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The Celebrity Pastor Problem Is Every Church’s Struggle

How our ministry policies and practices can push back against entitlement.
The Celebrity Pastor Problem Is Every Church’s Struggle
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Credit: Tetra Images / digitalhallway / Getty Images

When I became a pastor at New Life Fellowship, my predecessor, Pete Scazzero, told me, “Congratulations, you can’t park in the church parking lot anymore!”

This shocked me, since I came from a church where I saw all kinds of perks and special treatment for senior leaders. I wondered, Shouldn’t pastors have prime parking spots?

Our church in Queens has a small lot—massive by New York City standards—but the point was taken. Pastors aren’t entitled to special treatment; they lead by serving. The parking lot lesson from Pete became one of my most important moments of character formation.

Certainly, this culture of “no parking” can be taken to another extreme, where pastors are not sufficiently cared for, encouraged, and supported. But it’s important to push back against the temptations of entitlement that can come with church leadership.

To be honest, walking to the church building after circling and looking for parking is not fun. It gets pretty tiring, especially when it rains or snows. But I recognize how this policy reflects a broader church culture where pastors aren’t celebrities deserving special treatment.

As a pastor, I regularly think about my own entitled tendencies and the issue of entitlement in ministry. The topic came up recently with the news of Carl Lentz’s departure from Hillsong NYC. While his story also involves the painful extramarital relationships and drama therein, Lentz’s “rise and fall” came in a context of hip megachurch celebrity.

A recent New York Times investigation described a church culture at Hillsong NYC that “seemed to go out of its way to cultivate a hierarchy of coolness” and where Lentz “both loomed large and was rarely present.” His case is just one example prompting all of us in the church to look more closely at how entitlement has become normalized in our churches—and what we can do to address it.

Keeping Honor from Becoming Veneration

Scripture describes the special responsibilities pastors take on and says that those who lead the church well are “worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). In some churches, though, pastoral entitlement masquerades as honor.

Certainly, an ethos of honor—a desire for churches to bless their pastors and care well for them—has the potential to correct unhealthy cultures that reduce pastors to human-doings. We have seen the ministry burnout and damaging consequences that can result when pastors are expected to be everything for the community without the adequate gifts of rest, support, and recreation. A healthy culture of honor recognizes the emotional and spiritual weight pastors carry in shepherding a flock and seeks to create sustainable rhythms and policies and practical care for long-term flourishing.

This culture of honor is well-intended. I appreciate when a volunteer sets aside a plate of food for me at a church event because I’m too busy connecting with people in the room. My wife and I have been profoundly grateful for kind visits from congregants dropping off a meal every once in a while. In our congregation—which is filled with many immigrants—we have received generous gifts of hospitality that have humbled us.

But the biblical directive to honor our pastors can be carried out in a way that looks more like sanctified entitlement. There’s a line that’s crossed where honor turns into veneration, shepherds are treated as celebrities, and pastoral vocation degenerates into a sideshow.

Much of this emerges from pastors who take themselves too seriously, narcissistically centering themselves in the church family system. But the more insidious issue lies within the larger systemic reality that reinforces this culture.

In their important book, A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer highlight this dynamic. They write:

Of course, celebrities don’t form on their own. Behind every celebrity pastor is an adoring congregation that both loves and supports the celebrity atmosphere. The development of a celebrity culture also doesn’t happen overnight. It begins when a pastor has a driving ambition for fame, but it can’t take root unless the congregation supports that ambition.

Unfortunately, many people want their pastor to be a spiritual hero or a celebrity at some level. They not only want it, but they often expect it and find themselves believing it about their pastor.

Celebrity church culture is not monopolized by megachurches and big names. I’ve seen leaders at small- and medium-sized churches act like they’re part of the royal family.

In light of these troubling realities, how do pastors and church communities resist this spirit of entitlement? I’d like to offer two suggestions to consider. At minimum, resisting entitlement requires churches ensure their pastors are accessible and accountable.

Making Pastors Stay Present

Few things breed cultures of entitlement like special rooms and hallways that intentionally keep a pastor away the people. Visiting churches all over, I’ve witnessed plenty of these secret getaways that normalized a culture of distance. (Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I’m just exhausted and need to leave the church building by the back entrance. But this is the exception.)

A pastor who is not regularly accessible to the people he or she leads is not a pastor. They might be a preacher or communicator—but certainly not a pastor. In our large congregation of over 1,500 people, every pastor must be available after services to be with the congregants—even if just for 15 to 20 minutes. This expectation was established long before I arrived. No matter how large a church becomes, this gesture of presence goes a long way.

Moreover, a pastoral culture that resists entitlement makes space for those who don’t carry congregational influence. I have had to wrestle with this often. Because I’m the lead pastor of our congregation, many people want to meet with me. When my assistant sets up appointments, I’m often tempted to only say yes to those who carry significant influence in our community. I’ve had to on more than one occasion resist the pull toward only meeting with people I know have power and resources.

Being Asked the Hard Questions

I don’t really like the word accountability, especially how it’s typically used in Christian contexts. Accountability often comes across as stale, awkward, forced confessions to a group of people you don’t even know well–at least that has been my experience in the past. But resisting entitlement requires compassion and honesty. Every pastor needs an environment where difficult questions can be asked regularly.

I would be lying if I told you I do this joyfully. I don’t like being told what to do. I want to call the shots. I want to inform people, not ask for permission. Yet this has been one of the most important safeguards for my leadership and pastoral life.

I’m grateful to report to an elder board that asks hard questions monthly. I’m grateful that they are not “impressed” with me. In the past couple of years, I’ve had to grow significantly in my relationship with the board. To this day, submitting to healthy authority is a struggle for me. My false self is exposed. My perfectionism is clearly seen. Yet deep down inside, I know God is protecting me.

To get to a place where pastors and boards can relate to one another in ways that hold together the tension of grace and truth requires a high level of self-awareness, humility, differentiation, and the courage to ask hard questions.

One simple way to measure humility as a leader is to tell yourself: “Honestly identify the tasks and people you think are beneath you.” I’ve had to ask this of myself more than I care to admit.

Pastoral ministry must be marked by humility. Our churches can help by creating cultures that prioritize accessibility and accountability and resist entitlement. Those changes don’t happen overnight. The policies we make today, though, may go on to change the expectations, then instincts, and then hearts of our leaders in the future—and give them more to think and pray about as they walk from their cars in the snow.

Rich Villodas is lead pastor of New Life Fellowship and author of The Deeply Formed Life.

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