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Franklin Graham’s Salary Raises Eyebrows Among Christian Nonprofits

Graham heads Samaritan's Purse, a relief agency.


 ©2015 Religion News Service

Franklin Graham’s annual compensation of $880,000, revealed in a Charlotte Observer story, has some worrying that too many top Christian nonprofit leaders as well as pastors are seeing themselves as CEOs instead of as God’s servants.

Graham, son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, is head of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency in Boone, N.C.

“Basically they are saying if Satan pays well, God should pay better,” said Maria Dixon, a Southern Methodist University professor of corporate communications and public affairs. Dixon, a United Methodist Church deacon and a minister’s wife, specializes in studying and helping nonprofit religious organizations.

CEOs at the top 50 U.S. charities, including Samaritan’s Purse, earn in the $350,000 to $450,000 range, which makes Graham’s $622,000 salary from his aid organization alone about 40 percent to 50 percent higher than average, according to a Forbes story. He receives the rest of his $258,000 compensation as CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

A spokesman for Franklin Graham said his compensation was determined by independent commissions that compared similar organizations’ top salaries. Graham was not available to answer questions.

By contrast, pastor salaries at the nation’s biggest Christian churches are much lower for all but a select number. Only 3 percent of churches with more than 1,600 people in attendance pay senior pastors more than $300,000, said Warren Bird, research director at Leadership Network. At the other extreme, a recent study by the National Association of Church Business Administration found that the average American pastor with a congregation of 300 people earns a salary of less than $28,000 a year.

In a 2011 comparison of megachurch pastors’ salaries, two senior pastors made $1 million and $1.1 million. Others were a fourth to less than half of that.

The word “CEO” is often used when speaking of megachurch pastors who oversee multimillion-dollar budgets, manage media empires and publish best-selling books. “He could have been a CEO in any corporation in America” is an oft-repeated phrase among proud church members.

Pastors make sure well-heeled businesspeople are on their boards, said Jim Henderson, co-author of Question Mark, a new book tracing the downfall of Mars Hill’s Driscoll.

“These guys make phenomenal amounts of money. So when it comes time to set the pastor’s salary, what seems like an ungodly amount of money to the rest of us, seems normal to them,” Henderson said.

A prosperous church with business executives on its board might ask “How embarrassed would we be to pay our pastor a lot less than I make?” said historian Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College.

But donors to Christian charities may think differently.

Grant Wacker, author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, said he had just read the Observer story about Franklin Graham’s compensation when he received a solicitation for money from Samaritan’s Purse.

Compensation in the mid- to high-six figures “is on the generous side for anyone who is asking for other people’s money,” the professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School said a bit wryly. “It’s eyebrow-raising.”

Mainstream evangelicals generally expect money they give to be used frugally, Wacker said. Big salaries come with questions.

“Does he live ostentatiously or does he give it away?” asked Wacker.