Hurricane Harvey and the $50m mega-church pastor who wouldn’t shelter flood victims

Texan mega-church pastor Joel Osteen is reputedly worth $50million. That’s his personal wealth. He leads a church of some 16,000 (ie a ‘mega-church’) which gathers in the Lakewood Church, Houston, which is rather large and spacious, not to say positively cavernous, with the ambience of a close encounter of the Spielbergian kind:

Pastor Osteen has come in for a bit of criticism (actually, quitealotofcriticism) over the past week for failing to open his mega-church doors to the victims of Hurricane Harvey – you know, the homeless, destitute, hungry, soaked-to-the-skin and generally traumatised people of Houston, Texas. “How you respond to a situation will influence those around you,” he helpfully tweeted. “When you have peace on the inside, you’ll bring peace to the outside.”

That’s nice to know.

Especially if you’re homeless, destitute, hungry, soaked-to-the-skin and generally traumatised.

“God uses people to push you to where you’re supposed to be. Without them, you couldn’t fulfill your destiny,” he continued reassuringly, adding: “Victoria & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.”

Understandably, some were a bit peeved (just a bit) by Pastor Osteen’s response:

That’s a minuscule sample of the printable criticism: there’s an awful lot more which is rather more ‘robust’ in its condemnation. For balance and fairness, he has his supporters, too, as the featured tweet illustrates: “I support Pastor Osteen’s decision to NOT open his church. It’s a house of worship NOT a shelter,” tweeted James “Deliriously in love with my stunning wife Carla. Father of two wonderful sons Harlan and Jordan. Lifetime NRA Member. Conservative. Veteran. Capitalist. American” Ritchie.

You might guess how the ‘conversation’ developed: it was basically callous, rich Christians (who also happened to be Trump supporters) versus the compassionate children of the world (who happen to yearn for the days of Obama): “Just another example of Christianity corrupted by capitalism and greed. Not his flock. Himself, Joel ‘money lenders in the temple’ Osteen,” tweeted Stewwie – Good Choko. And more, much more:

And here we come to the kernel. For although it is now reported that Joel Osteen has indeed opened his mega-church doors to the homeless, destitute, hungry, soaked-to-the-skin and generally traumatised people of Houston, and strewn its gleaming marble corridors with blue blow-up mattresses, and now seems to have an army of volunteers distributing food and clothes and other basic necessities, we are left with a sense that the Pastor of Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas, prefers the smell of freshly-ground coffee to raw sewage. This is, of course, an entirely understandable preference, but when you’re a church pastor, you really shouldn’t mind if the homeless, destitute, hungry, soaked-to-the-skin and generally traumatised might walk a little mud into your carpet. You shouldn’t mind if the municipal shelters aren’t quite full before sharing your fresh toast and croissants. You shouldn’t mind if those you hug happen to stink of BO.

To be a pastor is to serve: it is to perform altruistic actions of spontaneous love, care and compassion – without words, if possible. It is to find worship in the welfare of others; to place their needs above of one’s own. It is to have a conscience which is predisposed to doing the right thing and the good thing and better thing and the best thing, and that disposition will be innate, for the ministry is vocational. The pastoral heart is tender and relational, not callous and aloof. It isn’t simply a conceptual form of ecclesial address, but a practical and applied theology of social interaction.

It is hard to understand the heart of a church pastor who was not immediately and spontaneously concerned with the well-being of individuals and communities affected by Hurricane Harvey. What pastor opens his holy doors to healing and sustaining only when the local secular providers of healing and sustenance are full? Isn’t the true pastor bound to be first in the queue to welcome troubled and traumatised souls? What pastor guides and reconciles with tweets when people are literally drowning and dying in grief? Didn’t the Good Shepherd leave his 99 sheep to go in search of the missing one? He didn’t say, “It’s okay, Caesar will find him”, or “Leave it to the Judæan Municipal Council, it’s their job.” The Shepherd seeks until he finds, and the sheep know his voice.

Pastoring is about doing stuff, not preaching stuff. It is about care and caring in a cold and callous climate. So when the Pastor of a Texan mega-church – who is personally worth about $50million and who preaches to around seven million people weekly via all manner of flashy media – is judged by his community and the wider world to be uncaring, perhaps it’s unhelpful to call him a pastor, because he might not be one. At least not in the biblical tradition.