Materialism and religion in the clothes pastors wear

An Instagram account highlights the expensive wear of ministers:

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

As the Instagram account grew, Kirby started asking more serious questions about wealth, class and consumerism, including whether it’s appropriate to generate massive revenue from selling the gospel of Jesus.

“I began asking, how much is too much?” Kirby said. “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus? Is it okay to be making twice as much as the median income of your congregation?”

This is a long-standing issue within Christianity, let alone in American Christianity where money and status have existed alongside religious fervor and practices for a long time. In a society that emphasizes consumption, even conspicuous consumption, plus celebrity, is it a surprise that ministers would want to wear expensive items?

Counterfactuals to these observations might help. Two come to mind:

  1. Are there mainstream religious groups or leaders who actively shun or downplay status? I can think of famous pastors who are not as well dressed. But, are they necessarily poorly dressed? How much does presentation of self matter compared to other noteworthy factors like particular religious doctrines or practices? I assume there is some limit where a pastoral presentation has to fit some parameter or the lack of style or flashiness will be a negative. Is the nature of American religion with its religious economy of competition inextricably tied to status and presentation?
  2. Some evangelicals have raised questions about materialism and consumption for decades. Historian David Swartz’s book Moral Minority highlights how evangelicals in the early 1970s questioned the consumption patterns of Americans. If you want to go back further, Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that a particular ascetic approach to spending wealth on oneself helped spur on capitalism. How far did this critique go? By the 1980s, evangelicals largely became associated with conservative economic policies and reside in suburbs where appearances and keeping up with the Joneses matter to some degree. At the same time, evangelicals often claim they do not want to be too flashy or that they are middle-class even if they have the resources to be above that.

Differences in political activism in mainline and evangelical pastors

Christianity Today contrasts the political stances and activities of mainline and evangelical pastors. The data is summed up this way:

[A] new study from Calvin College’s Paul B. Henry Institute shows that for the past decade, evangelical pastors have been more likely to take public stances on political issues and candidates than have their mainline cohorts. Overall, some differences between evangelical and mainline clergy are shrinking as mainline pastors become more conservative and evangelical pastors become more socially active.

This is some interesting data: it suggests both mainline and evangelical congregations don’t hear much about politics even as pastors themselves took stands on particular public issues and a sizable minority supported a political candidate.

On the whole, however, it looks like there are not too many differences here between evangelical and mainline churches in these matters. Outside of more mainline pastors being more liberal on political and economic issues than their congregations, about half of evangelical and mainline pastors engaged in some form of political activity in church. Perhaps we would need some more data to find sharper differences (such as about the particular congregations and contexts where these sorts of activities took place – this could be found in the National Congregations Study) or more qualitative data that could provide insights into how politics is acted upon in particular congregations and through particular pastors.

Pastors as entertainers vs. helping people grow spiritually

In an op-ed in the New York Times, G. Jeffrey MacDonald argues that part of the reason clergy are so burned out is that expectations from parishioners have changed:

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy…

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly.

Even as MacDonald suggests there is a large trend toward more consumerist church experiences, he does not mention how pastors might have fed into this or gone along with this. If he doesn’t think pastors have gone along with this, then perhaps the issue is that congregations have taken more control over local churches and demand things like video screens over protests from clergy. If he does think pastors have gone along with this, why did they do so?

I would be curious to hear how MacDonald would change the situation: should change come from pastors, the congregations, both, somewhere else? Is it a matter of the church giving in to cultural pressures?