Head of Riverside Church defends Rev. Brad Braxton's $600K annual compensation
Thursday, April 23rd 2009, 4:00 AM
The head of the Riverside Church Council is defending a more than $600,000-a-year package for the church's new senior minister - a setup that has sparked a court fight among members of the congregation
As the Daily News revealed Wednesday, Braxton's lavish package includes a $250,000 annual salary, a monthly "living allowance" of $11,500, plus separate allowances for a maid, entertainment, travel and professional development expenses. There's even an annual payment into a fund for Braxton to save money to buy a home.
Church leaders resisted disclosure of the contract's specifics in a hearing in Manhattan Supreme Court this week. Church sources say it amounts to double what the Rev. James Forbes, Braxton's predecessor, received in the final years of his 18-year tenure.
Thanks to the "living allowance," Braxton, a 40-year-old former professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, his wife and young daughter have moved into a penthouse apartment at the Montana, a luxury high-rise on the upper West Side where apartments rent for up to $18,000 a month.
A Riverside spokesman declined a request for an interview with Braxton. A woman who answered the door to the couple's apartment also declined to talk.
Jones said Braxton's employment contract "was presented to the congregation on three separate occasions and was voted on, and approved by the congregation in our budget meeting."
Several church members dispute that claim.
"If what they say is true, why would we still be asking to see the compensation package?" said Virl Andrick, who sits on the church budget committee and is a 25-year member of the congregation.
He is among a group that went to court to try to block Braxton's installation, scheduled for Sunday.
The dissidents say they never got details of what their new pastor would cost when they voted to hire him. They've asked for a full meeting of the congregation May 3 to question Braxton and church leaders about thecontract.
They are worried the huge endowment the socially liberal Morningside Heights church received from John D. Rockefeller Jr. decades ago shriveled in the stock market collapse to barely more than $100 million.
At the same time, the church is running a huge operating deficit each year, but can draw no more 5% from the endowment to cover shortfalls.
"That means the operating budget over the next three years will have to be catastrophically reduced," said Richard Stone, a former church leader and lawyer for the Braxton opponents.
There is no excuse for shelling out so much money for one minister in the midst of an economic meltdown for both the country and their own church, they say.
Jones and church leaders see things differently. They point to Braxton's "breadth of responsibilities." In addition to meeting the spiritual needs of the congregation, his duties include "overseeing a staff of 150 people ... overseeing a full-time day school of 128 students and running 80 church and community programs," Jones said.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Lewis Bart Stone has urged the two sides to reconcile their differences.
Reverend Brad Braxton
New Riverside Church pastor Rev. Brad Braxton's $600K compensation prompts parishioners' suit
Wednesday, April 22nd 2009, 4:00 AM
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.