The Dangerous Pursuit of Pastoral Fame

The Dangerous Pursuit of Pastoral Fame March 2, 2012

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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