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How pastors heal from a ‘toxic celebrity culture’ that is ‘wreaking havoc’ on churches

Made to Flourish

A new book from veteran pastor and nonprofit leader Tom Nelson suggests a path back to health.

Pastoral ministry is a job in crisis, writes pastor Tom Nelson. And one of the chief reasons for this, he says, is the rise in pastors who achieve celebrity status among their constituents, a status he claims often leads to abuse and burnout. The effects don’t only show up in high-profile scandals and disqualifications of once-respected pastors, but spread further, into the spiritual lives of congregants and public perceptions of Christianity.

“A toxic celebrity culture is wreaking havoc in pastors’ lives, their families, on the church and on its witness in the world,” writes Nelson in the opening chapter of his new book. “The heavy weight of pastors’ highly visible public platforms is much more than the depth of their ill-formed character can sustain.” 

A steady stream of headlines during the last several years has highlighted the crisis, Nelson addresses, including some of American Evangelicalism’s most prominent pastors resigning after sexual affairs, fired for abusive leadership or substance abuse, even committing suicide. These stories have a seemingly direct impact beyond just their local churches. A recent study by the Christian research firm Barna suggested that, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the tightening pressures on the pastorate have caused nearly half of working pastors nationwide to consider leaving their jobs

Against this, Nelson published The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership, out today from InterVarsity Press. In the book, Nelson offers an implicit response to the rise of celebrity pastors and this wave of pastoral failures. The celebrity dynamic is not the only crisis-inducing phenomenon Nelson notes; he also points to a number of leadership models, explicit or not, that contribute to a range of what he calls “disordered loves,” borrowing from the fourth-century church father, St. Augustine. 

In the book, Nelson suggests that a solution to unhealthy leadership patterns, such as pastoral celebrity, is an intense focus on personal wholeness — that is, a properly ordered life. This means, he says, pastors must keep devotion to Jesus at the center of their personal and professional lives. 

“The disordered love of the crowd’s applause is intoxicating and impairs pastoral flourishing,” Nelson writes early in the book. “Jesus shatters any glimmer of celebrity leadership, reminding us the greatest among us will not be a celebrity, but a servant.”

The question that follows is how pastors should pursue wholeness. 

Nelson’s argument unfolds in three parts, the first two of which develop the personal spiritual life of the pastor. Not until the third chapter does Nelson move to discuss congregational leadership. Because, as he lays out in the book, he is convinced that the paradigm for healthy churches and healthy pastor-church relationships starts with spiritually and personally healthy pastors. Nelson uses the shepherd motif not only to describe the pastor’s job to shepherd others but to first be shepherded by Jesus.

The Flourishing Pastor is available on Amazon, at, and from Christian booksellers around the country. Nelson, in addition to pastoring the multisite Christ Community Church in Kansas City for more than 30 years, is president of Made to Flourish, a network of churches around the country. The Flourishing Pastor is his third book. 


Eric Jimenez
Made to Flourish
(502) 291-4738
[email protected]

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Religion News Service or Religion News Foundation.