Fame is a Fickle Food

The other day I heard a guest on NPR describe blogging as old technology. Weblogs were what people used to do in the days before social media. He was a young, hip entrepreneur. His company sells T-shirts, or as he called it “gear,” so I suppose he would know. I was startled to find this out. But I guess I should have known. My age should have told me that what I thought was cutting edge was actually the internet’s equivalent of “dad jeans.” If I can do this, I suppose anyone can.

Still, I feel powerful every time I click publish on my WordPress blog. Suddenly the thoughts I’ve labored over are out there for the whole world to read. I feel like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. Within minutes I start checking my stats to see if the Reformation has begun. But just because we put something out there is no guarantee that anybody will be interested in it (or even know where to find it). The more voices in the room, the harder it is to make out what is said. Often when I post, I wonder if I am only adding to the background noise.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized publishing in Europe by using printing presses that employed mechanical, movable type. He was to the world of books what Henry Ford would eventually become to the automotive industry. Gutenberg didn’t invent books or printing, but his technology made them affordable and available. Books weren’t just for the rich or the church anymore. Now ordinary people could own books, and for many, it meant they could publish them as well. The internet mirrored Gutenberg’s revolution and extended it. Thanks to the internet, we are all writers, publishers, and broadcasters now.

Unfortunately, with so many other voices crying in the digital wilderness, one must startle to be heard. The attention of the multitude is reserved for the loudest, strangest, angriest, or crudest voice. Such an environment is toxic for those who merely want to reflect. It is even worse for those who set out to tell the truth. These days publishing in any form seems to be more about marketing than it is about words and ideas. We sell the sizzle instead of serving meat. In the process, we may end up selling our souls to be heard. The effort that is required to capture the attention of an audience that has become deafened by the sound of so many voices can cause Christian communicators to shade the truth, smoothing the sharp edges in an attempt to make it more palatable. We may succumb to the temptation to exaggerate, telling our own story but with a flourish that makes us seem more interesting than we are. We resort to cheap sentimentalism and manipulation.

Or maybe we just get cranky. When I preached regularly as a pastor, I discovered that in my earnest desire to hold the wandering attention of my audience, I sometimes limited the emotional range of my sermons.  Looking back, I think I had confused volume with dynamism. Or maybe it was a function of my personality, which tends more toward critical thinking than chirpy effervescence. Whatever the reason, it meant that my sermons were disproportionately “prophetic” in tone. On most days there was more thunder than sunshine in them. After one of these sermons, someone approached me and wanted to know if everything was alright. “Why do you ask?” I said. He smiled nervously and replied, “Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.”

Ambition is another complicating factor. The promise of a limitless audience can lead to unrealistic expectations.  More often than not, it turns out to be a false promise, and I am disappointed. I am not blaming the internet for this. The ambition is my own as are the unrealistic expectations that come with it. But I find that I am not the only one. Nearly every evening, you can turn on the television and find some talent show whose contestants are convinced that they are destined for greatness. A few manage to capture the brass ring. The majority finish disappointed, wondering why the viewing public failed to recognize their star potential. The losers are sent home with hyperbole and accolades, which only reinforces their conviction that if they only believe in themselves and keep trying, their dreams of fame and glory will come true. Most of the time, we never hear from them again.

C. S. Lewis has rightly pointed out that “pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools” is a kind of false humility. But we live in an age that moves in the opposite direction. Today every child is a prince or a princess. Commonplace actions that were once treated as matters of ordinary civil responsibility are now spoken of as heroic. These days everybody is a hero.  The sin of our age is not one of explicit pride so much as it one of ill-conceived hyperbole. There is no longer any room in the world for an ordinary person. We are all exceptional now.

A similar spirit is abroad in the church. It is not enough to be a plain Christian. Instead, we must be extraordinary. It is no longer acceptable to come to church simply to worship and give thanks. We need to do something “life-changing.” Quiet reflection is self-indulgent. Don’t just sit there and concentrate your attention on God. You should be trolling the aisles, looking for divine encounters with strangers and engaging in strategic conversations. In this case, fame is not the goal but spiritual greatness.

All this pressure to do something great is tiresome. Whether the pressure I feel has been self-imposed or is an expectation placed upon me by someone else, it seems strangely out of harmony with the Apostle Paul’s directive to make a quiet life our ambition (1 Thess. 4:11-12). This command is fulfilled in the home, the workplace and the neighborhood. Its success is not measured in greatness but by responsible living. Do your job. Pay your bills. Be a good neighbor. A deadbeat who can walk on water might indeed be an intriguing spectacle. But he is still a deadbeat in the end.

I do not want to give the impression that there is no place for greatness in human experience. However, in the majority of cases, those who achieve such status were not pursuing it. If it is not an accident, it is at best a byproduct of something else. Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems, but only a few were published while she was alive. Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest By those who ne’er succeed.” Dickinson also wrote, “Fame is a fickle food…Men eat of it and die.”

Others long for it and go hungry.

Why Do Churches Put Up with Narcissistic Leaders?

Another high profile pastor has been accused of abusive leadership. The story is so familiar to us by now that it has become monotonous. We are sorry, but we are not surprised. Or maybe we are not sorry. The debacle holds a macabre fascination for us. Like watching a horrific accident while it is in progress, we can’t look away. The fall of a great leader appeals to our egalitarian sensibilities. We like to see the mighty cut down. Americans love to hate their leaders. The story of abusive leaders has become so familiar by now that we ought to ask a question. Why do churches tolerate such pastors? Churches stick with abusive leaders for the same reasons people remain in other abusive relationships.

We are Attracted to Them

No church that is looking for a pastor says to itself, “Hey, I know! Let’s hire a conceited jerk!” Churches give a lot of thought to the characteristics they want to see in their pastor, and most of them are good. Nobody who decides to attend a church is thinking, “Where can I find an abusive pastor today?” The church is drawn to narcissistic leaders because they are attractive to us. Narcissistic leaders have a presence. They are exciting. They hold out the promise of great things for the church. Many produce impressive results, at least for a while. Those who see through the hype recognize it as pretentiousness. But for churches who are hoping for a messianic leader, narcissistic style can be very appealing. These churches are willing to tolerate the abuse in the hope that the pastor will lead them into the Promised Land of ministry success.

They Reward Us

Any co-dependent relationship is built upon a dysfunctional system of rewards. We enable narcissistic behavior because we get something from the leader. Sometimes the reward is small. It may only be that we are addicted to the adrenaline of crisis that comes with this style of leadership. Or maybe we like the pastor’s preaching. Churches tolerate narcissistic leadership behavior because they fear that no one else will be able to produce the same results. Churches with narcissistic leaders are often so identified with the pastor that his departure will have a negative effect on attendance. The larger the church, the more difficult it is to disengage because there seems to be so much at stake. Churches enable narcissistic leaders by developing social systems that reinforce their abuse.  Narcissistic leaders surround themselves with other leaders who make them feel special. This inner circle experiences a vicarious thrill by being associated with the leader. Because narcissistic leadership comes with perks and special treatment, the inner circle often gets rewarded along with the leader. The result is a co-dependent loop which blinds those who should be responsible for holding the narcissist accountable.

We are Afraid of Them

Narcissistic leaders are bullies. They develop organizational cultures which are marked by fear and punishment. Church members who question their agenda or practices are accused of being divisive and undermining God’s plan. In a misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9 & 11, those who criticize the pastor are sometimes warned not to “raise their hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Threats and retaliation are explained away as “church discipline.” Narcissists use the power of their spiritual position to shut down anybody who challenges them. They create a culture of fear which silences objections and penalizes objectors. There is always a cost to those who challenge a narcissistic leader.

What You Can Do About It

What can you do, if you believe your church has a culture of narcissistic leadership? First, pray for divine intervention. This sounds overly simplistic, but it is the most important strategy for dealing with a narcissistic pastor. Narcissistic leaders are extremely difficult to correct. They do not see themselves as narcissists. They do not understand why others criticize their motives and actions. They explain away criticism by attributing it to Satanic attack. Churches with deeply entrenched narcissistic leaders need to ask God to bring the true nature of its dysfunctional leadership to light.  In most cases, things get worse before they get better.

Second, refuse to cooperate with the co-dependent dynamics of the church’s narcissistic culture. You have no control over the narcissist. You cannot force a narcissistic leader to see himself as a narcissist. But you can introduce an element of disequilibrium into the culture by not participating in the game. Dysfunctional cultures are a kind of dance. Everybody has to keep in step. When you refuse to follow the dysfunctional rules you create a dynamic that makes change possible. The foundational rule in a dysfunctional culture is the code of silence. We break that rule by speaking the truth in love. But recognize that there is a cost to this.

Finally, look for a healthier church. This is extremely hard, especially if you have invested your life in the church. Your friends and your ministry are there. Nobody likes to start over. Sometimes the best thing to do in a church system which tolerates narcissistic leadership is to leave. If the pastor is deeply entrenched and surrounded by a team that protects him, you should look to your own spiritual wellbeing. Nobody likes to leave a church. But sometimes it’s the wisest and safest thing to do.

Narcissism appears to be a deceptively tame sin. We tend to think of narcissists as buffoons that everyone can see through. In reality, narcissistic leaders are profoundly damaging to the church.  They are bullies and spiritual abusers who demand that that church serve them. They are the kind of shepherds the Lord condemns in Ezek. 34:2-3: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.’”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Chris Fabry about narcissistic leadership.

Strive for Mediocrity

At the school where I teach I have a colleague who likes to tell us that we are the best at what we do. It gets on my nerves. I think we’re pretty good. Maybe we are the best. Yet I can’t help feeling that there is something unseemly about saying such a thing out loud. It’s a little like a pretty woman or a handsome man telling you that they are good looking. If it’s really true, it should be obvious. Besides, what if the people who hear you say such a thing aren’t so bad looking themselves?

A few years ago we invited someone from another school with a mission similar to ours to give a series of lectures. This colleague of mine was running through his usual litany, saying that we were the premier school in this speaker’s particular discipline. “You know, we don’t do so badly ourselves” the speaker finally replied, in that patient but slightly irritated way people have when they are reminding you of the obvious.

I realize that I am saying here is out of step with the culture. We live the age of vision and confidence. We have been told since childhood that we are unique and above average. We are all destined for greatness. I often see this in churches and Christian organizations. I have yet to find one that says that it’s just run of the mill.

I can see that the same is often true of me. When I was a pastor, I could never understand why some people who visited our little church would choose to attend anywhere else. They certainly wouldn’t find better preaching there. I am always astonished when a publisher rejects my idea. I feel hurt when a student drops my class. I usually figure that the problem is with them. They just don’t recognize greatness when they see it.

There is an ancient word for this kind thinking and it’s not confidence. It is what the ancients called hubris or pride. Instead of being the secret to success, the ancients considered hubris to be the fountainhead of all other sins. Of course, to modern ears this kind of talk sounds like a return to worm theology. We don’t want to view ourselves with contempt. We don’t think it’s healthy. Spend too much time talking like that and in twenty years you’ll find yourself in therapy working on your adequacy issues. But I suspect that a little self-contempt might actually be good for us. If not contempt, then at least we might leave room for just a smidgen of self-doubt.

Years ago Avis, the car rental company, launched an advertising campaign built around the idea that they weren’t the best in the business. Their slogan was, “We’re number two; we try harder.” I don’t know how it made their employees feel but as far as marketing went, it was a stroke of genius. There was also a measure of wisdom in their slogan. The trouble with being the best is that it removes any room for improvement. What is more, being the best at something is usually a moving target. Ask any record holding athlete who has seen their accomplishment surpassed by some up and comer. In a way, when you’re the best, you’re never really the best. Somebody is always gunning for you. Sooner or later they will overtake you.

Oh sure, being the best has some value when it comes to ego. But if we are being brutally honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that it’s probably not a realistic assessment for most of us. Being the best is certainly not a good position to be in, if you are aiming for significant improvement. If you really are the best, well then, I suppose the most you can hope for is to maintain the status quo. Either way, we should probably opt for a new goal. Here’s one to consider: strive for mediocrity. It always leaves room for improvement.