The children of an evangelical megachurch are given pictures of their pastor to color with crayons, a picture demanding their loyalty to him as their fearless, visionary leader. An outcry on Twitter ensues. On the heels of the controversy, we also find out that the spontaneous mass baptisms that he is renowned for performing are not so spontaneous after all, and we go nuts over that too.
A few days later, the same pastor stands in front of thousands of his followers and shouts, to uproarious applause, that God gave him permission to squash his critics, because they are out to destroy the good work of the Lord.
"I felt God said 'Then don't play defense, play offense,’” he said to his church. “‘Shake it back off into the same fire. Feed the fire.’”
Soon after, news leaks that another megachurch pastor spent $200,000 of his church’s funds in an elaborate scheme to get his book on the New York Times’ bestseller list; this, after he faced accusations of plagiarism late last year. It sends his critics into a frenzy.
These latest developments about Steven Furtick and Mark Driscoll sickened many of us and, once again, ignited a familiar conversation about ego, control, and abuse of power within the church. And I’m not even going to touch Bill Gothard here, although his is unquestionably the most egregious case among the pastors in the news right now.
And perhaps you’re enraged; you’re ready to take on the seeming trend of pastors beholden to ego. Or, perhaps you’re no longer surprised by this sort of behavior; you’ve learned to expect such things. Maybe you’re just sick of hearing about it all.
Personally, I am utterly over stimulated with these kinds of stories. There are just too many, one after another, all of the time. I’m bracing myself for the next one, wondering what it will be. Furtick was forgotten in the wake of Driscoll, but next week Driscoll (at least, this latest controversy) will be forgotten as another powerful church leader makes news, and we’ll be left to palm our foreheads one more time.
Driscoll and Furtick are volatile, rich, famous and inflammatory. Which makes them easy targets for Twitter scorn and angry blog posts.
But the problem isn’t Driscoll’s loose mouth and penchant for fame, or Furtick’s secret salary and 16,000 square foot house. The problem lies in the systematic issues and structure of the modern church that creates, shapes and nurtures a specific sort of leader.
It is only the famous or the egregious who rise to the scrutiny of the public eye. Nevertheless, there are leaders of smaller churches across the country who abuse the power allotted to them. I experienced it in a church of 150, where the pastor, when he thought none of his flock could hear him, referred to his parishioners as ‘giving units’. I experienced it in a small-town church of 50, where the pastor would pause in the middle of his two-hour sermon should anyone try to slip out quietly and he would publicly shame them. I’ve seen in in a church of 300, where the leader took it upon himself to pass out anti-gay marriage lawn signs to all of his members with instructions to display them outside their homes.
Not all pastors fit this mold, but it certainly exists and tragically, it’s not that hard to find those who do. There is an observable phenomenon here that has to do both with the pastors and with the churches that raise them up.
Dale Wolery, Executive President of Clergy Recovery Network – an organization that provides counseling for church leaders in crisis - says that often, pastors mask selfish ambition, and the result is dangerous for both the congregants and the pastor as well.
Perhaps because a pastor’s line of work is sacred, they feel compelled to deny, even to themselves, any selfish motivation, attempting to interpret it as God’s call and their vision. And perhaps we prefer to be complicit in that. Perhaps, at times, we even demand such pretense.
Wolery says the very structure of a congregation that regularly sits and listens to “expert” biblical teaching from one man can feed the natural human ego of the pastor, and give congregants the sense that their leader is spiritually above them. It is a system that works to puff up even humble people.
“The primary danger of putting pastors on pedestals is that the pastors become isolated there. Pedestals make human doings out of human beings by isolating them from peer friendships and human intimacy for which we are all designed,” Wolery says. “The pedestal of ministry, especially ‘successful’ ministry allows the dysfunction to thrive on the pedestal until a crisis occurs.”
The crisis (whether moral failing or financial scandal) is often the only way an unhealthy church leadership structure will be laid bare. Often, only then does a church begin to see the troubling aspects of the system in which they have been complicit.
It’s easy to throw an angry tweet in some megachurch pastor’s direction, especially the ones I dislike. But what good will I accomplish in that? The much harder, humble work lies in refusing to put our real spiritual leaders – even the ones we really like – up on that pedestal in the first place.
We can help protect them from the temptations of ego by treating them, not like some higher form of spiritual being, but like a person with needs, desires, motives and flaws. We can bridge the divide between clergy and laity, not to invalidate their position, but to offer what all humans need – relationship and understanding.
We can support them when they make mistakes. We can choose no longer to demand perfection.
We can practice the kind of unity that doesn’t involve doing everything they say.
And we can truly encourage them in their faith by no longer expecting them to be the gatekeepers of ours.
Carly Gelsinger is writer, blogger, and mother living in California. She is also a recovering Pentecostal and reluctant evangelical and writes about the messes in life that are worth making. You can follow her on Twitter @CarlyGelsinger and find more of her writing at her website.