Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The celebrity leader. . .

Whether we care to admit it or not, the absence of doctrinal and liturgical consensus will inevitably require another locus for unity and that, most likely, is the elevation of the celebrity leader.  This is most certainly true of non-denominational churches who struggle to find a way to survive when their leader retires, moves on, is scandalized, or otherwise absent.  In Garden Grove, California, a monument to the celebrity leader status of one Robert Schuller has become a Roman Catholic cathedral and its iconic past is being presumed by a church that, normally, eschews such celebrity leaders.  Over the over again the ecclesiastical empires of the celebrity leader are being dismantled because there is no uniformly anointed successor who can wear the mantle of their absent leader.  Coral Ridge, Oklahoma City, and many others have little in common but the fact that they were the creations of a celebrity leader as much as doctrinal consensus and when the leader left the picture, the institutions they created were left to founder or re-invent themselves.

In New York City the Redeemer Presbyterian system of satellites led by Tim Keller is being readied for his retirement.  The hope is that the various locations will become independent congregations and continue without their very visible and profound leader.  In fact, Keller is himself working toward this because he believes that he has become an impediment to their growth and their continued life.  His celebrity status has begun to work against the effort of the whole.  Something radical has to be done and, it appears, Keller is willing to undertake that radical transformation willingly.  Not all celebrity leaders leave so willingly.  In this case, at least, the hope is the doctrinal unity has been encouraged to under gird the departure of their prominent founder.  We shall see.

In Rome we have seen the papacy transformed to foster the idea of the pope as a celebrity leader.  Of course, John Paul II was the first of the modern popes to capitalize on the resources of the media.  His many travels, his own personality, his story (attempted assassination and eventual debilitation), and his many writings began the shift from the office to the man.  Benedict XVI was less photogenic and less comfortable in that role but Francis has intentionally capitalized upon the media to become the prince of the photo-op.  This has come as the deep divisions within the Roman Catholic Church have become impossible to ignore.  Some would say they have been heightened by the way the Francis has dealt with them -- seeming to foster openness toward divergent views without formally adopting them.  In any case, there is not a small amount of angst among Roman Catholics over the idea that today the pope's greater power may be as celebrity instead of guarantor and custodian of the faith.  Maybe it was true that Pope John XXIII was a celebrity but it was hard for him to have the same kind of impact with the media or the general population from the seat of a sedan chair carried high by the solid arms of the bearers.  Indeed, perhaps the power of ceremony is just that -- to distance the current officeholder from the cult of personality that would make him bigger than the office he holds.  (Something Lutherans might consider!)

Could it be that, lacking our own well considered and deep catechetical, dogmatic, and liturgical unity, we staid and dull Missourians might also be tempted to trade in the competence of preacher, teacher, and theologian for the one who can tell a good joke, keep our rapt attention, and provide a good photo op?  Are we, like Rome, swayed as much by the man as the office?  Given our lack of well received and respected national leaders and the way we have localized leadership into district and region, it could be that the one who will rise to the national office will be the one who can rally the crowd -- if by nothing more than personality.  I am not at all sure that is the case now.  For example, our current Synodical President has solid theological credentials and a host of theological works to his credit.  He has a large personality, to be sure, but his theological acumen and ability far outweighs his celebrity status.

Writing as one who has often been told my ego is larger than it should be and as one who will retire someday after more than 25 years in one congregation, it is not a small things to consider.  Is the cult of personality and the celebrity status of a long tenured pastor also a problem?  It could be.  If faithful preaching and teaching have not accompanied that tenure, it might be.  If the pastor cannot give solid Biblical and confessional grounds for what he says and does, it is probably already problematic.  If the pastor is an innovator who is know to think outside the box, not to be driven by convention or tradition, and willing to risk faithfulness for something that achieves his ends, it certainly is a problem.

Do vestments draw attention to the man or to the office?  Does ceremonial draw attention to the man or to the seriousness of the Divine Service he is leading?  Does a uniform (clerical collar) make the man stick out or draw attention to the office that collar identifies?  For most of church history, ceremony, vestments, clerical attire, and the liturgy have minimized the personality of the leader and kept it in check.  What does it say when we give these up in pursuit of "freedom?"  Could it be that both pastor and people want to exchange the solemnity of the Word and Sacrament for the touch of glory that cult of personality and celebrity status bring?  Just askin. . . 

Ah, well, some more humble meandering pastoral thoughts from someone who might be tempted to think he is a mini-celebrity except for the fact that he has a wife, children, family, associate pastor, congregation, and others to remind him that he has feet of clay.  And I am thankful for that!

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