The Dangerous Pursuit of Pastoral Fame

As my chiropractor was working me over yesterday, she was asking about the reading I’m currently doing for a degree I’m working on. After I rattled off the titles and subjects of a number of leadership books, she said, “Wow, what are you going to do when you are finished with school—rule the world?”

“Actually, I’m moving in the opposite direction,” I said.

And I am trying to mean that. Genuinely.

Over the last few years, I’ve thought long and hard about “my platform” as a pastor, a writer, an occasional speaker. And as I’ve done so, I’ve come to the conclusion that there was a danger to my soul in pursuing more exposure, more name recognition, more money to be made from thinking, writing, and speaking about ministry issues. Especially while I was still in full-time, paid ministry to a local community.

I want to be clear though: I have no issue with writers/speakers who sell lots of books, go on speaking tours, and generally promote their works however they can. But there’s something very “off” in the proliferation of pastors who are mixing ministry in and to a local community with “building their brand.”

The Celebrity Pastor certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. But the extent to which some take it today, I think, is. Yes, Spurgeon had his sermons published in the paper weekly. But can anyone really imagine him retweeting the fawning praises of his Twitter followers, or John Wesley selling tickets to his latest tour? Can anyone imagine Dwight Moody slapping his name on a couple ghostwritten books a year?

In other words, it seems as though any reluctance over celebrity for our ministry endeavors has been thrown out the window and many of us are now actively cultivating, pursuing, grasping at the fame, increased money, and recognition that comes with hitting the big time in today’s ministry world.

And therein lies the danger and the challenge. Both for us personally and for the church as a whole.

When a pastor starts building their “platform”, growing their influence and raising their profile it’s generally talked about in terms of expanding ministry reach, being a good steward of the talents God has given and always, increasing “kingdom impact.” And while I have no doubt that many are humbly pursuing a God-given call to speak beyond the bounds of their local church community to a larger audience, I also suspect that for many, the motivations are somewhat more muddied, somewhat less altruistic.

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.

These last few years have seen a host of pastors and ministry leaders confronted with the challenges of a global audience and a personal brand. Some have done so with integrity, recognizing that their increased fame and recognition had become not only a danger to their own souls, but a hinderance to their church community, and they have wisely chosen to step out of one role so that they might more fully and faithfully pursue another.

Francis Chan is a great example. He took a lot of flack for leaving his mega-church pulpit. His motivation? Wanting “to go somewhere where he is unknown.” It’s a study in contrasts to watch Chan, who feels “led to greater obscurity” try to explain that to one of the more famous of today’s celerity pastors.

How refreshing is it to hear someone in today’s world talk about pursuing obscurity?

Eugene Peterson is another beautiful example of a man who became famous in spite of his own best efforts. He says in his recent memoir, The Pastor, that the central role of the pastor is to be invisible–always pointing away from himself or herself to the community, to the Scriptures, and to Christ. I like to picture him responding to some literary agent encouraging him to tweet positive reviews of his latest book with “Why in the world would I do that?”

But 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.

We must begin to separate celebrity from pastoral work. Local church ministry should not be a stepping stone to anything, least of all to fame and fortune. It ought not be easier for CNN to get in touch with a pastor than for someone in his own congregation.

Pastors who receive large salaries from their churches, and then turn around and package and sell the same materials they were paid to produce (or more and more often, paid some intern to produce) and preach for their community for personal profit need to rethink the model under which they are working. That kind of “double dipping” is not allowed in many other places in the world, and probably shouldn’t be allowed in the church.

And I think a good case can be made that the self-promotion that’s inevitably needed to build a brand in today’s world in incongruous with the servant-leader model of pastoring, and the attitude of humility that ought to accompany it.

So, how do you know you are moving into the danger zone here? Is it only big time ministry leaders who are affected by this? Not by a long shot. The truth is, the size or scope of your ministry is irrelevant. In fact, sometimes, it’s those of us who have the smallest ministries who actually have the biggest longings.

Some signs you might be in danger:

You look at the speaker roster for a conference and think- Why did HE/SHE get an invite and not me?

You feel jealous of others because of the size or scope of their ministry.

When you begin to dream that somehow “hitting it big” (or even hitting it medium) will free you from ministry, or you begin to resent the small, mundane and unnoticed tasks of local church ministry.

When you regularly Google yourself (please… no jokes in the comments.)

When your face appears on the front page of your church’s website.

You become a “friend collector” who racks up the Facebook/Twitter followers with the idea that someday, you’ll be able to leverage that when you write that book you’ve been talking about writing forever…

You find yourself thinking more and more about how you can get your name “out there.”

Please don’t think I’m condemning any pastor who has ever written a book or spoken at a conference. This is a very fuzzy area in which much grace needs to be extended. But if we never talk about the danger zone of self-promotion, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and those we are called to serve. If we don’t think hard, on a personal level, about our need to be known by people beyond those we are directly in relationship with and service to, we run the risk of becoming men and women who use the people God has given us to serve as a means to our own self-gratifying and glorifying ends.

More and more, I’m trying to lean hard into the credo of He must increase, and I must decrease. Maybe others can manage the trick of doing this while simultaneously “building their brand.” If so, God bless them. I just know that I can’t. And I’m betting not many of us can.

 

Bob and his beard.

bob hyatt

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  • http://www.mammasteblog.com Lori Anne Yang

    A refreshingly honest essay made even more genuine by the clearly unsparing self-reflection. Beautifully spoken truth for yourself, that does not attempt to condemn where others are on similar journeys. I often read the blogs of the “popular” emergent thought leaders in the Twin Cities and wonder about the truth that lies beyond the reach of all the educated talk and thickly theological debates–(debates that I really do love to listen to, ponder and engage in). It’s just that I find that what I really long for are those moments when I find myself in that mystical place within, when I truly feel that connection to God through the suspended sense of connection to everything and everyone. My favorite saying these days, one that truly resonates for me is by Sir Edward Dyer from his poem, The Lowest Trees Have Tops and it is the line that reads; “The firmest faith is in the fewest words.” Thank you for your sharing, keep up the good works.
    All good things,

    • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/the-corner-table Jim Fisher

      Well said, Lori. My heart is there also.

  • Tom

    I guess I would ask why a pastor should be different from anyone else in this matter? We all wish to have influence in our field. I am not a pastor but I am a servant. I still want a place at the table. I think that God has given me a talent that needs to be used for His glory and to draw people to Him so I try to be the best safety engineer that I can be. I hope people will listen to me, get to know me, and see there is something different here.
    Having said that, I have seen where some of my favorite emergent authors seem to have gone over to the “hollywood”side and seem to be pandering to the mega church, so I am not sure how you draw the line. My wife is a comic who constantly has to “sell” her brand, is this the wrong thing to do for a Christian?
    God bless you for struggling with this. It is a difficult issue and worth looking at.

  • Kurt

    For me it was the pay component of ministry. The paycheck hindered mine and my fellow pastors ability to say what we really thought, whether popular or not for fear of the financial impact on our families and the impact on our “careers”. Once you let that fear get you then the tail is wagging the dog and concern for what people think becomes even more important than it already is for us mortals.

  • http://www.thecompanyofjob.com Don Harris

    Tom, I think the point Bob is hanging his hat on is this: A pastor who pursues “fame and fortune” is no longer fulfilling his pastoral call. He is following a different call. A pastor has to be in tune with the needs of his flock. When he spends all his time building his notoriety, he is not tending to what he should be. If he is going to continue to pursue the call to notoriety, he should resign his pastorate.

    Notoriety can be a curse as well as a blessing and of itself is not a bad thing. It is perfectly reasonable for your wife to be “selling her brand” because that is how she succeeds in what she is called to do; She is an entertainer — not a pastor.

  • http://caedmonmichael.net Caedmon

    Tom,

    I think the key in your post is the phrase, “a talent that needs to be used for His glory.” If this is what is really happening, then praise be to God. We should all aspire to this. Unfortunately, the reality is that the temptation to use the talent we have been given to our own glory is strong. I don’t know all the reasons why, but it seems (speaking as a pastor with a desire to write and speak outside of a local congregation) this trap has claimed quite a few of us. Further, because we’re trained to use the lingo, we’re good at hiding this (from ourselves?) by claiming we’re working “to the glory of God,” without really knowing what this means.

    Bob,

    Thank you for writing this, and especially for pointing out it isn’t only for those at the high end of the pay scale. It’s easy for me to see others bringing home living-wage paychecks and wonder why I am not, only to get caught up in the business and marketing. Eventually, my striving switches from seeking and serving God to seeking and serving reputation.

    One of the things that has helped me see this is following blogs that have turned into nothing more than infomercials for the writer’s next/latest book. I’ve had to stop reading these blogs, even if they are written by experienced men and women, as I recognize my own temptation to emulate.

  • Kevin Pent

    Bob,
    Thank you for this timely reminder. Your blog articulates what’s been on my mind and heart recently. Any follower of Christ, especially those in leadership, needs to hold resolutely to John the Baptist’s declaration: he must increase and I must decrease.

  • Milly

    Bob, Thank you for addressing a topic that can many times be so sensitive to discuss but exists. I believe that many begin with the sincere intent to serve and minister with God at the center. But in a human society that sets the stage for self-gratification, it is unfortunate that our given nature gravitates towards fame and recognition and the power that derives from it. I’m sure many have struggled with this dilemma beginning with Eve in the garden. We need to strive to have a relationship with God of being in His presence and operating in His glory than that of a relationship based on knowledge, influence and reward. No matter the size of the audience before us, be it one or the masses, God is most interested in the condition of our heart after Him and His kingdom. You touched on something that I think we all should post on our mirrors and ask ourselves, “Who are we really pointing people to?” Our ministry, our work should stem from God’s unfailing love and abounding grace. This is the place we should strive to find ourselves in and lead others too. We need to change our focus from the “glory” of our talent to the “giver” of our talent. Truly enjoyed your blog…thanks for sharing!

  • RoobeFRe

    Thanks for the good read–Even in today’s culture I have known and currently am finding humble servants, both vocational ministers and laymen, who have benefited the Leadership of God (basileia) through their copyright but have tended to receive little or no direct monetary profit from its dissemination other than the respect and good will of their fellows, colleagues, readers and God.

  • JVB

    Another clear sign that you “might be in danger:” if you establish a non-profit religious entity whose name includes your name. Exempli gratia, Joel Osteen Ministries. Does it possibly seem appropriate that the cross should be atop the building, but your name should be on the door and/or marquee?

    IMO, this is one thing that sacramental, diocesan Christianity gets right. There are no “celebrity pastors” or cults of personality built up around the person and persona of an individual religious leader.

    • Tim Trussell-Smith

      As a sacramental/diocesan Christian (and ministry leader training for ordained service…I hope!) I hope you are right in the overall sense, but there are definitely examples of leaders who have gotten in trouble with exactly what Bob is talking about. Often it can come in the form of notoriety within the denomination or getting into the “right kind of parish.” Am I being asked to serve on the right commissions? Do the “important people” know who I am? It can even be as simple as having to focus on networking and relationships for the sake of finding a job down the line. I’m glad to discover you’re existence, Bob; you are helping us notice/wrestle with key issues that really do affect church leaders of all levels of notoriety.

  • Michael D. Bobo

    I totally appreciate this. My thoughts from two years ago can be found at http://burnsidewriters.com/2010/08/16/cults-of-celebrity/. We need to be so careful as public figures to represent Christ and not our own celebrity.


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