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Celebrity Shepherds


Dear James,

I am usually fearful of what I will learn about my alma mater in the wake of Spiritual Emphasis Week each semester. You didn't let my anxieties down. The enthusiasm you expressed for the speaker this year is understandable. Pastor Henry Strong is obviously a very skillful communicator, and his ability to write many and timely books is impressive (though I admit to not having read one). I am also glad that he spent so much time with students in Witherspoon Lounge when he visited Rutherford College recently. I have long wished that professors at Rutherford would interact with students outside the classroom and office in relaxed settings.

But when your father told me during the fellowship hour that you would like to move to Boston so you could join Pastor Strong's church, I almost spilled coffee down my shirt. Not only is the thought of your moving to a different region of the country distressing to those close to you here at home, but I also wonder what it suggests about your expectations for a pastor. Granted, the idea of relocating on the basis of available congregations is admirable. Too many of your peers are thinking about the next stage of their lives primarily as a career move. They seem to be disregarding their need to be where they can worship and receive pastoral oversight.

The problem with your attraction to Pastor Strong's church is that you may be succumbing to unhealthy standards for a pastor. Yes, this man does much of what a minister is supposed to do, and he does it in a much more visible way than most. He studies Scripture, expounds and applies it, leads worship, and apparently assumes his responsibilities as a presbyter both in his session and in his presbytery. I say "apparently" because someone who travels the way he does, especially when he is in book-promotion mode, is not going to be available for some regularly appointed session and presbytery meetings, not to mention any committees on which he might serve. He is also an effective speaker, and I have heard a number of recordings that attest to his powers of delivery (though I am not as sure that he preaches as much as he "gives a talk").

As I say, Pastor Strong does the things that pastors are supposed to do in a very visible or public way. This means that he is ministering the word to a wider audience than that of his congregation. But when folks read his books or listen to his online sermons, Strong is not acting in his capacity as a minister because he has no relationship to the reader or listener. They are not members of the congregation that called him. They did not take vows to submit to him in the Lord, and he has not made promises ratified by real people to minister the word faithfully to anyone who picks up his book in a bookstore. In other words, he has no personal, and therefore no pastoral, relationship to remote listeners and readers.

Granted, you say you would like to become a member of his congregation, and this would put you in a real relationship to Strong. But then comes the flip side of the problem I have just described. How can a man who is as busy as he is have time for a personal relationship with his congregants? What generally happens in situations like Strong's is that he is at the top of a large pastoral staff in which the pastors without star power have the day-to-day responsibilities of shepherding the flock. At least that accounts for the pastoral oversight that Christians need. I can well imagine the disappointment you will experience if you move to Boston only to discover that you had more access to Strong during his visit to Rutherford than you do in the place where you worship.

Think of it another way. Have you ever heard of a celebrity dad? Well, of course, there are dads who are celebrities because of their work outside the home (Brad Pitt might qualify). But do you know any dads who are celebrities because of their activities as a father and husband? Bill Cosby's character on his hit television show comes to mind, but that still isn't the real thing. We do not know what Bill Cosby was like as a father because most of the duties of fathers are hidden from the public eye—taking out the trash, cleaning up after a child's upset stomach, praying over the family meals. These are not tasks that create celebrity because they are unexceptional and do not attract publicity.

Some might argue that I am simply setting into motion a set of expectations that tolerates average or even mediocre men in the ministry—those without the ability to attract large audiences. Perhaps so, since I believe what Paul writes about God using earthen vessels to accomplish his purposes. The skills of the pastor are not what make his ministry effective; rather, it is the power of God that saves. My point, though, is not to deny the value of excellence. It is rather to underscore the quiet and routine ways in which the pastoral ministry transpires. Pastoral ministry is not flashy, but we need it in the same way that we need fathers and mothers to be in the home, not on speaking tours about parenthood.

I think you would do well to consider this before looking for housing (and being shocked by the price) in Boston.


Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2010.

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