other two posts I had written, but realized this is different. It’s different because what I am about to write is not something I arrived at by spiritual conviction or any other kind of profound “ah-ha!” moment. Instead, my thoughts I will share are the result of simple curiosity and question asking. The result is no less profound—and maybe even more so because this knowledge didn’t lead me to an immediate plan of action in response. Thus I’m hoping that by focusing my thoughts on it now I can accomplish three things: 1) Come closer to some sort of solution to this predicament; 2) Make others aware of something that should not be a secret; and 3) Seek insight from you who have already responded to this information.
The privilege of being privileged
As American Christians, we live a unique and complicated life when compared to much of the world. We live with so much material privilege and economic power that to be “poor” still means to be “rich” in light of global realities. And yet, God’s demands on us to be generous agents of compassion and justice, free from materialism and the love of money—c.f. Micah 6:8, Luke 12:13-34, James 1:27, etc., etc.—are the same as they are on our brothers and sisters in places as harsh as sub-Saharan African. So when we think about things like stewardship, giving, and similar good works, it is imperative to first remember that God judges the heart, preferring quality over quantity as it were. We see this evidenced by scriptures like Mark 12:41-44, Luke 11:42, and 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and, I think, by how the Holy Spirit convicts our hearts when we ponder such things. Thus we need to employ some measure of relativity when we think about specifics. But we must next soberly remind ourselves that there is no exemption for a believer from these principles—no matter how poor and isolated, or rich and insulated. Until we die we are either bearing good fruit or bad fruit when it comes to our money and possessions.
With these things in mind, us American Christians look at what we have and what we can do and then often find ourselves in the strange position of being able to choose what type of good work we would like to engage in. Should I tithe to my church, or a missions agency? Should I spend my Friday night helping at the soup kitchen or the woman’s shelter? Should I give to this charity or that one? Should I sponsor a child in Asia or Central America? The options can be overwhelming and often we, unconsciously I think, end up making our decisions based upon what our church or friends are doing or by how effectively an organization has managed to push their cause onto our radar. Many of us, myself included, also have the even more bizarre privilege of being able to spread ourselves and our resources around—some more than others—so the choosing process can become even more daunting if we’re to be faithful to the principle of generosity and justice.
One of the specific options many of us have found to be an effective, even exciting, way to be faithful to the principle is giving to Christian charities. There are so many different organizations doing so many different types of work in so many different places that there really is something for everyone in terms of finding a cause you connect with. A few are listed in the Recommended Links section of this blog and many more are featured on the Journey Toward Justice Facebook page. I have personally chosen to give to some of these and dozens of additional ones over the years. Like many other Christians, I chose to give to these charities because of their explicitly stated Christian beliefs and values. The type of work they do and their effectiveness at doing it was important but being able to agree with their fundamental motivations was chief among my requirements because if I could trust their character then I could also trust things like how they manage themselves administratively, the kind of results their efforts produce, and how they are using my money. While this might sound reasonable and fair what I have recently discovered makes me wonder if I have been naively exercising blind faith or subconsciously suspending any doubts I might have had about these charities.
Rich Christians in an Age of Charity?
When it comes to their financial dealings, the most reputable Christian organizations make at least some effort to appear transparent through disclaimers on their websites, notes in their mailings, or via membership in bodies like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. This is good and should be done; I would not feel comfortable with an organization that didn’t do their due diligence to convince me they are trustworthy. However, if you want to know more than a handful of figures and percentages you can either locate their Annual Report somewhere on their website or contact the charity directly and ask them for it. What you find may or may not give you the information you want though, in which case third-party assessments are also available. Three excellent options for this are Charity Navigator, MinistryWatch, and the Better Business Bureau’s site. On top of that there are a plethora of blogs and review sites which can give you a more anecdotal, opinion-based sense of how a charity operates—one of the better ones I’ve come across is GreatNonprofits. By using these kinds of tools you can obtain information about a charity’s policies and structure that they might not be trumpeting on their websites or in their literature. One of these pieces of information is the salaries they pay to their executives. Here’s what I found out about several charities I have long held in high esteem:
- World Vision: Richard E. Stearns, President, earned $339,778 in 2010
- Compassion International: Wesley K. Stafford, President & CEO, earned $267,058 in 2010
- International Justice Mission: Gary Haugen, President & CEO, earned $201,931, in 2009
- InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA: Alexander D. Hill, President, earned $159,707 in 2010
- The Voice of the Martyrs: Walter T White, President, earned $146,510 in 2009
Are you shocked? I was. Am I shocked that a CEO of a large American corporation in, say, the financial or electronics industry makes six figures? Of course not. Am I shocked that CEO’s of organizations which strive to fundamentally set themselves apart from the world by making their mission wholly preaching the Gospel and helping the poor and oppressed can also rake in well over $100,000 year? Yes, absolutely. The problem, for me, has nothing to do with the fact these salaries might represent a large percentage of the charity’s expenses which could otherwise be used for programmatic purposes. They don’t. It’s less than 1% in the case of these five. My problem is that the compensation level makes these lucrative jobs. Since when did a radically generous, justice-seeking, compassion-filled life for-the-glory-of-God become lucrative? Are we reading the same Bible here?
Charities like these are placed on a pedestal by churches and the Christian community and are frequently revered as the best, most radical, gung-ho warriors for the Kingdom. They are looked up to for best practices for churches and individual Christians wanting to get more involved in “charity work” or “missions”. In many cases these and other charities like them are seen as the solution to the slow, bureaucratic, inefficient, and complacent churches we attend. Basically, we see them as everything our church is not, but wish it were. (I admit, I have personally thought these same things) Rather than putting up defenses against this idealization, these organizations seem to embrace it and stoke the flames by touting their partnerships with this church and that church, putting on this conference here, sponsoring that church event there, or by marketing books and other materials directly to local congregations. Taking it even further, their websites and literature are usually pastoral by nature, exhorting us to live the life God wants us to and educating us so that we know how to do it. Looking at the surface it would seem that many Christian charities consider themselves co-equal with the churches we attend; partners and fellow servants for the Gospel, responsible for teaching and leading the Body of Christ. Therein lies the problem and—if we are going to call a duck, a “duck”—the subtle deception.
In their own words
When I learned that leaders of some of my favorite Christian charities were earning what I felt to be excessive salaries many thoughts and questions swirled around in my mind. After thinking about it for several weeks, I searched the web and read some blogs by others who had thought about this same thing. This helped me sort things out a little, but, wanting to give as much benefit of the doubt as I could, I sought a firsthand response directly from two of the five: World Vision and Compassion International. As a long-time donor to these charities I was not singling them out so much as I was seeking an explanation for why they were using my money in this way. Their responses shed much light on why equating these non-profit organizations with the place you spend your Sunday morning is a major error.
World Vision Inc.’s response to my email inquiry:
Mr. Stearns’ salary is commensurate with his skills, experience, and responsibilities as chief executive officer of an organization of World Vision’s size and complexity. In Fiscal year 2010, Mr. Stearns’ salary was $339,778…When World Vision’s Board of Directors searched for a new World Vision president in 1998, they sought a Christian leader with extensive business experience. Mr. Stearns’ 29 years of corporate experience, combined with his skills set and proven accomplishments in leading major corporations, warrants an executive of his caliber receiving the salary he does. All of our other senior executives work at salaries significantly less than those of comparable positions in the secular market. In Mr. Stearns’ case, he took a 75 percent cut in pay to work for World Vision. The decision to hire Mr. Stearns, with his extensive business experience, has allowed World Vision to extend its ministry to millions more people around the world. Under his leadership, World Vision’s revenues have tripled from $358 million in 1998 to over $1 billion in 2010. …When commenting on his salary, Mr. Stearns has shared that he has no say over his salary, as it is set by our board of directors who regularly benchmark his salary to those paid by other nonprofits; that he and his family sponsor 13 children through World Vision, as well as donating on a regular basis to other programs World Vision supports; that he is proud to be a World Vision donor, as he could not ask others to donate to World Vision unless he was also giving at a significant level; and that he will gladly answer to the Lord on that day for what he has done with that which was entrusted to him.
Compassion International, Inc.’s response:
In order to develop quality staff at Compassion, while at the same time, managing our financial resources with great care and wisdom, we seek to offer competitive salaries for the various positions necessary to successfully execute Compassion’s mission statement…To make sense of the salary we pay our president and CEO, please understand that his income is well under the average salary range of other presidents and CEOs of other organizations who are within the same categorization as Compassion. Also, please note that our leaders, including Dr. Stafford, are faithful sponsors and donors as well, and personally and financially support the ministry.
Compassion also referred me to their blog where their CEO responds to a question about his high salary. You can read it for yourself on their site, but this is what stood out to me:
There are some decisions that I don’t make around here, and all the decisions about what I’m paid fall to Compassion’s Board of Directors. Our Board believes that Compassion must exercise prudent business judgment in balancing the stewardship of the ministry’s financial resources, the needs of the employees, and the payment of salaries sufficient to attract and retain the well-qualified employees who are required to effectively carry out our ministry. It is important to Compassion’s Board of Directors that we represent both excellence and stewardship…Part of our salary structure also dictates that all Compassion staff are paid relative to that of the top position in the organization, which happens to be mine. So, if I were to be paid less, it means that every person below me in the organization would also be paid less. I have staff reporting to me who are responsible for managing a budget of nearly $400 million. It requires a high level of management competency to effectively supervise all that has been entrusted to this ministry.
Making sense of it all
What is a fair and reasonable salary? How much is enough? If we hold that these organizations are actually doing “Christian ministry” (as Compassion maintains), then we might look to the Bible and recall that “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:14) and “the scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” (1 Timothy 5:18) If they are doing work, especially Christian work, then they deserve to be paid, right? Yes and no. Yes, in general, it would be unfair to hire someone to do a job and not pay them for it (c.f. James 5:1-6). So, of course they deserve a salary. However, to assume that these verses have applicability outside of the church setting is to completely misunderstand the writers’ point. These are not general affirmations of free market capitalism, guidelines for executive salaries, or instructions for a board of directors. The context is the church; they are exhortations given to the church for use within the church by the church. Compassion and World Vision might be made up of church members and say a lot of churchy things, but they are not churches: they are corporations. If we can accept this fact then it becomes much easier to reconcile the fact that their CEO’s make way more than your pastor ever will, and that they unashamedly justify paying them top dollar by using the same worldly logic that corporations use. But, if we maintain that they are the church and are doing Christian ministry then there will be some major dissonance when we acknowledge that their basic structure and best practices in fact seek to emulate a prosperous American corporation more so than the Church of Jesus Christ.
While it is very frustrating to learn that unbeknownst to me some of my favorite charities operate this way, it is more difficult to figure out who or what to blame. I can blame the board of directors for feeling the need to dangle such a tasty looking carrot in the air in order to “attract and retain well-qualified employees”, and for believing that qualifications for doing this kind or work should be rewarded with six-figures. I can blame the Presidents and CEO’s for consciously accepting a position that will make them rich while serving the poor—both for the hypocritical message it sends to the poor, and for not challenging the board’s policies. I can blame these charities for their brilliantly seductive marketing which leads many Christians to believe a donation to a charity is as good a donation to their church. I can blame our churches for welcoming these organizations into our gatherings with open arms without making a distinction between their work and the ministry of the Gospel done by the local church throughout the world. And lastly I can, and must, blame myself for naively throwing all my support behind this industry—for an “industry” is what it is—without doing more research first.
Don’t stop giving; give more!
Is the world a better place because of these organizations? Probably. And, if you’re looking for well-managed charity to donate to these are still some of the best. But, if you’re a Christian, don’t be fooled: just because a charity, musician, artist, clothing line, movie, restaurant, or anything else, articulates religious beliefs that are compatible with yours and can come into your church and “talk the talk” does not mean they are “the church” doing the work of “the church”. If we rightly see supporting a good cause as a “good work” and an act of faith, then our concern shouldn’t be with who is doing the work on our behalf but with what work is being done on our behalf and the results it yields. For example, if you give a dollar to a homeless man do you first pause and ask yourself, “What if this dollar was printed by a non-Christian, or used to buy porn or drugs in the past? Or what if the wallet I just took it out of was manufactured by a non-Christian company? Should I really give this to him? Maybe I should reconsider…” Using analogies like this, we can see that it’s pretty ridiculous for us to demand that the method or medium by which our money is used to help others be purely Christian through and through. Therefore, when it comes to charities, as much praise and respect should be given to secular organizations like the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Kiva who do great work on behalf of the poor all over the world. And, when it comes to Christian CEO’s who are worthy of honor and admiration from the Christian community, it’s time we look past these non-profits and elevate the guy who runs his company in an ethical fashion, ensures its products/services don’t do harm to others, treats his employees with kindness and justice, gives generously out of his earnings, and is a bold and unashamed witness of Jesus to his co-workers. Personally, I would find a book or keynote address by this guy more compelling than the one by the wealthy charity executive.
What I have learned from all this is that ultimately the best charity work is the one done by our own hands. Too often we American Christians believe that writing a check is the most that is required of us. When we operate this way what we are really doing is just paying our servants to go and bear fruit for us. We barely lift a finger then go on about our way, perhaps only remembering to say a few prayers for those we are financing or telling a friend about the cool cause we support. We really need to get our hands dirty more often and resist the lie that the greatest role we can play in the world is that of a consumer, or a financier at best. God does not need our money and is not impressed with how many purchases we make. Furthermore, if our hands are not the hands doing the work of charity, then we really only have so much control over the results—for better or worse. This is why believing the results will somehow be more spiritually desirable simply because a charity is Christian in name is just not true. Charities should be judged by their results. If you find a charity doing work that is consistent with God’s love, mercy, compassion, and justice then support them. Don’t support an organization just because they say they are Christian and they quote the Bible. But if you’re like me and enjoy supporting Christian charities yet still feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of Christian orgs that pay their executives stratospheric salaries, then let me recommend to you Gospel For Asia whose President, K.P.Yohannan, raises his own support as does every staff person serving within the organization. In an email correspondence with Gospel For Asia I was told that Yohannan’s salary “is a modest amount…in the average range for someone living in the Dallas area [charity headquarters]. He does not receive any royalties from his books; instead, all of the money that is generated through his books is put into the ministry to reach the unreached.” While other Christian charities are seeking to copy the best practices of the corporate world it is certainly nice to know there is at least one trying to be a little more biblical than that. I’m sure there are many others that function in such a refreshingly humble way, but this is the only one I am currently aware of. If you know of others, please share.
May God help us use the money, resources, and life he has given us in the most faithful and fruitful way we can.