‘The Church Has Changed’: Atlanta Bishop Caught in Act of Greed


Ripped from the headlines today: “Archbishop’s $2 million mansion gone with the wind?

A story on CNN.com goes on to explain that Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory has apologized to his parishioners after he approved the construction of a $2.2 million mansion to serve as the bishop’s residence for his diocese. The archbishop moved into the 6,000-square-foot palace in January. When the cost of the mansion was made public, an outcry rose up from some in his diocese.

“What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the Church have changed,” Gregory wrote Monday in the archdiocesan newspaper.

Gregory now says he will recommend that the mansion be sold. By the way, it sits in a posh, upscale neighborhood of greater Atlanta.

“The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.”

The article goes on to cite other examples of opulence among bishops and archbishops in America and one extreme case in Europe. It seems, in my interpretation, that bishops are using Church funds to pamper themselves — often times while their diocesans are struggling to make ends meet.

“I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services,” the archbishop said.

The archbishop’s apology comes just days after the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, also known as the “Bling Bishop,” who spent $42 million renovating his residence in Limburg, Germany.

I love how Pope Francis is succeeding at doing what so many other popes have failed to do: hold bishops and archbishops accountable, if even only by his sheer public reputation. Francis is the most popular world leader right now and his example of, and call for, humility and relating to the poor and needy has taken much of the Christianized world by storm.

Since his election last year, Francis has repeatedly urged Catholics to focus on income inequality and the suffering of society’s marginalized. “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor,” he has said.

The Pope himself has eschewed many of the trappings of papal life, living in a small apartment in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the sumptuous apartment in the Apostolic Palace and driving a small car instead of a limousine.

Francis’ example has put pressure on American bishops to adopt similarly austere lifestyles and emboldened rank-and-file Catholics to call them out if they fall short.

What’s funny about the world’s reaction is that Pope Francis is merely echoing the life of His Savior, Jesus Christ. There is nothing new in his attitude. In fact, it is the right and just attitude for all Church leaders.

Our Lord Jesus said to his disciples ““You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave (Matt. 20:25-27).” The Lord then, in the next verse, points to their example for being humble servant-leaders: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Saint Peter, known among Catholics as the first “pope” and the one in whose seat Francis now sits, exhorted Church leaders “Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will; not merely as a duty but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

If I were the pope, I would step in and “assign” a new archbishop residence to Bishop Gregory — one that involves a small, run-down house in a run-down neighborhood of the ATL. You know, someplace where relating to the poor and needy is not simply an option. But I’m not pope. And that’s probably a good thing for everyone!

Power is a dangerous drug that has the ability to poison the soul. How does that old adage go, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

About 10 years ago there was a popular pastor in the DFW area who learned this lesson the hard way. He was a rising star in the Baptist faith, senior pastor over a rapidly-growing church, author of books on apologetics and evangelism, and host of a daily radio program. He seemed to have it all — a blessed ministry — but there was one thing he did not have: a house worthy of his name. You likely know where this is going. Well, Pastor So-and-So decided he needed a bigger pad — so big that not even his plus-sized salary could afford it. So he managed to get the church to pay for a portion of the building cost. Most of the remainder of the building was done as “favors” from wealthy members of his congregation. Donations made through the Church’s non-profit status benefiting the senior pastor.

Making a long story short, the 5,000-plus-square-foot mansion was completed inside a wealthy gated community at a overall cost of several million dollars. However, the congregation had no idea the house was being built where it was and at that cost. They assumed it was a more-modest place and only built big so it could host church events. NOT behind an electrified fence, so to speak. When the financial scheme to build the mansion became public, the congregation was outraged. They demanded Pastor So-and-So pay back the church for the money used in the building. Eventually, they just asked the pastor to leave — pack up his cardboard box and never show his face again. In a very short period of time, a rising star was derailed by his own greed.

Another popular local pastor went even farther, building a $10 million mansion less than two miles from where I live. It’s gated. But he’s still in his multimillion-dollar ministry.

When I think of all the modern Christian teaching “celebrities,” Rick Warren’s name comes to mind. His book “The Purpose Driven Life” made him a millionaire in a short amount of time. The sequel “The Purpose Driven Church” swept the nation’s smaller churches by storm. Rick is senior pastor at Saddleback Church in California. In 2005, when he started to receive huge royalty checks from book sales, Pastor Rick made a very bold move. He returned 25 years worth of salary to his church and stopped taking a salary. He now makes nothing as senior pastor of a church of 20,000 members and lives instead off of his book sales. As for those sales, he only keeps 10-percent of that. The other 90-percent goes back to Saddleback and to other ministries.

Now, Rick Warren’s far from perfect, but contrast his monetary attitude with the examples I’ve listed and it is a stark difference. Christian leaders are called to be humble servant-leaders who do not lord their power over their flocks nor use their positions for monetary gain. The Son of Man, Jesus, came not to be served — even though He was the Creator and King of the Universe — but to serve, even taking off his garment to dry the feet of his disciples after washing them. “Do likewise,” the Master instructed. Pope Francis did this last Easter, washing the feet of poor, diseased or orphaned youths instead of holding an opulent Mass from his high papal platform.

The archbishops and bishops? Build multimillion-dollar mansions. “The Church has changed,” Archbishop Gregory said. Funny, Christ hasn’t changed. Never has, never will. He’s till perfect, holy, almighty and humble. Bishop Gregory should have thought about the expense of building a mansion in a posh neighborhood in the first place. He should have thought of his diocesans, of what was “right” to do as a humble servant-leader. (Which maybe he’s not.) Those men seem to be few and far between these days.

But Christ will hold those who plunder their flocks accountable for their greed and, perhaps through the example of Francis and others, this accountability is happening. I sure hope so.