on the cult of personality

One of the glaring weaknesses of large church ministries is the personal popularity of the pastor. The man may have a dynamic personality, attract personal followers, and appear to be building a successful outpost for the kingdom. When the man dies, retires, or resigns, the church may suffer a fairly immediate loss of members and donors, significantly impacting the infrastructure of the church.

This is one reason banks in our area are loathe to accept mortgages higher than 50% of the appraised value of the property. Of course, the limited market for church buildings is another factor. Some banks require personal covenants by the pastor to remain in that particular pulpit for a period of time (say, 5 years) as a means of securing the loan.

An illustration of the difficulties of personality led ministries is the New Life Church in Denver, CO. This is the church pastored by the disgraced Ted Haggard who resigned amid a terrible scandal involving a homosexual prostitute and allegations of drug use. An article on the Religion News Blog today says that church attendance has dropped from 14,000 to 10,000 in the interim, a loss of close to 33%. Offerings have dropped only 10%, suggesting that the loss in attendance reflects the loss of mostly ‘hangers on’, those most likely to be attracted by the ‘cult of personality’ a dynamic pastor might offer.

Fundamentalists may look at this situation with a bit of smugness, thinking that such ‘couldn’t happen here’. I would hope and pray that the specific sins of this pastor wouldn’t happen in a fundamentalist pulpit, but human nature is so corrupt that I am afraid of assuming that we are ‘above’ that. But a more real danger in fundamentalist churches are the dangers lurking in churches that are built on personality. There are folks in churches, large and small, who attend because of the personality and personal dynamics of their relationship with the pastor. When the pastor resigns or retires, the church in transition faces several dangers, especially if it is carrying a heavy load of debt. [I am not against debt in principle, but debt must be managed carefully when it is used at all.]

If a pastor is an especially dynamic person, some may simply fall away because they were followers of that man, instead of Christ. Their commitment to the church is very shallow. To some extent, this is unavoidable. I don’t suggest pastors of that sort should change their personalities! May the Lord use them! But I do suggest that they use wisdom in preparing their churches for their own demise. That will include wisdom in debt commitments.

[As an aside, I don’t think anyone will accuse me of having a dynamic personality, although I suppose that it is possible for a certain sort of individual to be an inordinant follower of me. I don’t expect this is a wide segment of the population, however.]

For some people, any new pastor can never measure up to the former pastor. Whatever strengths the old pastor had, be it personality, be it exceptional preaching ability, be it counseling and compassion, or whatever it might be, the new pastor will bring a different sort of strengths to the pulpit. Those who are committed to the Lord and to the work of Christ in that locale will recognize there will be differences and maintain their commitment. Those committed to the pastor for his strengths may easily become disgruntled at the lack of those same strengths in the new man.

All that to say this, in the pastoral ministry, one must always keep his eye on the future. One must be preparing his people for pastoral departure. I don’t expect to depart my pulpit for at least another ten or fifteen years, but I am not in charge of the future. My people need to be disciples of Christ, not of me. My church program (such as it is) must be prudently managed so that the body is not in immediate danger if the Lord suddenly removes me. My spiritual life must be personally completely committed to the Lord and by discipleship and personal involvement faithfully transferred in the lives of the people.

May God give us all wisdom and commitment to His service in the days ahead.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

P.S. Additional stories concerning Ted Haggard are appearing at various sites on the internet. They tragically seem to be pointing to a man who still doesn’t get it. Repentance would be good, but it seems not to be ensuing…


  1. Chris Anderson says:

    Hey, Don. Write this down: I agree. And I agree that it’s not a problem to which fundamentalists are immune.

    Way back in seminary, this statement from Augustus Strong’s Systematic caught my attention:

    “That minister is most successful who gets the whole body to move, and who renders the church independent of himself. The test of his work is not while he is with them, but after he leaves them. Then it can be seen whether he has taught them to follow him, or to follow Christ; whether he has led them to the formation of habits of independent Christian activity, or whether he has made them passively dependent upon himself.”

    On a side note, New Life Church is in my home town of Colorado Springs, not Denver.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    oops, but what’s 45 miles between friends??

    That comes from reading too fast.

    And good quote from Strong. I am constantly urging our people to develop a personal relationship with the Lord and to grow in their knowledge of all aspects of Christian doctrine.

    Still, too many depend on their weekly church attendance as the major component of maintaining their spiritual lives. It’s not enough.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Actually, see Don, I thought it was only fundamentalists who were hero worshipers and this was a reason to leave fundamentalism, because of its tendency toward personality based ministries. This blows that whole paradigm. Stop it!

  4. Don Johnson says:

    Man, there I go, breaking those new rules again.


    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3