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.