There seems to be a trend in pastoring these days. Some preachers of great notoriety, and others hoping to attain that status, have left the pastorate to pursue what is often described as a call to a “new ministry” of speaking and writing. For some, the call to the circuit trumps the call to the pulpit.
Rob Bell announced his resignation last Sunday in his Mars Hill Bible Church. “Hmm,” I thought, “what is he up to? I’m sure he has something else in mind.” Sure enough. Today, we learned that Bell has plans to write and produce a television show called Stronger. The series will be loosely based on Bell’s own life as a rock-star-turned-preacher. Mars Hill’s co-pastor Shane Hipps commented, “Rob is graduating, and we send him with sadness and joy into a big world."
Other famous pastors who have changed course amid pastoral success include Francis Chan and Brian McLaren. Chan is the founding pastor of Cornerstone Church, a megachurch in southern California. In 2010 he resigned from his successful ministry to pursue his passion for speaking and writing. McLaren has a similar story, having founded Cedar Ridge Community Church near Baltimore in 1986 and then leaving in 2006 to devote more time to his publications and speaking engagements.
I have enjoyed working with Chan and McLaren in the past and have read all three of these men’s books. I have great respect for each. But what I admired most about them was their ability to pastor. Each of these pioneers, usually through great sacrifice, was able to bring relevancy and realism to their writing and speaking because they were grounded solidly in the everyday lives of those to which they ministered.
Many other lesser known ministers have left the pastorate to pursue a higher profile professional venture. Though this isn’t necessarily wrong, I wonder why the Christian community continues to proliferate a culture of personality that nearly demands the ascension of charismatic conference speakers. Then, often at the height of their popularity, when these celebrities come tumbling down, we shriek, wail and cast our stones (i.e. Amy Grant, Ted Haggard, etc.). Please note -- I’m not judging the character or motives of these Christian leaders. My critique has always been of the Christian subculture that created and maintains this systemic cult of personality.
There is, however, another model. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a vibrant pastor, respected author and brilliant professor holding positions at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. In 1985 he gave up his prestigious teaching post and joined L’Arche, a community of developmentally disabled people in France. There, he lived in obscurity serving the least of the least. His book In the Name of Jesus chronicles his downward journey from fame and success to work with those who were all but abandoned by society and cast off as unimportant. Nouwen learned that as he climbed down the ladder of prestige and success, those who were marginalized had much to teach him about his own disabilities. His core understandings of leadership and success were challenged and redefined.
The hope and prayer I have for my students is that they will learn to gauge success not in terms of numbers (i.e. of attendance, of dollars, of books written) but through the testimonies of those they have discipled. Depth of spiritual formation is not easily measured, doesn’t fit well in a strategic plan and is often not considered in formal job reviews. And sometimes, maybe more often than we consider, it requires a move down the churchly corporate ladder.
One of my desires in Heaven will be to meet all of the unknown servants of Christ that never spoke at a Christian conference, never wrote a book and were never interviewed for an article, yet they faithfully and quietly joined the mission of God in small, almost imperceptible ways. It's these folks that change the world in an ongoing daily way. I can hear Christ’s proclamation already, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”