James MacDonald, author, radio Bible teacher, and founding and senior pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel, writes for us today about his personal standards avoiding celebrity status in ministry. This post was originally published on James’ blog, Vertical Church.
Every pastor manages a certain amount of increased profile and a tendency on the part of people to elevate them beyond what the Scripture considers necessary for the fulfillment of their duties (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:13). How large the audience is and how beyond necessary their expression of appreciation becomes is NOT just a function of their own hearts, but the things the pastor does to encourage or dissuade them. This has been a subject of frequent discussion in our own church among our Elders, and I thought it might be helpful to disclose what we have done to reduce ‘celebrity’ as I travel, and even as I move about in our own church.
1) After Service:
Whenever I am able, I exit back stage after service due to crowds and then find a place to stand in the lobby to greet folks, often with my wife. I think standing at the front or worse standing at the door to shake hands, invites conversation that tends toward evaluation of the sermon versus application of it. It’s not that some of those conversations aren’t helpful, it’s just that the majority are not. I prefer to avoid situations where people are provoked to comment on the current and, instead, seek conversations that flow from months of involvement with our church. Praying with the penitent and conversing with the critical is a ministry best left to Elders/Pastors who line up across the front after every service. Their presence communicates a plurality of leadership and an availability of pastoral care. Both of those, in my absence, communicate that others are just as capable to pray and serve and that no one is the ‘best’ person to talk to. I recently stopped traveling between campuses on Sunday morning because I was missing the spontaneous interaction with individuals and families who make up our congregation. Now I use that time to walk about and connect with congregants wherever I am preaching ‘live.’
2) Doing the Regular Things:
I believe we never outgrow the essentials of pastoral ministry. I am still in a small group, I still attend all Elder meetings, I am available to anyone who would approach me after our services. I went to a wake last week, did a funeral last month, and will often still visit in the hospital. No matter how large your church gets you should always do those things. But I do not do it all, or think that I should, or feel badly when someone in need has to pray with someone other than me. Letting go of the need to be the pastor to all, is one of the reasons I see less ego in pastors of large churches than I often see in the small ones. It’s important to my own soul to be involved in every kind of pastoral ministry, but the illusion that I have a pastoral relationship with every worshiper in our church ended about 13,000 people ago—and needs to end wherever you are ministering, or you are hoarding what God calls you to share and limiting the growth of your church by refusing the biblical mandates to give ministry away. Ministry is meant to be given to the ‘saints,’ Ephesians 4:11ff; 2 Timothy 2:2. The idea of the pastor as the one who has this singular relationship with the people that no one else has, and that he has ministry competencies that require his direct involvement with every wounded or wandering soul, also may reflect a failure to grasp the ‘one another’ ministry prescribed in the New Testament.
3) Taking Pictures:
Taking pictures is a da***d if you do, and da***d if you don’t, kind of thing. If I take the picture I feel awkward, and people who are watching believe I love it and revel in it. If I don’t take the picture I appear rude and egotistical. I try to avoid being asked, try to take a picture discreetly and quickly if I must comply, and generally just despise the whole phenomenon that really did not exist in any measure before cameras in our phones. If you have never been asked to have your picture taken with a total stranger, then let me assure you it does not feed a person’s ego, or make you feel special. It makes you feel awkward and presumed upon. It detracts from a sense of thankfulness that God has used your ministry in that person’s life, and raises your awareness of the need to continually wean people off their focus on individual messengers and back to the Word of God and the Son of God. I try to do this to the best of my ability without making a scene or hurting the one who surely has not been thinking things through at this level.
4) Book Signing:
I think signing books is weird—I don’t like doing it because the whole process makes me uncomfortable. I have never signed books after a service in my own church, and I frequently decline to do them when I travel. I have a problem with the idea that the only ones who can meet you or shake your hand are those who have purchased books. I DON’T judge those who do them—I just don’t, unless a greater insult would occur to those who are hosting us. For example, tomorrow I am speaking to ACSI and was asked to do a book signing afterward; sorry, the answer is no. When an individual approaches me with a book, I do sign if the timing is right, but I often write beneath my signature “2 Corinthians 4:7,” as a reminder to myself and to them about who is the treasure and who is the jar of clay. I don’t sign Bibles. I only sign what I have written. Signing Bibles is just weird in my estimation. Once a staff member sent a person to me to ask me to sign their Bible, and then chuckled in the back as they saw me struggling to decline graciously.
5) Verbalize the True Perspective:
I frequently remind our people in sermons, “It’s not about the messenger, it’s about the message.” I find ways to bring this lesson into my teaching, not so much because I think they don’t know, but because I want them to know that I know. I feel loved and appreciated in our own church, but not at all like a celebrity. Frankly this is much more of a problem when I am on the road. Maybe that is what I should be doing a lot less of. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to opportunity, but protection of my own soul and humble resolve to serve Christ are of greater importance in my own stewardship than any ‘great’ opportunity. Our church works hard at genuine appreciation for the many among us who labor to ‘equip saints for works of ministry,’ and we also work hard at keeping the focus on Jesus Christ and His Word as the only worthy object of our adoration.
Okay, that got a little long, as it’s complicated—but in our ministry we are working hard to resist the attempts of others at wrongly elevating me. Because I like practical ideas, let me give you some things we do to affect this issue:
- I don’t encourage clapping, though I have found at times that suppressing it only makes the matter worse.
- I don’t allow people to go on and on when introducing me, but I try to humbly submit to this needless formality.
- I refuse to be introduced in our own church when I visit a campus, and don’t sit on a platform on a throne, or even stand on the platform except to preach.
- I don’t accept royalties from any of my books sold in our church or through my radio ministry.
- I don’t sell anything directly to people and if asked about a resource, give it.
- I use myself only as a negative example in sermons and try never to be the hero of any story I tell.
- I don’t allow anyone anywhere to give me a gift except personal friends. My office has a form letter to send when a gift comes in, explaining that policy and letting the giver know that I prefer to pass gifts along to those less recognized in ministry, but just as deserving of an expression of thanks.
- I invite a team of ministers to line the front on every campus after every service and emphasize their role in sharing the pastoral work of our church.
I know I don’t have this whole subject worked out yet, but those are some practical steps we have taken to de-emphasize celebrity in our ministry.
What other ways do you think we can keep our focus on the Message rather than the messenger? Why do you think celebrities are so important in our American culture?