Michael Jordan or David Watts? Your Congregation Needs to Know
In wake of my product placement post, a correspondent recently drew my attention to the rise of the Reformed celebrity endorsement as a most unwholesome phenomenon. Of course, such things are not entirely new. Book commendations are an example of such. I have done plenty – far too many – of those. But there is an important difference between the typical book commendation and the new type of product promotion that is emerging. It is the distinction between an innocent recommendation and a paid endorsement.
When I write a book commendation, it may or not be well-informed, but I am not in any way motivated to do it by the notion of financial gain or obligation. Put simply, I do not get paid by the author or publisher. But when someone is on the payroll of the organization whose products they puff, they are not merely someone impressed by said products and thus volunteering to promote them. They are paid spokespersons. They are akin to Michael Jordan promoting Nike, with a vested interest in you buying what they are promoting. And that needs to be acknowledged, lest the public be deceived about what is really happening.
I receive a small stipend from the Alliance. If I promote Alliance material, I therefore do so as someone with a financial interest in the organization, not simply as somebody enamoured of the intrinsic importance of the Alliance in an otherwise disinterested way. That is why I would never do so in my church’s worship service for that would be an obvious conflict of interest. By contrast, I also write for the website of First Things but receive no remuneration for my blogs there. Were I to promote the FT blogsite in some context, therefore, I would do it simply because I believe in what the FT team is trying to do. No conflict of interest would be involved.
So, as we move into the next phase of the celebrification of the Reformed world, that of the paid endorsement masquerading as innocently helpful recommendation, there are a couple of useful questions for congregants to ask (maybe at the annual meeting?) when an already well-paid pastor introduces some parachurch product into his worship service. What dollar figure does said pastor enter on his annual tax return as originating in the bank accounts of the not-for-profit he is promoting? What proportion of his gross annual salary comes from said organization? If the answer is more than zero, then there is almost certainly a further question about conflict of interest which needs to be addressed, even if only to reassure the congregation that the pastor is, like The Kinks’ David Watts, ‘of pure and noble breed.’ No pastor or organization with nothing to hide would object to transparency on such issues. In fact, I would imagine they would heartily welcome it.
Were I ever to promote Alliance material in my church, I would not only be willing to report my small Alliance stipend to the congregants whose tithes pay my pastoral salary but I would consider it absolutely necessary -- the only way to defuse any suspicion of conflict of interest. Congregants have a right to know who is pulling their pastor’s strings. And that typically means knowing who is paying him what amount. After all, once money is involved – and it can be big money even in the small subculture of the Reformed church – it is a fine line between paid product endorsement and rather devious product enforcement.
Ah, yes, product enforcement – the other side of this sinister subcultural coin. But that is another blog for another day. Sufficient to the day’s post is the depressing truth contained therein.
The author receives minimum wage from the Alliance. His soul does have a price but he’s currently holding out for a lot more.