Wednesday, April 22, 2009
New Riverside Church pastor Rev. Brad Braxton's $600K compensation prompts parishioners' suit
Wednesday, April 22nd 2009, 4:00 AM
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Reverend Brad Braxton.
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Call it the stimulus package from God.
Manhattan's Riverside Church - one of the country's most illustrious religious institutions - is paying its new senior pastor, the Rev. Brad Braxton, more than $600,000 in annual compensation.
That's twice what Braxton's predecessor, James Forbes, one of the country's best-known preachers, was getting after running Riverside for more than 18 years.
It amounts to almost 10 times what William Sloane Coffin, the legendary anti-Vietnam War clergyman, was paid in his last year as senior minister at Riverside in 1987.
Braxton was selected in a vote of the congregation last fall and is to be officially installed Sunday.
A group of church dissidents claims the members were never told about the lavish package.
Those dissidents filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court last week to stop Braxton's installation, revealing a growing divide among the church's 1,500 members.
The Wall Street-like package, the dissidents say, is outrageous for a man of the cloth - especially when you consider Riverside's long history of advocating social justice.
Church sources say it includes:
$250,000 in salary.
$11,500 monthly housing allowance.
Private school tuition for his child.
A full-time maid.
Entertainment, travel and "professional development" allowances.
Pension and life insurance benefits.
An equity allowance for Braxton to save up to buy a home.
On top of that, Braxton immediately hired a new second in command at more than $300,000 a year.
"Where's the social justice in this?" said Diana Solomon-Glover, a member of the church choir and one of the petitioners in the suit.
"We have an economic crisis in the country, and none of the church staff are getting raises this year, but a few people at the top are getting these huge salaries?"
In a hearing Tuesday, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Lewis Bart Stone denied the dissidents' request to delay Sunday's installation. The judge urged church leaders to provide the opposition a fair chance to be heard by the church membership.
He adjourned the case until after a special meeting of the congregation scheduled for May 3.
The two sides should find a way to achieve "some form of fellowship and reconciliation between members of the church," Stone said, to "prevent a split."
"They [the dissidents] don't want to accept that the majority has already spoken," said Sarah Conly, who backs Braxton. The vote last fall to appoint Braxton was overwhelming, his supporters say.
"I don't know why they even brought this case into court," said Jean Schmidt, vice chair of the Church Council, one of the key officials who brought in Braxton.
"If the members of the church had known what his total compensation was when we voted, we wouldn't have chosen him," said Virl Andrick, a 25-year member of the church and of its budget and planning commission.
Only a tiny group in the leadership has details of the contract, he said.
"There's a problem with the process," Andrick said. As an interdenominational church, Riverside is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches, but the two denominations have very distinct governing philosophies.
Congregational churches "have complete transparency on finances," Andrick said. "Members know everything about the church's finances and the pastor's salary."
Baptist churches, on the other hand, tend to keep vital information among key church leaders.