Troubleshooting the Celebrity Pastor Problem

platformEvery week one could write another post about another fallen pastor, because that appears to be the rate at which they fall. A great number of ministers without national or global platforms are counted in this number, but oddly enough, these falls only seem to hit “close to home” when it’s a guy with a big platform. It’s an odd phenomenon, isn’t it? We may not know the big name guys at all, but the fact that they are, in evangelical culture anyway, a “household name,” makes it more personal. (This is not just evangelicals, of course — newsstand tabloids regularly run photo features like “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!”)

In all the hand-wringing over the latest evangelical celebrity scandals, however, I don’t see much new that is said. To some extent, this is understandable, as the problems being faced are not new — pride, anger, lust, etc. — any more than they are limited to those in ministry. These old, universal problems require the same old, universal solutions — grace-driven repentance from us, grace-glorious deliverance from God.

And so we see the same usual formulas handed out in blog posts and tweets and sermons and podcasts — accountability and honesty, lots of talk about boundaries and “guard rails” and the like. Pastors are re-reminded to not be alone with women, etc. Most of these words are good words, advice that is tried and true. Within the gospel renewal movement, of course, we are moving deeper to heart issues and idolatry, and this is a good thing too. Figuring out how the gospel speaks to the idolatries and root sins that seem particular to the work of pastoral ministry is really important.

Yet, we are identifying something else here, something that runs across evangelical tribes. It is the “celebrity pastor” problem, where we participate in the highest elevation of a pastor’s platform as we can manage and then load him up with all the expectation we can muster. The result, naturally, is that he is top-heavy and prone to toppling. There are dangers in temptations in pastoral smallness and obscurity too, but the most prominent dangerous temptations in pastoral bigness are these idolatries — worship of the celebrity pastor by his fans and himself.

So let us accept the soundness of the typical boundaries and relational and ministerial guardrails that every pastor and his church ought to have in place. But what else can we do? What are some specific, practical things that can be done to work against the idolization of the successful pastor? I have a few ideas. They are not easy things to do, of course, but wise things rarely come easily.

1. Transition your “video venue” satellite campuses to church plants or at the very least install live preaching.

I have quite a few friends whose churches employ this medium for weekend preaching in their satellite campuses, so I tread lightly here, as always, but I have yet to hear a very convincing argument for the wisdom of this approach to the worship gathering. I say a lot more on this in my book The Prodigal Church, so I won’t rehash my critique here, but the argument seems to boil down essentially to: “The campus wouldn’t be viable without so-and-so on the screen.” And my response? “Okay. Maybe it shouldn’t be viable.” If they’re only coming because of so-and-so, you have a celebrity pastor problem. (Now, this happens in almost any church of any size. People come only because of the preacher, or only because of the music, or only because of the children’s program, or what-have-you. But when we franchise rather than plant, we cooperate with the idolatry of the consumer.)

2. No more book deals for gifted preachers who are not gifted writers.

Sometimes gifted preachers are gifted writers and sometimes gifted writers are gifted preachers, but more often than not, guys gifted to preach aren’t necessarily gifted to write (and vice versa). We compound the celebrity pastor problem when publishers sign guys with big churches to big book deals regardless of their ability to say anything lasting in any artful kind of way. I am grateful for evangelicalism’s double threats (men like Tim Keller come to mind), but not every dynamic speaker needs a publishing deal, especially since the books are most likely to be written by somebody else, which is not just a celebrity problem but an honesty problem. Couldn’t we all be helped if more of us just stayed in our lanes?

3. Discerning the credibility of our experts.

I had a great conversation last week with a friend who called me specifically to talk about this problem. What do we make of publishers, editors, and other public parachurch platforms who provide outlet for ministers, for which their only qualification appears to be success or popularity? In other words, how do we know the guy publishing the book on marriage has a healthy marriage himself? Why are we assigning parenting books to people whose kids aren’t even teenagers yet? What if the guy we’re paying to write and speak on grace-centered leadership is a short-tempered, domineering jerk to his staff? How would we know?

What responsibility do those of us in cultural gatekeeper positions (I’m the managing editor for For The Church, a site that regularly publishes resources from ministry leaders big and small) have in vetting somebody’s credibility on a given subject or perspective? I don’t know that I have the answer to this, but I think we ought to try to figure it out. Maybe it involves having deeper conversations with someone’s family or church leaders. I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet more platform-providers are asking these questions these days, if only because it’s costing them lots of money to send books into rain-soaked dumpsters.

4. Actual parity among elders.

I greatly appreciated this recent sponsored post by* featured at Tim Challies’s blog on Confronting the Current Church Leadership Crisis. Pastoral plurality in the local church is not just the biblical norm, it is a practical and spiritual necessity. But this plurality has to actually function as a plurality. We can look at the church leadership structure of many of these fallen celebrity pastors and see that there were other elders in place. Sometimes they do not actually have parity with the lead pastor — meaning, his vote outweighs theirs, if they even have one — and sometimes the parity is there on paper but not in practice. In either case, accountability isn’t just something to reserve for times of crisis.

Real collaboration and cooperation should be part of the functionality of the pastoral leadership. There’s nothing wrong with having one guy provide most of the preaching in a church, but he shouldn’t provide it all. And the service shouldn’t appear as a one-man show. Behind the scenes, church elders ought to exercise the Bible’s permission to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and check each other’s hearts. Elders ought to say “yes” a lot, but they are not supposed to be yes-men. And it ought not be inordinately difficult to fire a pastor who has disqualified himself. Whatever a church’s pastors are, the church itself will become. So if the pastoral team is “lead guy”-centered, existing mainly to prop up and orbit around the lead guy, guess what the church’s center will be?

Again, none of these things is easy to do. Tackling the celebrity pastor problem from any of these angles would likely require a fundamental and complex reconsideration and reconfiguration of the ways many of us do ministry, do church, “do” evangelicalism. But we leave these proposals unconsidered to our own peril. Ignoring these things certainly allows us to continue on as we’ve always done, indiscriminately adopting the values of the world in celebritizing our leaders and then acting shocked and angry when they fall under the pressure. But we’ve seen what happens when a ministry is oriented almost wholly around the platform of one guy. When he falls, the ministry does. Heck, set aside the notion of sinful disqualification. What happens to your satellite campuses when the big screen preacher gets hit by a bus?

Let’s figure this out, church.

* UPDATE: Previously mistakenly listed that blog post as by Challies, when it is a sponsored post from Biblical Eldership Resources. Apologies for the mistake. Still appreciate the post, paid for or not.