Looking over the newest crop of scandals and moral failures among widely known pastors, I’m thinking we really need to get serious about challenging the machine that makes celebrities of the pastors who happen to have the biggest congregations, the most charming personalities, or the coolest hair. Because when such pastors fall, anyone who has participated in building them up to unsustainable proportions is complicit to some degree in their failure. And these failures are hurting everyone.
One of the most ridiculous things about these celebrity scandals is that they’re as laughably predictable as Hollywood divorces and yet we keep hoping that, like the latest newlywed couple, the newest hot stuff pastor will be the exception. Let’s face it: there is no celebrity factory that does not also specialize in scandal. When people step into the public spotlight, they must perform constantly and in many cases must hide who they really are. They often become lonely and self-absorbed, surrounded by people who want something from them. They may lose touch with what it’s like to live a healthy, normal life. They may lose touch with who they are when no one else is telling them what to be. It’s a recipe for hubris, emptiness, self-soothing choices, addiction, overwork, overwhelm, spiritual desolation, and hypocrisy. We know all this. We can read about it every week in People Magazine.
Looking for the next big hit, publishers take notice of the pastors with large churches or famous relatives because they have built-in platforms, regular crowds of people who will buy their pastor’s latest book. And once people start buying their books, those pastors find themselves speaking to other large audiences, and often to gatherings of other pastors. At these gatherings, more people buy books. And pretty soon those pastors find themselves under pressure to maintain and expand their platforms and to build their personal brands and manage their images and eventually they might start to feel like whitewashed tombs (as Jesus called some religious leaders in his day–see Matthew 23:27). Being a pastor is hard enough when you’re not feeling like a giant hypocrite because people think you have a bunch of great things to say and you know that you don’t. It’s hard enough when you have to face the expectations of everyone in your congregation without worrying about the opinions of a lot of people you’ll never meet. (My dad was a pastor in small churches, and I grew up largely in parsonages that sometimes felt like all their walls were windows.)
Now, this is not to say that every pastor with a book contract is a hypocrite, or that no pastor has anything worthwhile to say. That’s not the case at all. But there’s a big difference between a pastor who has a large platform because of a legitimate, mature, deeply helpful ability to speak to large numbers of people and a pastor who simply is marketable–for now. Or a pastor who has good intentions and a good ministry but is not fully grown up or internally fortified against the pressures that come with widespread attention.
This pastoral celebrity machine is hurting the church. High-profile hypocrisy hurts every Christian’s chances to speak with credibility and be heard by people who need what we can offer. But even without moral failure, celebrity has a dampening effect on homegrown innovation and responsive ministry in the local church. Celebrity drives consumerism, and as church leaders increasingly allow high-profile pastors to do their creative thinking for them, our churches become more and more like clones. When pastors pull other people’s ministry models off the shelf and apply them without sober regard for their own churches’ circumstances, giftedness, demographic makeup, and current movement of the Holy Spirit, they settle for someone else’s calling.
Pastoral celebrity is hurting our collective wisdom, spiritual understanding, and intelligence as Christians. Why? We are rarely learning from the wisest and brightest among us–with uncommon exceptions, those folks rarely attract large crowds based on charisma. Instead we are more often learning from the marketable whose message makes a nice package but may be inane or even false.
This phenomenon is hurting “regular” pastors, who can feel discouraged in the shadow of the celebrity pastor and feel the sting of inadequacy when congregants wonder why they aren’t more like the famous ones. When we equate audience growth with God’s blessing, it’s no wonder if some pastors wonder why God isn’t blessing them–when in fact he is. Movements of all kinds grow in numbers, and cults of personality grow especially fast. If we don’t think God is blessing ISIS or the marijuana industry, why do we accept sheer numbers as evidence that he cares more for the megachurch?
Celebrity also hurts the celebrities. We don’t always feel compassion for leaders who fall, and I’ll be first in line to say they are responsible for their own actions. But it doesn’t undermine their culpability to admit that we share in it when we believe the hype and make it harder and harder for people in the spotlight to acknowledge they have the same needs and limitations as the rest of us.
There are other victims here too–those who suffer the direct impact of destructive choices leaders make as they fall. Anyone who claims their sin “isn’t hurting anyone” is a liar. Whether we’re talking about abuse, extramarital affairs, embezzlement, or substance abuse, every single act of self-destruction creates a fallout zone. I shudder at the thought of the harm done by pastors who believe their celebrity entitles them to take what belongs to others or who are so depleted by image management that they become vacuous monsters, consuming others in an effort to satisfy themselves.
I realize celebrity can be enticing, and I don’t expect pastors to be more immune to its allure than anyone else–but they can resist it. I also recognize the business dynamics that drive publishers and conference organizers to act like kingmakers. In fact, I’ve spent more than 20 years as a professional in that very field, in one capacity or another. So I mean I really do understand. But I do wish more of those who cultivate audiences would consider their responsibility in this matter and pay more attention to the substance and maturity of those whose messages they promote. I also wish the Christian consumer would exercise more discretion and change the market. After all, with demand comes supply. There are many deep and wise leaders among us, whose messages we should hear (and many of them are not pastors). Everyone knows a leader who is on the campaign trail isn’t a very good leader. I have to be believe we’d all be better off if those trained and equipped and employed to lead our churches weren’t devoting their time to personal brand development, self-promotion, and remaining precariously on a pedestal.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.