The Dangerous Pursuit of Pastoral Fame
Conflating ministry and celebrity is bad for our churches and our souls.

As my chiropractor was working me over yesterday, she was asking about the reading I'm 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 is 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 am 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." 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.

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 re-tweeting 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 we've thrown any reluctance over celebrity for our ministry endeavors out the window, and now many of us are now actively cultivating, pursuing, and—dare I say—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 pastors start 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.

Displaying 1–10 of 25 comments

Bev Murrill

March 19, 2012  2:29am

It's always about the heart. I agree with you, and I've juggled and wrestled with much of these issues. I decided a long time ago not to play the 'game' required to be seen, known, acknowledged. In doing that, I've had some personal success of not believing my own PR but there have still been times when the desire to preach a better message than the last time has waylaid me. the truth is, whether we serve God and His people through our gifts or not, we're ok as long as it's Him we serve. If we start off serving God and end up serving our ministry, we've stopped learning from Jesus how to carry His yoke, the one that's supposed to be so easy and light.

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Cal Redmond

March 18, 2012  11:16am

Good, perceptive article. Only God can judge a man's heart, but the line between a gifted pastor who shares to help others, and an ambitious pastor who wants to make his reputation and money can be a fine line. We should learn from this, and stay away from the prideful, ambitious path, and be most concerned with maintaining our relationships with God, serving our churches, and keeping our families healthy.

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Peter

March 07, 2012  7:14am

A simple thought on this whole issue. To be "great" and live as a servant is one of the most difficult of spiritual attainments. Dallas Willard – Spirit of the Disciplines

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Rev. Jones

February 29, 2012  8:29pm

Wow! This is a great article. While in seminary I almost got sucked into the notion of promoting myself or "my ministry." However, I remembered that I was nothing before Jesus came into my life and opened opportunities of service for me. My testimony is John 15:16. He chose me. I didn't choose him. Today, I still have colleagues that try to make me feel less than because I choose to work behind the scenes instead of building a brand. At the end of the day, I want to remain faithful to the One who called me, not become famous.

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Steve Cuss

February 22, 2012  10:37am

Thanks Bob - I think you nailed one of the main idols of a young pastor. Church Planter's secret dream/Idol: come to town, see huge growth in a short time. Get noticed and then invited to the big conference. Stand on the stage with everyone looking at you so you can say, "Its not me, its God." I'm in Denver - a hotbed of church planting activity and it seems like the folks who thrive here have come to terms with this idol and looked beyond it to see what God can do through unnoticed service.

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Ady Lay

February 21, 2012  10:04pm

And what if the Pastor isn't seeking fame. Just doing his/her assignment, but their ultimate calling is beyond your local church - but a world stage. Everyone isn't called to that, but some are anointed for that...and who are we to judge their calling? Small is good for many, but big is good to - if that is your assignment.

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Bill Williams

February 21, 2012  5:17pm

AndreGiant, I agree with you; and I hope my comment was not taken in the wrong way. My hesitance to declare that pastors MUST follow Paul's example of refusing the right to be paid is not because I perceive a need for a "paid, religious professional" in the midst of a local congregation. Rather, my hesitance is born simply out of a desire not to go farther than scripture itself does. Having said that, I repeat that I do think our fundamental structures are flawed and must be reformed; and I think far more should follow Paul's example than currently do, especially given the overall economic climate. But that must be a choice that is made, not a right that is denied.

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AndreGiant

February 20, 2012  4:52pm

Tim's comments are spot on. The dangerous pursuit of pastoral fame is especially treacherous because the modern-day "pastor" is an unbiblical office. 1. Every church "in the Bible" is ruled by a multiplicity of overseers, not one man. Acts 14:23, James 5:14, Philippians 1:1, etc. 2. Bishops and elders are to labor with their own hands! Acts 20:32-35, II Thessalonians 3:6-12, I Peter 5:1-2. 3. Tithing and giving to "the church" (in the sense of building up million-dollar ministries) is utter nonsense. The early Christians gave to "the saints"! II Corinthians 8:4-8, II Corinthians 9:1, II Corinthians 9:7. Bill Williams, once the saints are ministering to "one another" as you described, there is no need for a paid, religious professional in the midst. The Body of Christ is expressed in this manner, rather than the voice of a single man.

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Trevor

February 19, 2012  10:02am

Thanks Bob, such an important post. The culture of celebrity in Christianity is so deeply ingrained and at this point is fueled by a system beyond just us as individuals. In recent writing I had a couple agents tell me blatantly that I needed to become more famous in the next couple years. It's a huge temptation for me, especially when it's taken as a given to write or speak outside a local church context, so thanks for the very straightforward challenge. I needed it.

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Jeff

February 19, 2012  9:22am

Real insight and wisdom here. Some things are obvious while others grey in this capitalistic society we live in. There is indeed a delicate dance we do, maintaining humble service while serving Christ so that HIS fame spreads. And while I have no doubts re: Chan's motivation or humility, his strategy has backfired big time. He's more famous than ever and a guru to many. Again, thanks for the insight!

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