by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University – Scholarship in Action
Nearly every African American knows just how important the black church is to our community. We also know about "prosperity gospel," the act of preaching about God within the context of wealth building. I admit that this form of faith is a bit odd to me. I am a Finance Professor and I become confused when my pastor talks about money more than I do. The saddest truth is that it's hard to tell the difference between a pastor and a pimp: Most pastors aren't pimps, but any pimp could be a pastor. The same skill set is required in both professions.
My father is a preacher, but he almost never preaches about money. I've never heard him asking for money on the pulpit, or mentioning that giving money to him is one of the keys to gaining access to heaven. But I don't presume that my father is right about all things, and given that I write about money on a regular basis, I have gained an appreciation for what financial resources can do to enhance your life. Also, one must be aware of the pragmatic realities of running a church: You have the building fund, bills to pay every month and any community service initiatives that the church chooses to pursue. The proper use of money can certainly enhance your ability to do God's work.
I am not one to say that a pastor shouldn't make a healthy income, even an income that is in the millions. But many Americans are having a hard time correlating the need for massive wealth with the desire to serve God. Money is a drug, and most of us know that drug addicts are not the most loyal among us. If a pastor spends too much time talking about money, then that obviously leads one to question whether they are speaking for a higher power or reaching for a higher paycheck. Also, given that part of the mandate of God is to help the poor, one wonders if a financially-obsessed pastor has any incentive to focus on helping those who have the fewest resources: one example is how several prominent New York pastors went against the wishes of their congregations and endorsed Mayor Michael Bloomberg after receiving large donations to their churches. At the very least, my upper lip crinkles when I see a pastor in a mansion with half the congregation struggling to pay the rent; that just doesn't make much sense to me.
Here are some thoughts and questions I have about money and the black church, some of which I will never fully understand:
1) Why would someone ask me to bring my W2 forms to church? More and more churches are starting to do this, but they won't be getting mine. No one's getting my W2 forms except the IRS. Even though most black churches are not asking for W2 forms, the request for such crucial financial information leaves the church dancing on the thin line between a legitimate religious organization and a good old fashioned cult.
2) Do I have to give money to the church or can I simply give it to charity? Can't you give to God by doing God's work and helping the poor, or must all that money go directly to the pastor first? What would Jesus do? I'll take the "Jesus did it" package please.
3) Does a pastor's credibility decline if he is making millions from his ministry? I am not one to say that wealth does or doesn't have an impact on a pastor's credibility, but I'd love to get other perspectives on the issue. I became a bit nervous when I heard TD Jakes refer to Jesus as a "product." Are you serious? Well, I guess I can buy Jesus in Walmart, so that would pretty much confirm what the pastor is saying. But when I buy Jesus in Walmart, am I getting the real spirit of Jesus or an idolatrous representation of American capitalism? TD Jakes is good at what he does, so I am sure he has a good answer for that.
4) Should there be transparency in where the money goes? Creflo Dollar, who was under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, has refused to release any financial information to the public. Why not? Shouldn't his parishioners have access to that information? One of the fundamentals of good government is the idea of transparency. If there is nothing to hide, then we usually don't go out of our way to hide it.
5) Does it make sense for an incredibly wealthy pastor to drive through poverty to get to his church? There is a sense that those who are considered to be the royalty among us have a God-given right to live a life that the rest of us can't afford: President Obama is expected to get into Air Force One, and the Queen of England is expected to ride in the back of a Rolls Royce. But it's hard to reconcile the idea that a pastor should be riding in private jets when there are starving souls in his congregation who could use financial support. Is it simply a matter of forgetting that the starving man exists? Pastors are, however, human like the rest of us, and most Americans waste resources without consideration for those who could use them. But then again, if pastors can't be held to a higher standard, then why do we put them on a higher platform?
6) Does giving more money to your church increase your chances of having prosperity either spiritually or economically? I'm not so sure. It would seem to me that acts of kindness toward others go farther than a bigger donation to the church. But of course, your pastor may not agree. The problem is that you may not be able to trust him/her to give you an honest answer, since it is not in his financial interest to do so.
7) How much "Prosperity Gospel" is rooted in American capitalism and the relative poverty of black people? America is an incredibly materialistic country, and we've gotten more materialistic over the past 30 years. Christmas is more about Playstations than Jesus, and even "Black Friday" has people sitting outside the store for 12 hours at a time. It is only inevitable that this materialistic culture would spread to the church, and given that black folks have never had much money, a great sell for spirituality would be one that links right back to money. Let's be clear: much of this focus on economic prosperity appears to be man-made, and there is little or no evidence that this financial mandate comes from a higher power. So, if you want a little extra "cheese" in your bank account, that's natural. Just don't try to convince yourself that God told you to do it.
Most of us have heard this phrase from Matthew 19:24: "Again I tell 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."
I am sure that nearly every preacher of prosperity gospel has put together a long list of loopholes to avoid this damning statement, but in some cases, the simplest solution is the most correct. While we know that most black pastors attempt to be forthright when serving the community, the truth is that there are pimps among us. At the end of the day, a pimp is going to use extra words to control your mind, so sometimes it is best to tell the pimp to stop talking so you can figure things out for yourself. To allow your pastor to explain why his approach works best is like using crack in order to see if it's actually good for you.
My advice: Think on your own about prosperity gospel and don't let a wealthy pastor explain it to you. If your heart tells you it's OK, then maybe it is. Personally, I'll be giving my money to the poor.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.