–Daniel S. Ferguson
Thanks for giving me a week off to work on other projects and not blowing up my email too much. Glad to be back.
One of the strangest problems in churches that may be driving people away is also one that generally goes unmentioned by nones, dones, and Sundayers alike.
How do I know it’s a problem if those both inside and outside the church aren’t talking about it? Because pastors are. They’re either terrified of it or already completely trapped by it. And it’s killing them. And their churches.
The problem is the so-called “cult of the pastor.”
The Cult of the Pastor is a phenomenon whereby the church’s cultural, spiritual, and ideological center of gravity is overwhelmingly personified by its lead pastor.
You can probably recognize this when you see it. It’s easiest to spot when there’s some kind of crash in the pastor (like a sex scandal or other firing offense). Often times, the church completely implodes and dissipates. Mars Hill, for example entirely dissolved almost overnight when its pastor, Mark Driscoll, was terminated in 2014. Hardly anyone has heard a peep out of NewSpring Church since Perry Noble imploded last year.
These churches pretty much fell apart because their pastors did. That fact should terrify pastors and congregations everywhere.
One of the first questions I asked a minister two years ago when I was considering joining his church was about what plan was in place if it was suddenly discovered that the senior pastor had been having a torrid affair for the last six months.
I didn’t ask that question flippantly. If you Google news about pastor sex scandals, you won’t often get a very old result. The oldest top article I’ve ever seen was less than a month old. I asked that question because it was a fairly large possibility. I had seen it happen even in my own life. I wasn’t about to walk into a church that didn’t have a plan and didn’t have accountability for its pastor. Too many people have been hurt by that, myself included.
So I asked that question. But it wasn’t just about sex scandals. What I most wanted to know was how deep the cult of the pastorate went at that church. They had a fairly charismatic, highly capable preacher as their leader, and I wanted to make sure that the congregation hadn’t been sucked in to the vortex of his personality.
I was pleased to find that they hadn’t, and after over two years at that church, I’m still pleased when I find that it isn’t a church of a pastor, but a church of Jesus.
I get this nagging suspicion that, even though nobody mentions it, the cult of the pastor is a reason why a lot of people leave churches. And frankly, if a church is a cult of the pastor, they really should leave.
I really hope I don’t have to tell people why a cult of the pastor is bad, but I’m more than willing to tell you a few ways to spot one:
- Whole sermons go by without the Bible, Jesus, and/or the Gospel being emphasized. Not just mentioned, emphasized.
- Small Bible study groups may not really exist at this church, or if they do, sermons are often cited more than the Bible itself.
- There seems to be a general lack of understanding about the Bible or use of it in sermons, small groups, and/or curriculum.
- There is a strong emphasis on giving without transparency in how that money is being spent.
- In the case of financial transparency, the pastoral salaries and/or expenditures are excessive. (I’m looking at you, Steven Furtick.)
- There are repeated “altar calls” or “sinner’s prayers,” even when they don’t seem wholly appropriate given the sermon material. (These aren’t always bad, but they often don’t make sense. If a pastor seems like he’s trying to pad his numbers, HE IS.)
- There is rarely (if ever) another preacher on stage, except perhaps a direct understudy who subscribes and submits entirely to the lead pastor’s point of view.
- You hear a lot of “But the pastor said that…” when you raise any objection or question about sermons, etc.
- You get the sense that there is a veil of secrecy to some degree about certain aspects of the pastor’s private life, beyond the normal expectation of privacy.
If you see those things, don’t necessarily run away immediately. But definitely have a conversation to ask some pointed questions.
Here’s why: it’s totally inappropriate for a congregation to be a cult of a pastor rather than a church of Jesus Christ. There’s a ton of Biblical reasons, theological reasons, and spiritual reasons, but there’s also the big practical one: you’ll drive people away from Jesus. And not in small numbers.
And when that pastor crashes (and s/he WILL eventually crash in a cult-of-the-pastor church), the church will crash right alongside. It has happened time after time after time, and it will happen again.
So I have a recommendation. It will sound insane, then reasonable, then brilliant. You ready?
Every pastor should join the National Guard.
No really, s/he should. First of all, the congregation will eat it up. Spiritual leader who serves his country from a sense of patriotic duty? They’ll eat that with a spoon.
But beyond that, there will be a built-in weekend each and every month and two weeks each year where there will, by definition, have to be a different preacher and leader on stage because the lead pastor will be doing Guard duty.
This helps the church get used to other faces and other leaders and learn to cope if or when their pastor is away for any length of time (like, say, a deployment or training rotation).
It’s a nice second source of income for the pastor, s/he’ll always be in shape, s/he’ll get some phenomenal real-world experience, you’ll build up your leadership and preaching benches, and you’ll fight the Cult of the Pastor, all at the same time.
I love it. Give it a try. If you can’t join the Guard, try something like this anyway. It may be a very effective way of avoiding the natural gravity of this problem.
Note: I really adore that the splash photo for this post shows a guardsman with the name Faust. That’s just dripping with irony. If you don’t get the joke, I really can’t help you. I’ll still be your friend, though. Much love.