Clifton: Some famous pastors privilege profit over prayer

Derrick Cifton

Even as a person of faith, I balk when I turn on the television and hear people like Joel Osteen exhorting fluffy prosperity theology oozing from between their greasy chops.

Time and time again many use their ministerial credentials for self-indulgence rather than spiritual fulfillment in their communities, giving ammunition to many who demonize organized religion by citing them. In my short life experience, I’ve encountered a good deal of bad examples that tend to fall under two categories.

For one, there’s the type I’d call the ‘sanctified swindler’: shooting the breeze in sermons with messages of prosperity only so they can profit from your spirituality. And the famed Joel Osteen, pastor of the 48,000 member Lakewood Church, has a seat at the top of this list. In a 2005 interview with Larry King, he was pressed to give his perspective as a spiritual leader on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and what happens to people of other faiths after they die, questions he largely deflected with an indecisive candor. From personal experience, I’ve found that any minister here at Northwestern or in most other communities would likely answer you with an argument both theologically and historically based. Taking the latter approach instead helps people to better understand the tenets of their religion in a way that fosters spiritual nourishment.

If I were a member of Lakewood Church, I’d imagine that my celebrity “pastor” wouldn’t be the person to perform my wedding, officiate over my funeral or visit me in the hospital when I’m sick. That’s what I think of when I imagine the role of a pastor. But when a spiritual leader is so busy building a multi-million dollar machine to profit from spirituality rather than build a community through his congregation, it makes you wonder what Osteen is really in it for. Is he really a minister or a spiritual swindler?

And then there are the spiritual leaders I’d call the ‘holy hypocrites’: advancing ideas they claim are based in the scripture of their religious tradition, but not practicing what they preach. And in the last year, there is no better example of this than Bishop Eddie Long.

Long is pastor of the 25,000 member strong New Birth Church, leading one of the largest Black congregations in the country. He’s been an activist against same-sex marriage and has even preached that gays can be “delivered” through their faith in God. Last fall, Long was sued by four different men alleging sexual misconduct. As pictures and text messages surfaced in the news media, some of the alleged victims even spoke publicly to share their story of how Long used his role as a spiritual leader to coerce them into sexual activities. Though Long vowed to fight the suit, he isn’t challenging the accusations head-on; instead he is taking them to mediation where the public, and especially his congregation, won’t get to hear the details in lieu of a financial settlement. For someone that claims to be a “fighter,” mediation isn’t the boldest statement to defend against allegations that Long claims are “false” and “hurtful.”

Ministers that amaze me are inclusive, passionate about justice in society and fostering a nurturing, supportive community for all – regardless of their faith belief. Instead of proselytizing, they encourage questions. Instead of judgment, they offer stability and guidance. And when you want to look for a good spiritual example, you can undoubtedly look to them. For anyone that I’ve ever truly called my spiritual leader, they’ve embodied those very qualities.

But what hurts the most is that many of our religious leaders, who genuinely make stunning efforts to build religious communities centered in the values of their traditions, are often lumped in with these piss poor examples of using faith to manipulate people instead of strengthening their faith. My only hope is that people recognize when they’re following a bad example and, when they do, to not be discouraged to continue building strength in their faith with better leadership.

Derrick Clifton is a Communication junior. He can be reached at [email protected]