The Celebrity Pastor Trickle Down Effect
There have been a number of trends in modern times that have contributed to the increase of crisis in pastoral ministry. Many of these have been common and present throughout the history of parish ministry but maybe have increased in their intensity or found a new way of expression that is much more troublesome. These modern trends find their root in what is commonly referred to as “celebrity culture.” We live in a selfie society, one that thinks highly of the individual and the person that’s in the spotlight. The spirit of the age has often proclaimed the gospel of, “put yourself first” and now with the popularization of Facebook, Twitter and “build your own website” blogs, it seems everyone is trying to carve out a star for themselves on Hollywood Boulevard. Our cultures approval of self-glorification and our sinful desire to be glorified can converge into an ugly mess of self motivated ministry. And when those two converge upon the pastor in a successful church, according to worldly standards that is, the results can be catastrophic.
No longer is a successful pastor lost in the world of his local congregation with its people’s unique struggles and needs. He finds his picture printed on the cover of his new best selling book, his sermons watched and listened by thousands on YouTube and sermonaudio, his tweets retweeted, his posts shared, his controversial statements blasted across the blogosphere, his success modeled as the prime and only example of God honoring ministry, and the list goes on. Some pastors stumble upon this platform unknowingly and according to God’s grace and maintain a level headedness. Others see their success and seek the limelight by working hard to gain a global audience and creating a personal brand. Either way, with this increased publicity pointed at pastors in successful ministry positions, a trickle down effect occurs. The celebrity pastor becomes the standard, the model which the church, often unknowingly, begins to strive after and implement. The exposure that young men called to the ministry have to the “big wigs” shapes their perception of ministry, gives them ideals and images to reach in their future churches. They form conceptions of ministry that are unrealistic and definitely not the norm.
This “celebrity pastor stereotype on steroids” perception of pastoral ministry has extremely dangerous and lasting effects, not only on the church but on its pastors. Bob Hyatt, Christian author and blogger, recently said in a christianitytoday.com article concerning the danger of pastoral popularity, something quite haunting.
“The danger is not only to our own souls, that we would grasp after fame and abandon the quest for humility in our own lives. The danger is also that we would continue to hard-code the celebrity culture into our church communities. That we as a Church would continue to admire men and women not for their servant hearts but for their big audiences. That we see a day when every large and medium-sized “market” in America is served by the franchises of the five or six top video venue pastors . . . and we would like it.”
Bob is speaking directly to the danger that the celebrity pastor syndrome brings to the man who ends up using the church and the gospel as a means for self-promotion. He goes on to elaborate by saying:
“For me, I knew I was in danger when the stats on my blog became important to me. I would post something and then check obsessively over the next few days to see how many had read it, linked to it, commented on it. The balance had shifted from “I want to say something about ministry/Jesus/the Gospel” to “I want to be known as someone with something to say.” And when that shift occurs, no matter how much we say the name “Jesus,” what we’re really pointing people to is “me.” Jesus has become the platform on which we stand, not the Savior to which we point.”*
This transition can occur in our hearts as pastors largely because the celebrity pastor is put forth as ideal. Often times our churches even encourage the pursuit of a reputation outside of our communities and denominational boundaries. Which simply shows that what I am calling “the celebrity pastor trickle down effect” has caused a pendulum swing in the health of our pastors in ministry and the churches which they serve. This is a pendulum swing which I believe we are beginning to recognize and correct, but one that has caused a great amount of damage. These damages find their expression in four ways. First, the celebrity pastor trickle down effect places unrealistic expectations on the pastors in ministry. These unrealistic expectations are thrust upon the pastor by the churches they serve as well as the broader evangelical community which often perpetuates the celebrity pastor syndrome. These unrealistic expectations are also imbibed by the candidates for ministry as they are exposed to the “popular guys” and begin to envision what successful ministry looks like apart from inspired scripture.
Second, the leadership model of the celebrity pastor syndrome lends itself as top heavy. When the pastor becomes the focus of the church, he tends to also become the one that calls all the shots. Celebrity pastors become the popes of their own little Vatican and wield an inappropriate amount of power. Pastor Joe Thorn wrote on the need for accountability in his article entitled, “Dethroning Celebrity Pastors” when he said, “Accountability isn’t possible if the pastor is the pope of the church he serves. He is not held accountable if he cannot be told “no,” and is surrounded by sycophantic yes-men.”** The celebrity pastor trickle down effect begins to communicate to churches that pastors are supposed to run the show and be the personality and face of the church, and it begins to communicate to the pastor that there is nothing wrong with this inappropriate and improper imbalance of power.
A prime example would be the ultimate demise and downfall of Mars Hill Church by their frontman celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll. It was a shock to the evangelical world to hear Driscoll announce his desire to step down for 6 weeks while the leaders of the church examined him, only to realize it was an attempt at damage control. In the following weeks a reporter for the Seattle Times named Janet Tu would suggest his departure was due to “an avalanche of allegations,” ranging from “charges of bullying,” to “abusive behavior,” to “plagiarism and overseeing mismanagement of church funds.” In the wake of these accusations Driscoll resigned and two weeks later the church organization dissolved. In a recent christianitytoday.com article Ben Tertin examined the lessons the Church can learn from Mars Hill’s destruction and one was that the concept of celebrity pastor must end. In the article he stated:
“Western Seminary’s Dr. Gerry Breshears, a past friend and co-author with Driscoll, says many churches today have a problem with “giving lip service to ‘co-laborers,’ while depending on a single superstar.” And if it is all about the superstar, he says, then what if things go wrong with him or her? “You might not have a church anymore.”***
That inappropriate division of power in a sense naturally leads to the third damage caused by the celebrity pastor trickle down effect. The office of pastor completely loses its spiritual nature. A pastor becomes a professional, a CEO of a major business, the face of a brand, the frontman of an organization, a celebrity in the world of ministry, anything other than the shepherd of souls the scriptures and his Lord has called him to be. The pastor in a church seeped in celebrity culture begins to separate himself more and more from the spiritual nature of his calling. He begins to desire worldly success instead of the “well done thou good and faithful servant,” of his Savior. He begins to seek that success by implementing worldly business strategies and popularized models. He believes he can build Christ’s kingdom is though it were of this world.
Pastor and author John Piper warned against the trend of the professionalization of the office of pastor in his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals when he said, “We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake.”**** The spiritual death Brother Piper speaks is one we are witnessing much of in the state of pastoral ministry today, a trend that by the grace of God I pray we can reverse. When we lose sight of the spiritual nature of pastoral ministry we certainly will deal with all sorts of issues, namely we will begin to seek our affirmation in the acceptance of others instead of in God.
Which leads us to the fourth damage caused by the celebrity pastor trickle down effect, and that is a bent toward approval motivated leadership. When the pastor feels the pressure of popularity, and the unrealistic expectations of his church, upon his shoulders, he begins to model his ministry on the desire to please everyone. In his book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, Charles Stone addresses the sickness of people pleasing that has infected the pastors of our churches. In the second chapter of the book he answers the question, “What makes leaders sick with people pleasing?” For Stone the most dangerous and dysfunctional type of people pleasing is narcissism. He defines narcissism as “a person with an inflated sense of self-importance and an insatiable drive to be liked and to be the center of attention.”***** Why is this so relevant to the discussion of the celebrity pastor trickle down effect? Because if the celebrity pastor becomes the ideal then you begin to attract narcissists to pastoral ministry. Stone admits to the fact himself when he says, “ministry can tempt us toward narcissism because we are often in the limelight…Unfortunately narcissists often exude qualities we laud: self-confidence, a magnetic personality, strong platform skills and the ability to motivate others.”
The celebrity pastor trickle down effect has caused an increase and intensity in the woes and sorrows of pastoral ministry, but as was said earlier many of these have existed, in various forms and to varying degrees, throughout church history. The reason for this continuation is quite simple really, there is a uniqueness to the calling of pastor that lends itself to hardships. There are unique aspects of the work of a pastor that result in negative reactions if they are not guarded against and made aware to those who have been called into gospel ministry. Which leads us to our next topic of discussion.
Stay tuned for part three, entitled The Nature of the Office.
*Bob Hyatt, “The Dangerous Pursuit of Pastoral Fame,” christianitytoday.com, February, 2012, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2012/february-online-only/dangerous-pursuit-of-pastoral-fame.html
**Joe Thorn, “Dethroning Celebrity Pastors,” christianity.com, August, 2014, http://www.christianity.com/church/pastors/dethroning-celebrity-pastors.html
***Ben Tertin, “The Painful Lessons of Mars Hill,” christianitytoday.com, December, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2014/december-online-only/painful-lessons-of-mars-hill.html
****Piper, John. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub, 2013. pg. 1
*****Stone, Charles. People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership. 2014. pg. 58