Are Celebrity Pastors as Ethical As Lawyers?

I want to begin by expressing my deepest apologies to all one-congregation pastors who diligently preach, exhort, and counsel their flocks without fanfare for merely adequate pay. To you I say that it’s unfortunate I had to include “pastors” and “lawyers” in the same title, and no offense is intended.  Rest assured this is not about you, but about the celebrity pastors in our midst.

Celebrity pastors have a different deal.  They receive warm applause in distant cities and are beloved by those they do not know.  They aren’t burdened by the dicey marriage of the couple in row 39 because they can scarcely recall meeting them.  But they do recall the names of outsiders who are wealthy, famous, or both. It’s these celebrity pastors that we now consider in light of lawyers’ ethics.

Yes, lawyers have ethics. That’s not an evaluation but a fact. Lawyers are guided and constrained by Rules of Professional Conduct.  No doubt their enforcement varies from state to state, but the rules make a lot of sense, drafted as they are by the light of nature. Consider a model rule on conflict of interest:

(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if:

…(2) there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client, or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.

If this feels familiar, it’s probably because it’s in the same spirit as “a man can only serve one master.” Positively, the attorney is called to represent his client with zeal. Negatively, he is to avoid entanglements that compromise his client-loyalty.

But what about the celebrity pastor? The question is whether his zeal and duty to his local congregation is well served by his celebrity status and activities.  Consider first the impact of celebrity status on relationships with church members. If other people are like me it’s a problem. See, I like to think of myself as blasé about celebrities but the last time I was near one – sitting next to a governor in an airport – I tried to say something casual yet interesting, but then I overthought and forced out some words that were barely coherent. Now imagine your pastor having a famous face.  It creates an interpersonal barrier; celebrity status is an impediment. In short, it’s a hindrance in developing the familiarity and comfort level necessary for a pastor to know and minister to his congregation.

Then there’s a quantifiable problem.  Count the number of  Sundays the celebrity pastor is in some other pulpit.  Count the weekdays is he out of town when the more humble pastor might be having coffee with the deacons or be available for a crisis call when an elderly member has had a stroke. You can call it a conflict of interest or you can call it tension, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that celebrity status is detrimental to the pastoral role.

Now let’s move on to another lawyer’s rule of conduct:

(f) A lawyer shall not accept compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless:

… (2) there is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship…

If an attorney is getting paid by Bill while representing John, he needs to make sure he can do so without being influenced by Bill to the detriment of John. If Bill begins to condition payments on being able to call the shots in John’s litigation, the attorney has an ethical problem.

So we’re talking about money. Money is power and it calls to us. There are a few souls deaf to its voice, but those souls aren’t you or me, are they?  In the case of a celebrity pastor, consider the impact of royalties on loyalties. When his income from books, videos, conferences, etc., becomes substantial is it not human for him to give time and attention to that outside income stream?  Might his thoughts be more and more on an audience other than his flock? Maybe he begins to preach sermons that are marketable rather than sermons responsive to the congregation. Maybe he becomes the image he wants to project. “Follow the money” is a pretty reliable guide to a lot of human behavior, and we’re being naïve if we think the celebrity pastor is necessarily an exception.

So in both the areas of conflict of interest and compensation, the “celebrity” part of “celebrity pastor” isn’t helpful, and can normally be expected to be detrimental.  But if a man’s intent is to be a pastor, it seems the better part of wisdom to avoid the temptations of celebrity status.  If it’s sometimes incumbent upon lawyers to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” maybe celebrity pastors should rise up to that ethic. You know, the lawyer’s ethic.


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11 responses to “Are Celebrity Pastors as Ethical As Lawyers?

  1. Richard

    Whoa! Low blow! “Rising up to the ethics of . . . . LAWYERS”!

  2. Lily

    Re: are celebrity pastors as ethical as attorneys?

    I sincerely doubt it.

    New question: are celebrity pastors as ethical as committed Presby attorneys?

    Hands down. NO!

    Just for fun, MM, when I was widowed, my husband’s business partner tried to swindle me out of the value of my half of the business (I received a letter from his attorney offering me 1% of the value). The attorney I retained told me he could not help me unless I would sue (the partner’s attorney stonewalled by not replying to any of his letters). I didn’t want to sue, so I did nothing. As the deadline drew near to either sue or eat the loss, one of my friends sent me to her attorney to see what could be done. Mike was the nicest Presby attorney one could ever hope for. First, he had me contact the partner’s church to see if his church would sit down with us in order to straighten out the mess. No go. The pastor and elders were very uncomfortable and did’nt want to be involved. Then Mike wrote a fire and brimstone letter to send the partner’s attorney. He handed me a copy and said, I can’t mail this to the partner, but you can with a cover letter from you. So, I did. The partner’s attorney called within about a week and we had the financial settlement within a month. Moral of the story? Don’t mess with committed Presbys who are gifted attorneys. Wicked they are! 😉

    I later found out Mike was one of the most feared attorneys in the state. I heard the partner fired his first attorney and the second attorney told the partner to pay up and not fight. Why? I heard other attorneys feared going to court against him. Not only was he a gifted attorney, but he was bulldog for justice and would often deposition a case to death until the truth was uncovered and his client won his case… drown the opposition in facts? I still get a bang out of the way Mike had me go first to the church… I think that may have been another main motivator for the partner to try to settle and redeem his reputation at church.

    P.S. Presby attorneys get the biggest mansions in heaven… 🙂

  3. Great story Lily. God bless you and the Presby attorney.

  4. Lily

    David, thanks for the blessing. It should all go to the attorney. It’s a sticky wicket when Christians go to different churches and there are legal disputes. Mike said that he had been successful getting cases settled out of court in a couple of cases by getting the respective churches’ pastors involved to ask if the disputing parties could sit down and work it out. In my case, trying to go through the church didn’t work out. It was the attorney’s fire and brimstone letter that changed the situation and it was a bluff! Presby attorneys do take the cake!

  5. Lily

    Ouch, MM! I hope you feel better soon. I’ve heard taking activated charcoal pills helps a lot with food poisoning. I hope you have some to take?

  6. Lily

    I’m glad you are feeling better! I was beginning to wonder if you’d survived!?! It was dilemma since I didn’t have an address so I could send a telegram warning you that your mansion wasn’t finished yet. Sure didn’t want you to show up before the Carpenter had finished his work. 😉

  7. “We die when our work is over – it’s a perfect arrangement.”

  8. Lily

    Sigh… you really are being a pain in the neck Presby about this.

    Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.


  9. Lily

    Hmm… do I hear uncle yet? 😉

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