A Cautionary Tale Waiting to Happen
When I learned of Carl Lentz’s moral failure, I was saddened but not surprised. The little I knew about him left me feeling uneasy. He ministered to celebrities—artists, athletes, and actors. He came off as flamboyant and overly concerned about his appearance—tight-fitting shirts, flashy clothes, and low rise bathing suits (the latter image induced an unwanted reflex ).
I feared he was a cautionary tale waiting to happen.
Lest my assessment seem unduly harsh, please know that I see Mr. Lentz as a symptom of a larger problem. Because here’s the dirty little secret: The notoriety and popularity achieved by Mr. Lentz is craved by nearly every pastor.
If you’ll pardon my cynicism for a moment, I think it’s what’s behind the Yoda-tweets that pastors publish on their social media accounts (nod to the boys over at the Happy Rant). It’s why some pastors crowbar the size of their church into nearly every conversation. It’s what’s underneath the heavily curated personas on Facebook designed to attract the attention of Christian publishers.
And it’s made its way into our seminaries. Consider the following anecdote.
Yes, This Really Happened
During my first seminary class, the professor began by having us introduce ourselves to each other and describe our future ministry plans. “My goal is to be a pastor,” the majority of the students declared, with a few aspiring missionaries and counselors interspersed throughout the classroom. Half way through the formality, one young seminarian—without pretense, I might add—announced magisterially, “My goal is to speak at conferences like R. C. Sproul.” Assuming the young seminarian was joking, our instructor chuckled and asked incredulously, “So, you just wanna skip the whole local church ministry thing and go straight to selling out conferences?” “Yeah,” responded the aspiring conference headliner—again, without pretense.
We may regard the young man’s ambition as a bit unseemly, but it remains in all of us. We want admiration and recognition. We want our family, friends, peers, and the untold masses, to acknowledge our existence. We want fame.
Maybe I’m wrong—and I hope I am—but I see a connection between the inordinate thirst for fame and the rising numbers of pastors succumbing to moral failure.
We pastors need to disavow the desire for fame and celebrity and reconsider what initially drove us to ministry. To that end, in this post I’m calling pastors to . . .
- Recall the Sacredness of Ministry.
“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer,” Paul instructs Timothy, “he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). The nobility of the task is evidenced by the sacredness of the labor: As stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), pastors proclaim the inspired Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16–17), shepherd God’s flock (1 Pet. 5:1), and nurture his sanctifying work among his people (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:24–2:5). These are not trivial matters.
But the initial thrill wears off. The sincerity of our devotion to Christ mutates into a thirst for recognition.
We wouldn’t identify it as such and would deny it if confronted, but worldliness has slithered its way into our hearts. After all, we know our culture defines success in two ways: prosperity and notoriety. If we have neither, we must be failures. Somewhere along the journey we bought in to the lie that success and obscurity were mutually exclusive.
So what do we do? We aim to quiet our feelings of inferiority by using people—including the precious souls in our congregation—on some grand quest for self-validation. Only we sanitize our sin by mislabeling it gospel ambition.
Rejoicing in Our Splendid Insignificance
I have not escaped the clutches of this bloodthirsty beast, which is why I need pastors from previous eras to awaken me from my ministerial slumbers. My go-to’s as of late have been Francis Grimké (1850–1937) and Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892).
One of the leading African-American pastors of his day, Grimké warned ministers not to prostitute their calling to the “unworthy purpose of self-laudation.” He insisted that the self-seeker has no place in the pulpit and that pastors must oppose the “desire for praise” and “the wish to be complimented for our pulpit ministrations.”
In his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon told aspiring pastors that the pulpit should be the place where a man senses his own “insignificance and nothingness.” According to the Prince of Preachers, God aids us in this process by catechizing pastors through a larger dose of trials, challenges, and afflictions. Instead of chafing against these hardships, we must learn to “kiss the wave that throws us against the Rock of Ages.” God will have his way: patience, humility, docility, and tenderheartedness will slowly drown out the jingling bells of publicity that so easily entice us.
Brothers, we are not rock stars, empire builders, or celebrities. We are expositors, soul physicians, and intercessors.
Secondly, we need to . . .
- Rethink Our Definition of Success (and Leadership)
English poet John Donne (1572–1631) insightfully noted that there’s a snake in every path and unique temptation in every line of work. In my judgment, the snake in our ministerial path and unique temptation in our line of work is using ministry as a platform to catapult us into the limelight, to take us somewhere other than where we are, to somehow escape the ordinary.
In this we’re like the Sons of Thunder: “We want you [Jesus] to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . . Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35–37).
This unslaked desire for recognition can lead us to bulldoze our people in order to accomplish our supposed vision of ministry. “Get on the bus or get run over by the bus,” as one alpha male pastor put it.
We would denounce this kind of leadership tactic, I know. But are our models any better?
From my reading, most books on church leadership are embarrassingly banal. They are all reruns of the same formula: cast a vision, get buy-in from the congregation, and chart a course toward accomplishing specific objectives. But pastors sometimes feel that everything hangs on the sheer force of their larger-than-life personality. Plus, we know that if we accomplish the goals and “drive results” (to use the language of corporate America), the congregation will crown us a success. If we fail to meet the objectives, they will deem us a deficient leader.
It seems that both pastor and congregation yearn for some way to measure results. We need some tangible way to assess effectiveness. But rather than equating competent leadership with the proverbial killer Bs—buildings, bodies, and budgets—we need to conceive of it in terms of service.
Genuine spiritual leadership serves. It doesn’t use people. We all want numerical growth. No pastor wants to lead a dying church. (And trust me: No pastor wants to tell a future search committee that he was pastoring a church when it closed its doors.) But sometimes churches die. And those dying churches need pastors to shepherd them through this heart wrenching process.
What I’m saying is this: We need to bend our definition of church leadership to the Scriptural pattern. Maybe our definitions of success and leadership need to take God’s providence in a church’s life into account. Maybe not every church needs to grow to five thousand. Maybe not every pastor is equipped to lead a church of that size.
We pastors need to surround ourselves with friends and fellow strugglers, not fans. We need actual people to journey with us through this beautiful and broken world, not admirers who applaud us from a distance. We aren’t heroes or celebrities, but unworthy servants whose lives will be taken up with praying and repenting until we see our King face-to-face.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).
 Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 37.
 John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Vintage, 1999), 5.