This article was posted on the Gospel Coalition website by Zach Nielsen, one of the pastors at The Vine Church in Madison, Wisconsin.
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1.11-13)
Just because you’re a strong and effective leader doesn’t mean you’ve built a cult of personality. That should be all of us. But the Oxford Dictionary helps us know what we are trying to avoid. It defines a cult of personality as a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.”
its-all-about-meThere is nothing wrong with your people admiring you as their pastor. The problem starts when the healthy admiration morphs into unreflective obedience, fearful retreat, or a messianic complex.
Only our admiration of Jesus could never be misplaced or excessive. So perhaps the best way to avoid a cult of personality in your ministry is to actively pursue creating a cult of personality for someone else, namely Jesus.
Consider these other ways to help you avoid an unhealthy cult of personality.
Power. Where does the ultimate power in the church reside? Sometimes this is hard to pin down. The formal org chart may or may not accurately reflect the reality on the ground. We all know of churches ruled by the biggest givers, whether in formal leadership or not.
Where does the buck stop? If you are the lead pastor, does anyone have the authority to tell you “no”? Have you ever been told “no” by other leaders and submitted to their views? If not, why? If you have never submitted to anyone else’s input or leadership, who will help you identify your blind spots? Do you assume you don’t have any blind spots?
If all the power in the church resides with you, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Accessibility. How accessible are you? Do you give the impression that you are “set apart as holy” and different from them? Jesus retreated from the crowds at times, and so should we. I am certainly not advocating for any pastor to hand out his cell phone number to every member of the congregation. But if your ministry keeps messy people at arms length you might be establishing a cult of personality. Even as he spent most of his time with his disciples, Jesus reserved much of his attention for messy people. Think of how much the Gospels tell us about this activity of Jesus. He spent time with whores, political revolutionaries and conspirators, the marginalized, blue collar workers, and the physically broken. Does your ministry look this way?
If there are no pathways for “normal people” to reach you, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Transparency. A culture of legalism can easily spring up when a pastor fails to be wisely transparent. How will your congregation believe the truth of the gospel and find freedom in repentance if they never see you do so? Don’t transform the pulpit into a confessional booth, but help others know that you repent over your sins just like they do.
Does anyone in your church see you get tired, frustrated, discouraged, impatient, and sad? Jesus was all these things for his disciples to see. If he could be transparent with this inner circle, shouldn’t we follow his lead? Why would anyone bring their problems to you if you never seem to know what real life is like? Show others how your identity in Christ as a justified, loved, adopted, and freed man of God helps you battle the lies that lead you toward isolation and the veneer of having it all together.
If you are not transparent in healthy ways, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Branding. How much of your promotional materials, website, and Sunday service feature you? Is your name and face all over everything? It’s important for visitors to identify the lead pastor, but are you actually communicating that the ministry is all about you?
If it’s all about your name and face, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Criticism. How do you handle criticism? Are people punished for criticizing you? Do you provide avenues for feedback? Do you request feedback from people who love God, love his Word, love you, and do not fear you? Do not wait for criticism but habitually plead for feedback. Make it a regular practice when you meet with church members to ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” This example models humility, puts them in a position to share honestly, and helps you grow in ways you have not yet considered.
If you never receive healthy criticism or punish those who do, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
Watch for the Bus. What would happen if you got hit by a bus? Would your whole ministry come to a screeching halt? Is it possible that you subtly enjoy thinking you are indispensable? We need to repent of this raw pride that burns us out and squashes the gifts of the body of Christ.
Battle this sin by empowering other leaders at a high level. Then everyone knows you don’t believe the life of the church rests completely on your shoulders. How are you investing in future leaders who will outlive you? Can you think of someone who would be in line to lead if you died tonight? If you can’t think of anyone, maybe it’s time to start investing in other leaders.
If you got hit by a bus and your ministry comes to a screeching halt, you might be establishing a cult of personality.
To be clear, it’s not necessarily a sin to be popular, well-liked, or deeply respected. But how are you seeking to lay attention, power, and control at Jesus’s feet? Do you revel in being the center of attention at church? Or do you seek to direct attention, power, and control to King Jesus? How can you decrease so that he might increase? (John 3:30)