The dangers of a charismatic pastor
Churches must be bodily organizations led by the Holy Spirit, discerned through the body; not by an executive board of directors or a CEO.
My cell was reading John’s account of Jesus calling his disciples, and they wondered why Andrew and Peter were so willing to follow Jesus. The narrator is trying to get us to see Jesus as a prophet, and a figure above John the Baptist. John the Baptist models the Jesus Way by declaring that he must decrease, and Jesus must increase. Jesus continues modeling this by insisting that John, who claimed he couldn’t even untie Jesus’ sandals, baptize him.
But when we read the passage plainly, I do think it is a good question. One member of cell thought that when a leader seemingly attracts followers simply by virtue of their personality, they are approaching cult status. I wondered then why we’re attracted to charismatic leaders at all and if we should resist such enchantment.
I, for one, do not think Jesus was “charismatic,” like many leaders of our “cults of personality” are. I think Jesus was fundamentally a servant leader, one who debased himself to relate to us. id God incarnate came in the form of a baby, he was a son of a carpenter and had no place to rest his head. Despite attracting crowds of people and gaining notoriety, Jesus consistently told recipients of his miracles (especially in the Gospel of Mark), to keep what he was doing secret. Jesus not only didn’t want to attract the attention of the authorities, but he also didn’t want to gain celebrity as a miracle worker. Jesus was on a mission distinct from that – he was ushering in the Kingdom of God, he was bringing liberation to the oppressed, and freeing the captives. Jesus was engaged in a mission, not a vanity tour.
He tells his followers that whoever isn’t against him, is for him. The Apostle Paul continues this tradition by making sure that individual leaders don’t lead movements to divide the church. Jesus calls us to radical servant leadership and self-emptying as we follow in his way. Paul tells us Jesus radically self-emptied to the point of not thinking “equality with God was something to be grasped.”
With this model of leadership, I wonder why so many pastors and church leaders center themselves as the center of the church. Jesus decentered himself, yet we have many leaders who prop themselves up as both authorities in churches and also the main attraction at those places. I think we can point to scandalized megachurch pastors as examples of this, but I believe that all church leaders need to be conscious of not only our own psychological inclinations but how we are culturally shaped to strive for this kind of leadership.
In many ways, we know this to be true because we see it in other organizations. Joe Biden is the clear leader of the Democratic Party and the Party won’t move further than he is willing to move. In the GOP, there is clear division and conflict over who leads them. Almost always, the key to a leader is their ability to be charismatic and winsome.
We are organized to consider dynamic and charismatic leaders to be ideal candidates for organizations and public office, and even for churches. But the cost of heralding a charismatic leader as the center of a movement not only means that that particular movement is as long-lasting as its leader is, it demands support for that leader and equates solidarity with the movement with loyalty for the leader. At the church I have served at for my entire career as a pastor, we heralded “loving leaders” as fundamental to our very membership and covenant. Conflict with leaders needed to be dealt with in a one-on-one setting, in the spirit of Matthew 18. But this ended up protecting leaders from conflict and insulating them from criticism. Sure, you should love your pastor, but a pastor should never seek love from their church as their primary source. A church built around loving leaders makes narcissistic ones.
Sometimes a leader is so winsome and charismatic it leads to harm. Followers can even throw out their own morals in favor of loyalty. But bear in mind, sometimes the charismatic leader isn’t an up-front personality, sometimes they work behind the scenes, seemingly abdicating power, but demanding loyalty from the puppets they employ up-front. Sometimes these leaders are self-deceived in thinking they have no power, but they secretly or unconsciously wield it for their own gain.
Pastors, then, need own the power they wield, without collecting more or hiding it. They can’t make their churches into their vanity projects, but they shouldn’t abdicate responsibility while disguising their true intentions. They should be aware of their motives, conscious of when they are false, and try to seek coaching, counseling, mentorship, and spiritual direction. Pastors should be resting, seeking self-care, and outside influence, and learning to “right-size” themselves.
The member of my cell was right to be suspicious of leaders who draw followers without offering much, but we should also be suspicious of organizations and churches that center pastors as the primary attraction and executive of their ministry. Churches must be bodily organizations led by the Holy Spirit, discerned through the body; not by an executive board of directors or a CEO. Pastors are servant leaders who serve at the behest of the Spirit, as the body discerns. They certainly will have influence and power, but they should be seeking consciousness about that power and divest it when it is harmful. That is what Jesus did – aware of his own influence, but ready to humble himself as both the servant of and the Savior of the world.