One of my all-time favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada. While I fangirl over the early 2000s fashion and bask in the glory of Meryl Streep’s acting, it’s the underlying message that keeps me rewatching—a young, ambitious journalist, Andy, takes a job at a high-end fashion magazine and, at first, views the job as nothing more than an opportunity to build her resume and pay her dues. Quickly, she gets swept up in the glitz and glamor of it all, and it’s only when her personal relationships start to deteriorate after a string of selfish decisions that she begins to realize she’s becoming someone she never intended to be.
Whether it’s watching The Devil Wears Prada for the billionth time or reading every psychology book I can get my hands on, I’ve always had a fascination with how people evolve. This fascination eventually led me to pursue seminary, where I got a Masters in Theology with a concentration in Spiritual Formation—“spiritual formation” has a churchy connotation, but it’s really just the study of how we progress (or regress) in our spiritual lives. Like Andy, we all have a vision for the type of people we want to become but can so easily and unintentionally get knocked off track. We’re all being formed by the people and things around us, and spiritual formation seeks to understand this more.
As a current pastor and seminary graduate, I’ve been both fascinated and disheartened to watch so many pastors get spiritually sidetracked in recent years. Carl Lentz, Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, Brian Houston… the list of discredited, big-name church leaders only grows. I’m pretty confident no pastor enters ministry with the hopes of ending up in an embarrassing, career-threatening scandal. Why, then, do so many pastors keep ending up in places they never intended to be?
Even if you’re not a Christian or in these church communities, I don’t doubt you’ve seen—if not felt—the fallout from this unfortunate trend. For whatever justifiable pain or anger it’s caused, I’m not interested in using this article to enter the already inflamed conversation around the American church; plenty of writing has been done on that. Instead, as someone in full-time ministry and achingly aware of how easily I could stumble down the same path, I would rather examine the process of deformation that discredits pastors and discover whether those same impulses exist in me, and in each one of us.
In studies and reflection, I see an observable pattern revealing itself, and as we explore it—if you’re anything like me—you may be discomforted to find fragments of yourself in what follows. I’m afraid we’re all so much more alike than we care to admit, though there is a gift in learning from others’ missteps, if we are willing to receive it.
As any history lover knows, corrupt leadership is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, people have sought power and prestige for all the wrong reasons. While corrupt leaders are a dime a dozen, the introduction of social media has played an interesting role in perpetuating the narcissistic tendencies of those in power.
Not long ago, celebrity status felt reserved for the well-educated, wealthy corners of society. The likelihood of experiencing a rags-to-riches road to fame was by no means unheard of, but it was, at best, very unlikely. In the 21st century, however, the very concept of celebrity has been democratized. Now, anyone with a smartphone has the potential for fame at their fingertips, giving rise to the influencer culture so prevalent today.
Unsurprisingly, even influencers will conclude that social media is a mixed bag. While apps like Facebook and Twitter allow us to create and connect, they also tend to bring out the worst in its users. As one author recently noted, the internet “encourages epistemic arrogance—the belief that one knows much more than one does” (Yeats, 2020). So how have pastors, theoretically the moral guides among us, navigated the muddy waters of social media?
The responses, of course, have been varied. Some church leaders and pastors have stuck with what they know, viewing social media as more of a distraction to be wary of than an asset to embrace. Others have adopted a more positive mindset towards online platforms, seeing them as new and innovative ways to spread timeless truth.
Regardless of which side a pastor falls on, it’s hard to overstate the impact social media has had on the church at large. Before the internet, a pastor’s influence was largely limited to the amount of people willing to show up for an in-person Sunday gathering. Now, sermons can be accessed online the other six days a week, creating a new category of consumers that exist alongside congregants. Controversial leader Mark Driscoll was one of the first pastors to leverage online platforms like YouTube and the Podcast app to increase viewership, going so far as to refer to himself as his church’s “brand” (Welch, 2016). Many church leaders followed suit, giving rise to the recent and paradoxical concept of “celebrity pastors,” some of whom have thousands if not millions of followers online.
We tend to overestimate our own goodness and think we’ll be different when we get to the top, when in reality, we’re all a mixture of good and bad.
So if social media tends to bring out the worst in people, is that true for pastors and church leaders, too?
I’d argue that leveraging online platforms to increase viewership is not inherently the problem— some of the people and pastors I admire most have an above-average audience and steward it with the utmost humility and wisdom. The problem arises when we’re put on stages or go viral before we’ve developed the character or humility needed to navigate fame in a healthy way, which is a rare quality, it seems. Pride, self-deception, sin—whatever you call it, we tend to overestimate our own goodness and think we’ll be different when we get to the top, when in reality, we’re all a mixture of good and bad. We all, pastors included, have the potential to lose our way in the quest to feel valued and important. Humble people never lose sight of this truth, and continually seek boundaries to safeguard their character along the way.
In a culture where influence is so often equated with importance, we all—especially those leading others, myself included—would benefit from asking some intentional questions around our social media usage:
Why do we post what we do?
What’s our motivation?
To make a positive impact on the world around us?
To finally feel like enough?
What boundaries are we willing to put in place to make sure we’re not sacrificing our character for clout?
My dad spent his career in corporate America, and I’ve learned a lot from how he’s been able to maintain his integrity along the way. He always told me you learn the most at the bottom of an organization. You get your way less, have little say in big decisions, and have almost no control over who you work with on a daily basis. Despite the natural frustrations that come with this, it also provides unique opportunities for personal and professional growth. As anyone who’s “paid their dues” knows, the best of character is often formed in the lowest of places.
As we climb the ladder and gain autonomy, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think and act like us. Called “the similarity-attraction paradigm” in psychology, it’s human nature to assimilate as we ascend (Similarity-Attraction Paradigm: Definition & Criticisms, 2018). Unfortunately, our culture has found ways to fuel this natural tendency into unprecedented polarization, division, and hate. Between Covid-19 and social media algorithms that tell us what we want to hear, many studies confirm that our country is divided more than ever (Devlin et al., 2021).
While we’re all susceptible to creating our own echo chambers, anyone at the top of an organization is uniquely tempted—church leaders included. Because head pastors are seen as the spiritual leaders of their church, they’re almost always guaranteed a top spot on the org chart, often underneath or alongside a board of elders. Like any human in a position in power, pastors must also resist the urge to create cookie-cutter cultures filled with confirmation bias. In a country that’s perpetuated and profited off polarization in recent years, I’m unsurprised to see leaders both inside and outside the church lacking accountability.
To be clear, I don’t believe all pastors who run big churches are destined for scandal; on the contrary, I personally know many leaders and pastors who run large organizations with humility and wisdom. But the temptation is always there, lurking anytime we step into a boardroom or onto a stage, and the consequences, both for the individual and the community they lead, grow with the size of the audience.
The downfalls have actually become incredibly predictable and unoriginal. Whenever the latest scandal hits the headlines, I already know what it’s going to say before I start scrolling—another pastor let power get to their head and stopped listening to and advocating for the people beneath them. As the saying goes, “power corrupts”—or as theologian C.S. Lewis (1952) brilliantly put it: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different all the saints.”
Even as someone low on the org chart, I catch myself from drifting toward homogeneity. The few times I’ve gotten a say in new hires, I hear my dad’s voice in the back of my mind, nudging me to ask the right questions:
Do I only like this person because they think and act like me?
Will this person provide new and different gifts and insights our team needs?
Is this the type of person that tells others what they want to hear, or do they challenge the people around them to grow?
We will all find ourselves in situations where our voice and authority matter. Unhealthy leaders will use such an opportunity to advance their own agenda and elevate people that don’t rock the boat. Healthy leaders will take it as an opportunity to continue to grow their character and empower the people beneath them.
Eventually, as humility and accountability fall, so will integrity. The process of spiritual deformation is gradual, with lots of little compromises along the way, but left unchecked will snowball into detrimental loss.
From my observations, one of the telltale signs a pastor’s integrity is on the decline is an increased unwillingness to spend time with the marginalized. They slowly (and perhaps unconsciously) begin surrounding themselves with people and things that elevate their status quo.
Best highlighted by the viral instagram account “PreachersNSneakers,” it’s now disturbingly common to see celebrity pastors preaching in shoes that cost more than most people’s rent. Ironic as it is, the devil’s not the only one wearing Prada anymore (couldn’t resist the joke); influential Christian leaders like Dante Bowe and Steven Furtick are, too. Similarly, former Hillsong Pastor, Carl Lentz, made headlines in 2021 when a slew of negative allegations came his way, one of which claiming he habitually reserved the first two rows on Sundays for his rich and famous friends (French & Adler, 2021).
I’m not here to parse out the many questions that arise from this type of behavior, but I do want to draw attention to a disconnect none of us are immune to:
Almost all the pastors featured on “PreachersNSneakers” spend a significant amount of time curating online content. While social media and the stage are not inherently bad, they share a dangerous commonality. They both can create two different versions of ourselves: a public version of ourselves (who we seem to be) and a private version of ourselves (who we actually are). When we begin spending more time curating our public image than cultivating authentic character—or as the apt saying goes, “practicing what we preach”—our integrity has been compromised.
Where do we go from here?
If the burden is on the church to get its own house in order, the burden is on all of us to decide what type of people we want to elevate and admire as a society. Religious or not, we become like the people we admire. In light of the MeToo movement and the rise of cancel culture, I sense a reawakened willingness in our society to reevaluate who and what we call “good.” We may not agree on much these days, but we can all rally around the desire for increasingly humble and healthy leaders. We’re all exhausted by the ever-revolving door of abusive people in power.
Still, we continue to support the same industries that have a long history of perpetuating the very issues we claim to be disgusted by: We shell out hundreds if not thousands of dollars on frivolous wants rather than helping those truly in need. We flock to people like the Kardashians who glamorize a self-centered lifestyle and drive unrealistic beauty and body standards. We spend hours a day online regardless of the way it increases polarization and hate.
What boundaries are we willing to put in place to make sure we’re not sacrificing our character for clout?
I once heard “holiness” defined as a willingness to be set apart, and the simplicity of that has stuck with me throughout the years. Historically speaking, Christianity has had its biggest impact when willing to be set apart, different from the culture at large. The majority of pastors who’ve fallen over the past decade have failed in one simple task: to live and look noticeably distinct from the world around them, and to offer a different type of leadership marked by humility and wisdom actually worth following.
If Christians claim to offer a different way of living, a priority on holiness over trendiness, then we should expect criticism when they’re found to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. But as we point fingers or maybe even grieve their failures, we’d do well to take the opportunity to look in the mirror often and ask ourselves these questions: Where am I susceptible to the same character issues I see in headlines, in my social media feed, or on a stage? And what am I doing to form my character in a way that looks different?
We’re living in paradoxical and confusing times. May we all, Christian or not, seize the opportunity to think intentionally and often about what type of people we want to become. Jesus said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (New International Version, 2011, Matt. 7:14). My prayer moving forward, both for the church and culture at large, is that more find the narrow way.