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The Celebrity Pastor & the Divinity Student

The influence of the celebrity "prosperity gospel" pastor extends beyond theology and includes an approach to ministry.

Eddie Long’s church or Creflo Dollar’s church, not Lakewood, New Birth, or World Changers, respectively.

Second, prosperity preachers erase any distinction between biography and apologetics. They fully expect their lives to be living proof of the prosperity gospel. Every time reporters harp on a prosperity pastor’s designer duds or personal jet, they miss the point entirely. These accoutrements of success validate that the prosperity gospel is supposed to be good news. “The gospel to the poor,” summarized televangelist Kenneth Copeland, “is that Jesus has come and they don’t have to be poor anymore!” Or as Oprah and Joel Osteen agreed, God doesn’t want you to be poor, broke, or miserable. And the job of the senior pastor is not only to tell you how but to show you how. Their beautiful families and their lavish homes and their robust health are supposed to inspire you to do better. They have a theological reason to hog the spotlight!

Prosperity pastors have become reality stars due to their propensity to use their personal lives—their style, habits, spouse, children, education, friendships, sense of divine calling, and so on—as the evidence that their message works. Churches are no longer churches but barometers for the pastor’s divine calling. Congregations bursting with activity and new building projects become ministerial necessities. In fact, when I interview former staffers of prosperity megachurches, they frequently say that they experienced pressure to inflate membership estimates to match soaring expectations. The theology of perfection leads to constant stress for many staff.

Third, prosperity preachers place a tremendous weight on their families to be just as perfect and as visible. First Families of ministry have become the new gold standard for theological leadership. The prosperity gospel teaches that people ought to be able to look at their personal lives to see whether their faith is working. This logic is amplified significantly when it comes to the pastoral family, who must hover close to perfection as a perpetual confirmation of God’s approval of their ministry.

After the televangelistic scandals of the 1980s tested the public’s confidence in stand-alone pastors, more and more male pastors began to ask their smiling wives to join them on stage as co-pastors. It made ministerial marriages into examples and testimonies. These husband-and-wife teams were a match made in heaven (albeit a rather conservative heaven). These couples would follow the precepts of male headship, upholding the husband’s spiritual oversight while encouraging women to exercise a narrower expertise. Frequently this relegated women to spiritual authority over gendered topics like self-esteem, communication of feelings, child rearing, women’s spiritual and physical health, and marital advice. Victoria Osteen, Joel’s wife and co-pastor, is the consummate co-pastor. She is a vision of blond curls and ruffled tops with DVDs and books to brand her expertise in health, beauty, self-fulfillment, and being a role model to her family. Audiences love their public relationship, and cheer as Victoria and Joel close every conference with love the couple’s public fingers interlaced in a joyful salute to the crowd.

While ministerial domesticity suits some, it creates unbearable pressure for others. When televangelist Paula White’s marriage to her husband and co-pastor, Randy, fell apart, audiences were reluctant to forgive her. During her interview with Larry King, an email question from a San Antonio viewer put the matter bluntly: “How can you preach from the pulpit regarding marriage when yours failed?” Though White replied that she was committed “never to waste my trials in life, to find purpose in all things,” many followers could not forgive such personal failings. Whole families struggle to embody the ideals embedded in the pastoral role. Recently when Creflo Dollar’s 15-year-old daughter wanted to attend a party, her argument with her famous father led to allegations of child battery and his arrest and brief detention. When every family member lives under such close scrutiny, a rumbling of teenage angst can become a powder keg. The validation of the entire ministry is at stake.

The Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars cast a long shadow over our budding pastors. The ministerial world is dominated by celebrity pastors who invite the American public into their luxurious homes and ask them to see God at work as they take a look around. People in the pews increasingly want their spiritual leaders to account for whether they are poor, broke, or depressed. Whether they acknowledge it or not, many people expect their leaders to carry their ministries on their backs like Osteen does, centering the church on whatever special gifts