By Ben Cachiaras
The surge in the number of celebrity pastors is a growing concern for the church. Multiple documentaries, articles, and podcasts (including “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”) have exposed this problem. And with so many high-profile pastors disqualifying themselves, one naturally wonders how much of their downfall was connected to the celebrity status that had become part of their identity.
The terms Christian and celebrity have not meshed well historically. Over time, popularity has taken out more pastors than persecution.
The church has been negatively impacted by this syndrome. A celebrity pastor is not easily replicable, but a pastor who says, as the Apostle Paul did, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), models a ministry that multiplies.
Celebrity pastors are a turnoff to a spiritually hungry but skeptical culture. The tendency to turn pastors into celebrities hurts our mission. It also hurts the soul of pastors, who, instead of driving their soul into the heart of Christ, are driven by where they stand in the hearts of people.
NAVIGATING THE TENSION
It is healthy, of course, for a church to give honor where honor is due. Too many pastors have been disrespected and treated poorly. Leading strongly, preaching boldly, or possessing a powerful personality are not the same as desiring celebrity status. Rather, the Lord often uses these gifts to build his church.
Yet, the nature of pastoral ministry can be tricky. Ministers are often known, respected, and loved by many people. Appreciative and well-meaning folk seek to put us on a pedestal. This can happen no matter the size of the church.
This is not necessarily a new problem. Even in the early church, some clamored after Paul and others identified Apollos or Cephas as “their guy.” Nothing indicates these leaders were promoting themselves, but all three undoubtedly still needed to navigate this tension.
It’s important to differentiate fame from being a celebrity.
Fame is the result of a life well-lived. In this sense, it is the accidental by-product of doing something significant and important. Fame results from a person doing good work and shining a light on Christ.
Being a celebrity is the result of a brand well-cultivated. Celebrityhood is the pursuit of significance, desiring to have others see you as important. The goal is to be well-known and to shine brightly.
Celebrity pastors seek to be celebrated. By contrast, faithful pastors with integrity and purity of heart genuinely want to see Jesus and others celebrated, so that all will know the name of Jesus.
Seeking celebrity status has less to do with the size of your church and more to do with the size of your insecurity. The more grounded you are as a deeply loved child of God, the less driven you will be to seek celebrity status as a means of self-validation or healing of past wounds.
Don’t let what happened to King Saul happen to you. The Spirit of God left Saul, and he ended poorly. Here’s a clue to what led to his demise. The Bible says, “Saul built an altar to the Lord; it was the first time he had done this” (1 Samuel 14:35). A chapter later, the Bible says, “Saul . . . has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:12). Somewhere in this timeframe, Saul stopped building altars to God and started building monuments to himself.
The line between Thy kingdom come and my kingdom come is a thin one. When we stop serving God and start using him for our own ends, it’s idolatry.
What is desperately needed is not more pastors with bigger platforms, but more pastors with a deeper love for Jesus.
10 WAYS TO COMBAT THE CELEBRITY-PASTOR SYNDROME
As encouragement to that end, here are 10 ways to combat the celebrity-pastor syndrome.
1. Step off the pedestal. Refuse to allow people to speak of and treat you in ways that magnify the “clergy-laity” split. When the disciples shushed and shooed away the children (“don’t bother Jesus with that!”) Jesus drew them near and said, “Let the little children come.” He corrected celebrity thinking. Noncelebrity pastors can be seen kneeling to talk to little ones.
When the disciples wanted offices next to Jesus’ CEO suite in the coming kingdom, Jesus said (my paraphrase), “You know that those who are regarded as celebrities in non-Christian arenas lord it over their people and love their lofty status and power. Not so with you. Be different! Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must become a servant” (cf. Mark 10:42-45). That’s the culture you want to set.
Collaborate on decisions instead of making unilateral edicts. Invest in others even when you don’t need to. Park in the back lot and walk like other staff or volunteers do. If you are given special accommodations such as administrative help, make sure it’s because such help is necessary for you to focus on your unique role and not because you or anyone else thinks you deserve the honor. Be a servant like you preach about.
Be marked by true humility—that is, take the mission seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Bond with ministers and pastors who are more interested in being great pastors than being thought of as great pastors. The company you keep will either justify your slippage in this area or hold you accountable for noble aspirations.
2. Be among the people. It’s easy for us to hide backstage, in our offices, in meetings, or at home and never truly connect with the people to whom we are ministering. Being a pastor is more than being a public speaker or figurehead. Regardless of your personality type and preferences, find ways to mingle, listen, visit, connect, and be among people. Jesus was more than a public speaker; he was among the people. Be in a small group with regular folk. After church, don’t run off when everyone is hanging around to chat. Stay late and help with the group putting away chairs.
3. Watch your words. Some pastors typically say “I” instead of “we.” As you speak of vision for the church’s future, talk about how “the elders and I” or “the leaders of this church” or “the staff and I have been thinking and praying,” etc. Don’t make it about you, for that cultivates the notion that the lowly people need to wait at the bottom of the mountain for you to return with a word from God.
And let’s stop saying things like, “Now I want you to close your eyes and meditate for a moment” or “I want you to do something this week. . . .” Who cares what you want? Instead, say, “Here’s a challenge for us this week.” Or, “I invite you to close your eyes and let’s all meditate for a moment.” Include yourself in the community rather than placing yourself above it. Your words tell a story and form a foundation stone for the kind of pastor you will be.
4. Preach to equip. When we preach to impress, we make it about us. Instead, we should preach to equip the saints to be on mission. Is the goal of your sermon to impress others with your smarts, charisma, or humor? Or is it to empower them to know Christ and to live out the Scripture in practical ways? Teach Scripture in a way your listeners can see themselves reading and handling the text rather than merely being impressed with your delivery. There’s a difference. Celebrity pastors stand out as speakers who impress people with their words. Faithful pastors stand on the Word and impress it upon their people.
5. Know thyself. Some personality types are more susceptible to the dangers of being a celebrity than others. My personality type lends itself to wanting people to like me and think well of me. People like me appreciate affirmation. Some people crave validation, applause, and approval. If you share these traits, be especially aware and diligent to find your approval and identity in Christ. Satan tempted Jesus with celebrity status, and he will tempt you in the same way, so you’d better be aware of your weaknesses.
6. Curb your cravings. If you deeply desire to be known and revered as a celebrity, ask yourself, Where do those desires come from? Allow Jesus to address carnal cravings. Let God provide healing in a deep place. Invite the Spirit to fill you with contentment that allows you to serve out of a place of wholeness, rather than using people to fill the hole inside you.
Watch out for entitlement, which feeds the craving that says, “I deserve better.” Watch out for self-pity and its cousin, ingratitude, which feed cravings for unhealthy escapes or ungodly actions. These cravings are a toxic soup that taste good in the moment but create a death-inducing rot inside you. Remember, cravings are strong and immediate, but they are never the same as our deepest longings . . . which are to honor Christ, retain your integrity, and finish well with a family and church that respect you as a pastor rather than a product or personality.
7. Promote Jesus more than yourself. What would an objective observer who watches you closely, listens to you, and observes your social media feeds say about you? Would they say you care more about making yourself famous or making Jesus famous? Resolve to devote yourself to being in Christ more than speaking for him. Make John the Baptist’s words your mantra: “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30).
8. Determine that you want to finish well. When you come to the finish line and look back, you will want those closest to you to think well of you, be bound to you in love, and respect you because there is in you no deeply entrenched shadow life. Invest in your marriage and family as your “first flock.” When celebrities finish, they fade away. When faithful pastors who did not seek renown finish well, they are remembered for their faithfulness.
9. Remember whose church it is. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). This means the church is not yours. It’s not mine. It is not a means to the end of your career or celebrity. You are a servant of Jesus, which means you’re a servant of the church. You are a means to the end Jesus has in mind. Remembering it is Jesus’ church will help you when things are going horribly. (“Jesus, your church has some real problems today. I hope you fix it. I’m going to bed.”) But it also will help when things are going great and accolades flood your direction, for you will remember whose church it is. If anything good happens in the church, it’s not because of you, it’s in spite of you.
10. Give God the glory. Latch onto Psalm 118:23 and quote it often: “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Church leaders too frequently are tempted to reverse this and say, “Lord, look at all the amazing things I’ve done . . . isn’t it marvelous in your eyes?” This is performance-based thinking. It reveals a legalistic, reward-based system, where we hope our “success” will award us with celebrity status. Instead, the psalmist reminds us that if anything good happens in and through you or the church, the Lord has done this. Our job is to marvel at him, not ask him or anyone else to marvel at us.
Ben Cachiaras serves as lead pastor of Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.