Pastor worship is a term applied to the act of elevating a pastor or other spiritual leader to an unhealthy degree. Through the internet, we have access to an almost unlimited amount of Christian teaching; that, coupled with the fact that we are naturally prone to idolatry, can lead people to put their favorite pastor on a pedestal. And, since pastors are human, they can fall to the temptation of craving admiration and actually encourage such behavior.
Pastor worship can be overt, but most often it is subtle. It is good and right for a congregation to appreciate their pastor and show that appreciation in a myriad of ways. But when, in the heart of a believer, appreciation for the pastor crosses over into preoccupation or veneration, pastor worship is the result.
Pastor worship can reveal itself in how the congregation speak of their pastor. In conversations about their church, does the topic always center on the pastor—who he is, what he’s overcome, his great gifts? After a service, what is the takeaway: what God was saying through His Word, or how powerfully God was using the pastor? Do the members of a church feel the need to consult their pastor about everything, viewing him as the fountain of wisdom? Do members gush when speaking of the virtues of their pastor?
A Christian pastor’s role is not to stand on a pedestal but to teach God’s Word through preaching and discipling and to lead the church as a shepherd leads his sheep. This analogy of a shepherd and flock is seen in John 10, where Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). A shepherd cares for his sheep; he has spent time with them and knows them. Jesus used the two-way relationship between shepherd and sheep as an example to show the importance of a leader who wants the best for his followers.
As Jesus was preparing His last instructions for His disciples after His resurrection, He gave Peter specific instructions: “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’” (John 21:15–17, ESV).
The charge to Peter is the same as the charge to a pastor in any age. The pastor is to feed Jesus’ sheep. They are not his sheep; they belong to Christ, so the pastor has a serious responsibility to properly care for the believers that God places under his care. Every pastor will answer at the end of the age for how he did, as God’s chosen servant, to care for the people won by God’s Son. Every pastor who keeps this perspective will eschew pastor worship among his congregation.
Even with this grave responsibility, some who are in a pastor’s position seek to elevate themselves or turn a blind eye to pastor worship. It may be in the interest of building a bigger church—and the problem of pastor worship can become greater with a larger audience. Perhaps the pastor is a good communicator, so more and more people want to hear him speak. Whatever the cause of pastor worship, it is idolatry when a Christian comes to depend on his or her pastor in an unhealthy way. Pastors and churches must be careful to acknowledge four basic and essential truths about church leaders. This list is not exhaustive but focuses on the issues that may lead to pastor worship:
First, pastors, teachers, and elders must recognize the serious nature of their task. Pastors must have a clear sense of God’s call, be properly trained to teach accurately, understand their role as an undershepherd representing Jesus, and serve, not be served.
Second, pastors must be accountable to peers in leadership, other pastors, or elders in the church. The church should be led by a consensus that comes through prayer, not by one individual’s dictates.
Third, the people in the church are to be subject to the proper biblical authority but must test all things according to Scripture (see Acts 17:11). The pastor serves the church by the affirmation of the congregation and elders or leaders. That makes the initial selection of a pastor a critical decision.
Fourth, the pastor is most effective when leading his flock and not attempting to appeal to a flock he doesn’t see or know. To elevate a pastor’s teaching through social media, online streaming, or various other platforms may lead to the temptation for the pastor to pursue Christian “celebrity.” But broad popularity is not the goal of a good pastor or his church leadership.
Most pastors do not wish to be set on a pedestal, and they do not want the unrealistic expectations that come with pastor worship. They would much rather their congregation see them as fallible men, spiritual works in progress standing in the need of prayer.