Henri Nouwen, once wrote, “We ministers may have become so available that there is too much presence and too little absence … too much of us and too little of God and his Spirit.” As leaders, our presence can become a hindrance instead of a help for our congregants’ spiritual growth and health. We can “do” too much. We can fall into the “Super-Pastor” trap.
Why should a church member wait for his or her prayer to be answered or to reach out in vulnerability to the church community when the Super-Pastor is only a click away? Call. Text. Tweet. Message. Email. The church may even pay for his phone anyway. It’s his job to save the day. Churches often fail to recognize that pastors and church leaders are broken, just like church members are. Not only are they broken, but they are finite and limited. However, even more tragic than all of that, I’m not convinced that inappropriate leadership expectations from church members are the biggest problem with the Super-Pastor syndrome.
Unmasking the Super-Pastor
The Super-Pastor is the pastor who is always on call, ready to serve; nights, weekends and vacations are no barrier, they never miss a hospital visit, they always preach with passion and with conviction, and so on. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? And like many pastors, I’ve bad-mouthed the whole concept, and bemoaned its existence. But then one day I realized that its presence was, in large part, the fuel that kept my ministry (and even worse – my soul) going. And I don’t think that I am alone. I am pretty confident that the continued existence of the Super-Pastor problem is the result of poor leadership from pastors even more than it is the result of bad expectations from church members.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing our fingers at cultural influence while forgetting that we were born and raised, breathing the same air as everyone around us. No matter what pedestal people may prop us up upon, or what platform we may or may not have, there’s a part of our heart that likes the attention. For some, the desire is easy to recognize, like a celebrity host who comically motions for more applause while telling the audience to stop. For others, it takes the loss of platform to recognize that the spotlight had become a comfort zone and even a source of identity. Most of us would probably say that we wouldn’t be found at either extreme end of the spectrum—openly craving or naively losing our identity in the role of pastor or leader—we believe we live in a healthy middle ground. But we live the Super-Pastor story.
You and I put on the cape and mask. Before we can move past the Super-Pastor expectations of others, we have to be honest about it in ourselves. Leader after leader after leader has to struggle with this dual personality. We have a tug toward suiting up. Something inside of us—something other than the call of God and work of the Spirit—wants to leave the mundane behind and be the one who saves the day. Taking an honest look in the mirror, ask yourself if you’re willing to take off the mask? Is your chest puffed up, hands on your waist, cape blowing in the wind?
The Super-Sized Problem
As a former resident of Nashville who worked in the heart of downtown, I was all too familiar with the spectacle of tourists on Broadway. The daily commute led right through this main artery of entertainment. When in a good mood, the eclectic chaos felt alive, buzzing with life like the assorted neon signs that lit up Broadway. It was the closest thing that Middle Tennessee could offer in resemblance to the New Testament churches in cultural epicenters like Rome or Ephesus. On the opposite side of the river was an NFL stadium for the Tennessee Titans. In ancient Greek religion, Titans were divine beings that were overthrown by the Olympians, including Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and Artemis of the Ephesians.
When picturing the weight Super-Pastors try to carry, imagine Atlas, the mythical Titan who was doomed to stand on the western edge of the world, supporting the heavens for the rest of eternity. The difference between Atlas and Super-Pastors is that Atlas was forced to carry the burden as a punishment. Super-Pastors voluntarily lift unrealistic expectations onto their shoulders and could put it down if we chose to. But we don’t. People may expect us to bear the load ourselves, and pastoral ministry and leadership is certainly a calling, but we’re in this position by choice. We have no one to blame but ourselves collectively and individually and now we’re finally at a tipping point for recognizing the massive problem that looms precariously overhead.
The Biblical Solution
The solution to this problem is found in Ephesians 4. Paul tells the church at Ephesus,
And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. – Ephesians 4:11-13 (CSB)
God’s vocational design for church leaders is to equip the saints for works of ministry, not to do ministry for the saints. In other words, we enlist, equip and deploy the people in our churches so that, together, we serve the ministry needs of our church family. This doesn’t mean that the pastors are exempt from ministry, instead it reframes our understanding of ministry. We kill the Super-Pastor when we hand off ministry, prepare others to do what we have historically done, and keep ourselves from always being front and center. In this paradigm pastors don’t stop doing ministry, no they do ministry, but they do so along with the rest of the body.
The problem is, when we practically embrace a Super-Pastor model of church leadership, often in an effort to satisfy our souls that are longing for affirmation, and so on, we stunt the ability of church to be a place of multiplication. We can’t afford to hand off ministry when we need that ministry, and the applause we get because of it, to continue feeding our souls. Pastors and church leaders, we have to acknowledge our complicity in the stunting of multiplication in the church. We are often the cause of people not being developed, trained and sent out. We are a bottleneck for multiplication and growth, everyone including ourselves expects the primary work of ministry to come through us.
On the other hand, we also need to remember that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in
Turning Things Upside Down
This starts by turning our own leadership paradigm upside down. Imagine the movement and power of God being poured out through you in order to bless the people around you. The Living Water gives not only eternal but also abundant life, nurturing gospel seeds as they take root, grow to maturation and fruitfulness, and reproduce. In our current leadership paradigm of professionalism, leaders are functioning as a funnel, distilling the grand things of God for more manageable consumption as we bottle-feed our congregations. Like Temple priests, we’ve been the point of contact between God and the average person. People expect our presence to be like the finger of God, the tip of the funnel, providing the unique spiritual touch that people need. Ministry gets funneled through the leader to the people. The Super-Pastor is in the middle, supporting all of the ministry responsibilities like Atlas on behalf of the mere mortals around him. But this isn’t heroic. The Super-Pastor is a myth. The result is a minimal capacity for influence and impact.
Instead of being a bottleneck for ministry growth, we need to flip this funnel like a shower head, multiplying points of contact and ministry outlets. The surface area that we can now cover is exponentially greater. Our influence and impact increases. Now our leadership is a matter of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. We pour into them so that they can pour into others. Each unique person, with his or her unique gifts, in his or her unique positions and spheres of influence can now work together to everyone’s mutual benefit. Unlike Atlas who was doomed forever to be stuck between the heavens and the earth, you have a choice. You can step down from the pedestal you’re propped up on, take off the Super-Pastor cape, and level the church. Start spreading the work of ministry around, multiplying impact by giving ministry away.
When we get this right Jesus is much more likely to get the credit. When we do everything, serving as the Super-Pastor, we too easily get the credit as the heroically carrying the burden of ministry. In the midst of it we can even get more credit by appearing humble and overworked (all the while, actually loving the attention and affirmation it affords to us). Instead, what might the church look like if we pushed back, in a truly counter-cultural way, against the rampant independence and consumerism and killed the Super-Pastor syndrome by equipping the saints, doing ministry together, and the pastor fading into the background? I’m convinced that Jesus would be honored and pastor, you might just keep your ministry from killing you while you try to use it to feed your soul.
The Gospel and Your True Identity
How do we resist the Super-Pastor syndrome? Obviously, we have to lead our churches to rightly understand what church leadership looks like. But first, we need to look inward, at our own lives, and consider the state of our own hearts and souls. In order for us to resist the siren-song of using ministry as our own form of self-medication we have to first have our souls rooted in an appropriate understanding of the gospel. God alone can satisfy and give us purpose.
Tim Keller has said that understanding our identity in Christ is significant because it is the only identity that is received rather than achieved. This is no small matter. Everything else in life is based on what we can do. The gospel tells us that God’s value of us is determined not by any effort we exert, but rather by the gift of Jesus on the cross.
One of the reasons why so many pastors gravitate to the Super-Pastor syndrome, I am convinced, is because so few of us are able to really rest in the accomplished work of Jesus on the cross. We run towards the Super-Pastor, subconsciously thinking we need it, while not recognizing that it’s a cheap knock-off of the real thing—namely the gospel, the hope of Jesus on the cross, in your place, securing your identity, your purpose and your hope. There is not one thing you can do, pastor or church leader, that will secure God’s love and affection for you any more than what is present right now, at this moment. That is an incredibly liberating reality.
The following article has been edited from Chapter 6 of Leveling the Church: Multiplying Your Ministry by Giving It Away by Micah Fries and Jeremy Maxfield (Moody, 2020).