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10 warning signs of a cult of personality at work in a church.

A growing phenomenon within the ranks of churches, large and small (but mostly large), is the cult of personality.

What is a cult of personality?

It’s when a person becomes the center of attention rather than Christ; an individual looms larger than a mission; a figure is given more status than the organization itself.

Sometimes this “cult” is so egregious it’s hard to believe, such as reports from some churches that staff must rise when the pastor enters the room, aren’t allowed to look him in the eye, can never talk to him or engage him unless he takes the initiative, or must refer to him by title and never simply by his first name …

… all in the name of giving appropriate “honor.”

Puh-leeze.

Beyond such ridiculous antics, the greater dilemma is how many attenders of such churches would adamantly deny that a cult of personality is being intentionally fostered. Too many allow being fans, and having enthusiasm about ministry, to cloud their judgment.

So consider the following 10 signs, in no particular order, of a cult of personality at work in a local church:

1. The demand for special treatment, special honor, special recognition.

In other words, there is an active cultivation of being treated differently than others.

2. The website is focused on an individual.

A person’s quotes, their picture, their books, their activities, their blog, their … well, you get the picture. It’s pretty clear who, not what, the “church” is about.  

3. No one is allowed to question the leader without retribution.

There is a “thin skin” evident toward any and all critics, who are often written off as “haters” or simply those who are envious. There is a bubble that prevents constructive criticism.

4. If the leader were to leave, die or fall into scandal, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the entire enterprise would collapse.

Those who flooded in via transfer growth to be part of the “next, next thing” would flood right back out, because the “next, next thing” was a personality, not a true mission or movement.

James Emery White James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

More from James Emery White or visit James Emery at http://www.churchandculture.org/

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  • Les Morgan

    Very sad, yet very true in some settings. I have visited some churches were this was clearly displayed. God help us to see truth.

  • Maimbolwa

    The Lord Jesus Christ said His Disciples should be servants of all. Today it is different. we see all things and attention on pastors and church leaders instead of the flock and the lost. All offerings, tithes, support, etc are about pastors and church leaders. They are treated likely worldly presidents. They own their churches/denominations. Indeed these are just businesses.

    • Dorine

      On the money

  • Jesse

    I have seen pastors with body guards , what it is that?

    • Teretha Thornton

      Jesse when I was a new born again Christian I was in a church and this is what occurred. Church had let out and people was standing out side laughing and talking. A stank drunk man came up the steps. Everyone in their nice clean clothes turned away from him. Me being a new enthusiastic child of God and a friend went to this man and started ministering to him. He kept saying he wanted to talk to the pastor. He wanted the pastor to pray for him. We went to find the pastor to let him know. The pastor came to the door with two body guards and his word to the man was that everything was going to be all right. I felt the sadness of the man in my spirit. My friend and I loaded the man in my car and we took him to get something to eat and emptied our pockets and we we prayed for him. We went our seperate ways but 30 years later this man is often in my prayers and thoughts. I was so hurt and confused because according to the Word this was what Jesus would have done.

  • Stephen

    We left a church that has many of the characteristics that you described. Pastor surrounded by armed body guards. He spends all week in the gym working out and taking martial arts to “protect himself”. He used his gym and karate experiences as his examples in scriptures constantly.

    He once complained that he was having trouble finding someone of really “high caliber” to stand in for him while he was on another week off (his assistant pastors were simply not good enough). He was constantly gone from the church at breakfast and lunch meetings with his peers from other churches. His own flock had to make appointments a couple of months out to see him and they were limited to less than an hour.

    Any criticism was met with yelling and screaming. His office was gaudy with really expensive furniture and amenities.

    We left feeling like survivors, but have been blessed to find a church that is nurturing with a people’s pastor who is helping us to heal.

  • Dorine

    Trying to find a church without cults of personality is very difficult. Need your help Lord

  • Doug

    The only way around this might be to serve only small Churches that no matter what you do, they will not grow very much. Even then, being the pastor of the small Church with but a handful of active members still lends itself to the pastor being the focus of attention.

  • Teretha Thornton

    Pastor White thank you so much for your words. This has been bothering me so much. If I were one of such pastors I would be so afraid. God is not going to share His glory with anyone. I also find aught with the congregation. You can not sit in a church and never open your Bible. That is foolishness. Don’t you even think you are going to stand before God and use your pastor as an excuse for not doing what the Word says to do. The shaking that is starting in the body is because God loves us. Our focus is to be on telling the lost about Jesus. If you are in a church where Jesus is very seldom taught if at all
    Run. In Jesus Name.

  • Lawrence

    Thanks for this article. You are inspired. This cultism – cult of personality is attracting more ministers of the gospel, neither by advertisement of it nor by invitation to it. it is dangerous contagious. I advise and encourage you to publish this and make it available to ministers of the gospel around the world.

  • Lawrence Oladimeji

    Thanks for this article. You are inspired. This cultism – cult of
    personality is attracting more ministers of the gospel, neither by
    advertisement of it nor by invitation to it. it is dangerous contagious.
    I advise and encourage you to publish this and make it available to
    ministers of the gospel around the world.

  • Jim

    Hi Bro White,

    Is it the norm for an individual to have his name on the Church bulletin as Dr. John Smith, Senior Pastor or John Smith, Pastor. Remember that it is all about HIM (Jesus) not us. Some would answer by saying: I worked hard for that DR. and Senior Pastor indicates that Iam In Charge of the Church. Does one want to show humility??? Or as you indicated in your article (The person wants to be center of attention. Comments anyone.

    Jim

    • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

      I mentioned it in my comment but I’ll repeat it: Jesus was very clear about not wearing titles at all. This is not a legalistic requirement–but it is clearly the attitude Jesus wants his people to cultivate. The words “shepherd”, “pastor”, “elder”, and “deacon” are not titles but role descriptions–why do we wear it as a title? The word “minister” is the same word transliterated “deacon” and translated as “servant”. Again, these are not titles but descriptors.

      Someone might ask–“well, then, how will we know who is the preacher?” And why is that even important unless we have a view that the preacher/pastor/senior minister is a CEO, Chairman of the Board, or man in charge. As someone who believes in the ministry of all believers, why would that even be a big deal? (And I would suggest you would know him by the way he serves and by the “sound of his voice”!)

      I would be an advocate of getting rid of all titles and going by something unique: our names!

      • https://plus.google.com/u/0/109863372757742722435/posts Deborah Macaoidh Selim

        “Pastor” is referred to as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians (12 or 14, I forget), not a church position. I get the impression that a pastor isn’t supposed to be at the top of any pyramidal hierarchy.

        • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

          Basically I agree with you. In the Ephesians 4 passage, however, while the term “gifts” might be used, these are clearly roles (as is also evidenced in a variety of Paul’s and Peter’s writings).

          All the same we essentially agree. The role of shepherd-teacher (not “office”) the role of evangelist, apostle and prophet exist to mature the body and to equip it to do the works of service it was created to do.

          And I whole-heartedly agree that “pastor” isn’t supposed to be at “the top of any pyramidal hierarchy.” There is no pyramid, perhaps an upside down one where leaders who are actually “slaves to all” are at the bottom in service to others! (That may be overkill–so I won’t be completely adamant about that!)

    • CJ

      I am in full support of the article here and will be posting the link on my CHURCH facebook account as well as my own because it is a very good read to keep all us ministers on point.

      Having said that, the back of our bulletin has a list of the church leadership team, and my name is followed by the word ‘pastor’ – Because people do want to know who the guy with the job description is when they visit a church! However it will hopefully be the last thing on the booklet that they will read! The announcements and news items will hopefully say more about who we are than my persona or name!

      I NEVER use the title and don’t have the ‘look’ that would cause people to guess I’m the guy! So to have a name people can ask for and be pointed to kinda helps! Our podcasts are not in my name, but in the name of the church, the sermon manuscripts are about to be blogged out and again it will be a church blog page.

      But my name and ‘title’ are on our bulletins, hopefully my reasons here give both my disdain for the necessity and the desire to help those who are trying to connect to our church community!

  • mkdb

    Great article!! and much needed.

    I would add that these situations are FAR more difficult and destructive, and harder to discern and prove, when these markers are SUBTLE. For example, you said:

    “1. The demand for special treatment, special honor, special recognition.

    In other words, there is an active cultivation of being treated differently than others.

    2. The website is focused on an individual…”

    I’ve been in multiple situations/ministries/churches where this is not overtly said, so there is deniability when one tries to confront/address this. And then you are labeled “divisive” or “Absalom” or …

    Also, in these more subtle and harder to detect/prove situations it is often said or implied (or even threatened) something along the lines of “touch not the Lord’s anointed!” If you here that (misapplication of Scripture) then you know it is really bad.

  • I knew I was right!!

    Thank you for confirming a concern I’ve had about the Chapel at Crosspoint here in Western New York. We have been told that if we see “Pastor Jerry” at a mall, restaurant etc. , we are not to approach him & not to speak to him unless he speaks first.

  • harsha

    what a great writing. ….recently one of these leaders steped down from the position and how shall i inform the next person not to make himself More than Jesus…..can i send this artical to him or should i talk to him.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    Excellent post. I always cringe every time I drive by a billboard advertising a church and a photo of the pastor (and usually his wife) take up a good third of the space. Why are they even on the billboard? Honestly, as a former senior minister I don’t even like the “special honor” given–such as titles (what did Jesus say about wearing titles? Something like…um…Don’t!)

    As a youth minister, I worked with one senior minister who always made a point to get in the front of the line at every fellowship meal. Unfortunately, my choice to always be the last served is not so much due to a deep spirituality as it is just a negative reaction to this guy’s feeling of entitlement (that’s something I have to work through, I know)!

    If leaders are called to be slaves to all (not servant leaders but slaves) then why do we expect any honors? Let people offer them, but let’s graciously pass them on to the widow giving her last cent or to the quiet person no one seems to notice!

    Ok, sorry. On a soapbox now.

    Again, thanks for a great article!

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/109863372757742722435/posts Deborah Macaoidh Selim

    If you need an entourage, you’re probably too famous. Big Church is as corrupt as Big Government, as far as I can see.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    Let me add something else if I may. I think part of our problem is our “entertainment” psychology. We tend to view the guy or gal up front (whatever name you wish to use) as the draw. You want someone who is energetic, entertaining, a quick wit, smart, and a super-star.

    And what do super-star entertainers have? A retinue, groupies, autograph signing, and yes, body guards.

    And none of this is what Jesus envisioned when he spoke of leading his people. Leaders die for their people. They lay down their lives to serve, not to be served. They don’t ask for extra perks. They live to serve.

  • Bukola Ajisola

    Fame constitutes a corollary to any flourishing ministry.The flesh lusts after it as the deer pants for water.Church leaders can only survive it by adopting the approach of our Lord Jesus in mat4;24.”And His fame went throughout all Syria……..”Jesus responded to this innocuous ambush with a prayer retreat in verse one of chapter5.However the high tech nature of contemporary ministry have relegated prayer retreat to a delegated stature.Fame is a distraction which prayers can tame.