Many pastors can relate to the following experience (loosely based on my everyday pastoral life; all names changed to protect the innocent):
Church member John emails the latest sermon excerpt from his favorite celebrity pastor. He wants me to listen and give feedback. For John, this is often a veiled attempt to humblebrag about his theological acumen or seek to alter what he deems deficient in my own understanding. An hour later, Facebook shows a message from church member Susan. She’s read a post about [insert hot-button topic here] and wants my opinion. Later that day, newcomer Shane texts a question about a book by his favorite author. He wonders if I’ve read it and wants to know my thoughts.
For 2,000 years, being a pastor was hard enough labor. But today’s pastor handles day-to-day shepherding duties while also pastoring sheep often fed by other shepherds’ hands. The mix of social media and tribalization of the modern church leaves the average church goer a dizzying pantheon of star pastors to choose from. I observe the birds of a feather rule creating sub- tribes of hero pastor groupies within congregations. Unavoidably, the sheep compare their shepherd with the 24/7 media pastor. Think about it: the average churchgoer has a pantheon to choose from. With COVID-19 pushing most churches online, Christians can “go” to any national or international church they please. Why listen to your normal pastor when you can sit at the streaming feet of a hero pastor?
The apostle Paul—hero pastor if there ever was one—strongly condemned allegiances to leaders: “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul” (1 Cor. 1:12–13). The problem with human heroes is they can displace or diminish our heart’s loyalty to our ultimate hero, Jesus Christ.
There are at least two major problems with adoring hero pastors from a distance.
1. You See Him from a Distance
I’ve spoken with many members of churches led by hero pastors. They’re frequently not as enamored with the pastor as his distant fan base.
Why? They see him holistically. They deeply appreciate his unique gifts and are generally aware of his far-reaching influence. But they also see him on his bad days (those don’t make the podcast). They observe him up close—a perspective his fanbase never attains. In short, his flock has the advantage of properly understanding their pastor. They see him interact with staff and elders. They watch his response when something fails or falls flat. They sense in his off-camera body language the burdens and losses in addition to the joys and wins. All of this blunts the adoration, providing a more realistic and honest appraisal. In some ways, this can be uplifting, since we relate to people in their weaknesses better than in their strengths. But social media obscures this perspective, for there it’s only strength upon strength, week after week.
This is why hero pastors go off the rails long before their tribal flocks learn it. What’s shocking to a national audience is much less so to his local congregation. They often sense something is wrong in tone, demeanor, or work ethic—or by the looks on the faces of his wife and kids.
2. He Sees You from a Distance
We all look better from a distance. The hero pastor can’t confront actual sins in your life because he’s not aware of them. He never sees you in your weakness, on your bad day, in your bad mood. In fact, he can only see you as a statistic. You’re a number on his monthly download report or book-sales accounting—at best, he personally reads your admiring letter. In this way, he’s safe—a shepherd with all staff, no rod. And many sheep prefer rodless pastors.
Since he’s a distant human, he’ll never know enough about you to confront the failures in your life. Apostolic heroes, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would at times confront individuals from afar. Euodia and Syntyche will bear this awkward distinction forever among the glorified redeemed (Phil. 4:2). The apostles were dangerous. Hero pastors rarely are.
You’ll never have a disagreement with a hero pastor about ministry direction. There are no weird relational moments to forgive. He never disappoints by failing to show up in your crisis. In short, the hero pastor never fails you. It’s like a weird online dating experience where neither party knows the other, but both are infatuated.
Love the Normal (Real) Pastor in Your Life
Each of us has authors and pastors, dead or alive, from whom we’ve wonderfully benefited. We treasure God’s choice servants. Yet we—your ordinary, actual pastors—want to be the true shepherds in your life as God has called us to be. We want to pastor you in your ups and downs, and we want to pastor you in our ups and downs. We may not be a gifted preacher, brilliant writer, thoughtful visionary, or insightful thinker. But what we offer you is better.
We know you and you know us. We’re ordinary shepherds of ordinary sheep. Just as you would be horrified if we loved the sheep of other flocks more, so we want you to love, follow, and serve alongside us—we ordinary types. We may not be a gifted preacher, brilliant writer, thoughtful visionary, or insightful thinker, but what we offer you is better. We know you. You know us.
We may not be a gifted preacher, brilliant writer, thoughtful visionary, or insightful thinker, but what we offer you is better. We know you. You know us.
Praise God if you have a normal pastor. We should honor them, not compare them. Pray for them, not fix them. Love them, not demand their Spirit-endowed gift mix to be different. Three cheers for normal pastors who do the hard, chiseling work among God’s people in the day to day of church life. These are the leaders who know and love you too.