How Churches Are Grinding Up Pastors (And How to Fix It)

March 17, 2014

Is it possible to survive in pastoral ministry without being a kind of celebrity? Mark Driscoll, who has held both roles for a several years, says just the opposite. For him, the two are incompatible.

Crowd cheering - their rock idol or simply having fun in a club

He is right, of course. Pressure to live up to this insane expectation is the primary reason clergy are dropping like flies from pastoral ministry. It’s time we divorced the ideas of celebrity and spiritual shepherd once and for all.

Driscoll, the often controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church (Seattle) apparently issued a statement to his congregation in which he described a change of course for his ministry.

The catalyst for this move may have been the controversy over the methods employed to gain a best-seller rating for his recent book and his handling of relationships with some former church staff members.

Driscoll spoke of pressure of staying atop a large and growing organization, meeting the demands of a speaking schedule, and his presence in social media. He went on to say:

In recent years, some have used the language of ‘celebrity pastor’ to describe me and some other Christian leaders . . . I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter.

Ironically, this comes at a time when many pastors believe they cannot be effective unless they are celebrities.

The archetype has changed.

The pastor as a kind, wise, gentle soul who tends to the sick, counsels the brokenhearted, and proclaims good news to the poor is hopelessly out of date.

The ideal pastor today is the highly talented, omni-competent speaker who is ubiquitous in social media, outspoken about current affairs, a dynamic leader yet remarkably approachable, critical of the church yet its chief advocate, dashingly handsome with a down-to-earth appeal, impeccably dressed but never polished, well-spoken in a folksy way, manly but not intimidating, and equally comfortable with celebrities, politicians, and poor African children.

It’s time to admit that this person does not exist.

Better men and women than Mark Driscoll have been crushed under that nonsensical expectation. Insisting that pastors be something other than ordinary people who are faithful to God and faithful shepherds of their congregations is a disservice to them and to ourselves.

The apostle Paul couldn’t be the super pastor. Mark Driscoll couldn’t do it. And if the numbers are accurate, nobody can.

It is time for a kinder, gentler, more realistic vision of what any one person can do as the spiritual leader of a congregation.

We need a new definition for the word pastor.

There is no single way of defining the role of a pastor (I name five possible roles here). So to bring a change, we must start by admitting a few things.

We’re placing too many demands on our clergy. The growing gap between congregations’ expectations for the church (zooming) and their willingness to contribute (lagging) places a crushing burden on pastors and staff members. Many try, as Driscoll admits, to be superstars who can do it all. It’s unhealthy, and it has to stop.

We’re creating job descriptions for CEOs, not shepherds. Our role descriptions for pastors come primarily from business leadership, sports, and entertainment. The last place we have looked to define pastor is Scripture, and that needs to change.

Most people have only one or two strengths. And a boatload of weaknesses. We must find a way to empower clergy in the areas where they excel, and cut them a break for not being above average in everything they do.

Here’s a suggestion.

Let’s agree with Driscoll that the pastor’s first two responsibilities are to be faithful to family and faithful to preach the Word.

Beyond that, any pastor’s role will be some triangulation his or her calling, abilities, and the needs of the congregation. (Tips for identifying your pastoral style are here.)

Most denominations have some way of defining the role of a pastor, though many of those descriptions are quietly tabled in favor of locally developed job descriptions.

My denomination asks pastors to do eight things for their congregations.1 The list is paraphrased below. We could do worse than to adopt this as the description of every pastor’s role.

1. Faithfully preach the whole Bible, not just a few pet ideas.

2. Correct false ideas, but do so gently.

3. Encourage church members to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

4. Comfort troubled souls by offering the sacraments.

5. Give special attention to the care and training of children and young people.

6. Dilingently seek the salvation of lost people.

7. Pray constantly for the people under one’s care.

8. Set a good example of faith and behavior.

Anyone taking those responsibilities seriously will find little time for lining up speaking gigs or counting Facebook likes.

For my part, I, like Driscoll, am dialed in on being the pastor to one local church. That’s more than enough work—and fulfillment—for me.

What is the main thing you want from your pastor?

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about pastoral ministry and issues affecting the local church. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.