A few days ago I pulled Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry off my shelf and was quite disheartened. Three out of the five celebrity pastors who endorsed the book are no longer in ministry due to moral failures of various kinds.
This got me thinking: Is there any connection between pastoral celebrity and moral failure? I suppose I can’t say for sure. But as I stated in a previous post, I think it’s probably the case that pastors begin their ministry with a sincere desire to serve Christ, but the “unholy trinity” of the world, the flesh, and the Devil (1 Jn. 2:15–17) tempts them to pervert their calling and instead exalt themselves and chase the applause of man.
John Piper once said that “sin is trying to quench our soul thirst anywhere but in God.” And pastors often try to quench their soul thirst by chasing signficance.
Consider a story with me.
After he graduated from seminary, Richard Lischer wanted a “significant ministry.” For him, this meant “a cutting-edge pastoral appointment in a socially conscious but not unaffluent congregation, followed by a professorship in our denomination’s flagship seminary.”
But as Providence would have it, the higher-ups in his denomination sent him to a small country church in a rural community. When he laid eyes on his first church, he felt “a crushing sense of disappointment,” and muttered under his breath, “So this is what has been prepared for me? . . . I wasn’t so put off by the physical appearance of the church as I was by its obvious irrelevance.” He knew that “unstrategic little churches” were out there, but he never wanted to serve one.
Why not? I think the answer is rather simple: He needed to get over himself. And we all do. Pastoral ministry is about serving, not about chasing feelings of significance.
To etch this lesson deep in our souls, I would strongly encourage aspiring pastors to begin their ministries in a setting like the one Lischer described above. Serving in a smaller context where life and ministry move more slowly, where church growth is more difficult, and where resistance to change is more considerable, helps smooth out some of the rough edges of our temperament. It helps us get over ourselves. And perhaps more importantly, it will help you discern if you actually want to be a pastor.
A Different Path
To be clear: I’m not opposed to large churches or well-known pastors. The question is one’s motives and one’s method. Motives will always be a tricky thing to decipher given the corruption within: “The human heart has so many crannies where vanity hides, so many holes where falsehood lurks, is so decked out with deceiving hypocrisy, that it often dupes itself” (Calvin, Institutes, 3. 2. 10).
But methods are another thing. And this we cannot deny: In today’s world pastors market themselves. They seek to become social media influencers and build their brand.
I would encourage pastors to follow the path laid out by Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984):
“All of us—pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and nonprofessional included—are tempted to say, ‘I will take the larger place because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ.’ Both individual Christians and Christian organizations fall prey to the temptation of rationalizing this way as we build bigger and bigger empires. But according to Scripture this is backwards: we should consciously take the lowest place unless the Lord Himself extrudes us into a greater place. The word extrude is important here. To be extruded is to be forced out under pressure into a desired shape. . . . The Christian leader should be a quiet man of God who is extruded by God’s grace into some place of leadership.”
I can’t see inside anyone’s heart, but I know I can’t trust my own. Quite often it tells me the same thing Jesus’ disciples told him: “No one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. . . . Show yourself to the world” (John 7:4). However, God’s teaching me to follow Jesus’ example: To spend time alone and in desolate places praying (Luke 5:16). I need to starve the desire for fame and run away from crowds.
 John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 81.
 Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 45, 10–11, 8.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, “No Little People, No Little Places,” in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. 3, A Christian View of Spirituality 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 12–13.