Superman Pastors Are Bound to Fail

Pastor, you aren’t doing your job!

I hadn’t been serving this small, rural congregation for long when God brought that problem to my attention. Though I’d been counseling a number of young Christians for only a few months, I was feeling drained. I wanted to blame it on the fact I was pastoring a church full of recovering drug addicts, but it was really my fault. I was attempting to carry out the ministry alone.

It’s the pastor’s job to equip his congregation to do ministry. Needless to say, I wasn’t doing my job.

Superman Pastors

Many pastors have learned and practiced a deficient model of leadership in the last century: the Superman model. A Superman pastor sees every ministry as either his responsibility or the responsibility of the paid staff. He functions like a CEO, like a paid professional, like the minister. It’s his role to do the church’s work, and it’s the congregation’s role to reap the benefits of his expertise.

There are a few things in this model we can commend. First, it takes seriously the role of the pastor; he does not abdicate responsibility. Second, the Superman pastor takes seriously his accountability to God, his training, and his calling as he works hard to oversee the mission of the church. Ultimately, however, the failures of this ministry model are grave.

1. This model of ministry undermines the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine of the church.

The Bible teaches that all Christians have access to God; all worship him, serve him, and lead others to do the same. Ephesians 4:16 depicts the church as a body of members working together to grow and build itself up. Paul writes that as the church speaks the truth in love, the “whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” The entire church actively ministers to one another. The New Testament is laced with “one another” imperatives given to the congregation as a whole. Any model of ministry that circumvents the responsibilities of the church, no matter how well-meaning, is simply sub-biblical.

2. This model of ministry fuels pastoral burnout.

The pressure to be the minister is crushing pastors everywhere. As recently as 2010, research found clergy were suffering from some of the most serious health- and stress-related illnesses. Obesity, hypertension, and depression have marked ministers for years.

I know pastors who haven’t taken a vacation in more than 20 years. I recall with a heavy heart the suicide of one pastor in our community. If you need evidence that pastors suffer from depression, think of my friend hanging from the stairwell in in his church. Pastoral burnout is a deadly serious issue that can be significantly diminished by a proper model of ministry in which the congregation is empowered to do the work of the church.

3. This model of ministry fails to fulfill the role Jesus gave to pastors.

Paul plainly outlines the role God has given to shepherds and teachers in Ephesians 4:11-16. The risen Christ has given teachers and shepherds to his church “in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” That’s his design. In short, Superman shepherds are unbiblical shepherds. We must return to God’s plan for the pastorate.

Realizing what the pastorate does not look like, then, how do we frame the pastor-as-equipper positively and biblically?

Instruct, Train, Release

At my church we give theological and philosophical foundations for ministry through instruction—whether from the pulpit on Sunday mornings or in classes on Wednesday evenings. It’s vital for people to be grounded in Scripture and sound doctrine as they seek to do ministry. We want them to pursue biblical goals and to employ biblical means in order to achieve those goals. As a counselor, that means helping my people see the Bible is indeed sufficient for our problems. It also means explaining why we don’t simply duplicate the theories and approaches of modern psychology in our discipleship.

Modeling is also a crucial part of equipping. The apostle Paul says “imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). One way church leaders can help equip people to do ministry is by showing them what it looks like. Practice evangelism. Practice disciple-making. Practice worship. By doing this, we help others get a clearer picture of what they should be doing.

It’s not enough, however, to launch people with good models and good intentions. We want them to be fully equipped—and that means working to train them in the specific skills and disciplines they’ll need to do their ministry well. Personally, I want men sitting in counseling sessions with me. I want them reviewing the tough cases with me, asking questions, and even doing some supervised counseling of their own. It should be the same for any ministry within the church.

Finally, equipping the congregation means helping people get involved in ministry. Release people to do the work. Pastors cannot micromanage every detail of every ministry in their church. My congregation can’t serve well or grow and develop if I interject every time I think I could offer better counsel or oversight. As Jesus sent out the twelve in Matthew 10, so also we need to be willing to release our people for ministry.

The ministry of the church belongs to the church. God has given his church pastors, teachers, and leaders to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. If that’s not what we’re doing, then whatever else we might call ourselves, we’re not pastors.

  • Leonard

    Guess it depends on your definition of a “superman”… to me, it would be a pastor like mine, who is a confessionally-sound exegete of scripture who richly feeds the church with solid expository teaching each week. It’s mmm-mmm good to leave church with a body filled with God’s word each week. That a superman-pastor as far as I’m concerned.

    • David

      You’re right, it does depend on your definition, and Dunham defined his version in his article. He’s not referring to your version. Everyone needs a pastor like yours! Sound Scripture from the pulpit is an A+ experience and his portion of the body. And an application that can be pulled from this article is that we as the REST of the church body should not force our pastors into feeling like they have to be Superman pastors. We should all be using our gifts in the church in a trustworthy manner. If we’re not, then we have forced out pastors hands in a sense. If we just come and sit and listen to the great preaching and do nothing else, then we force him to have to be a Superman pastor. We need to recognize God’s gifts to us individually and act on it. Doing our part in the body.

  • Mark V

    Point #4 – This model of ministry dangerously feeds the ego of the pastor at the expense of his family, his church and his own well-being.

  • ne

    The old proverb is true you can lead a horse to water, but you cant make him drink. We can bring the sheep food and equip the saints for ministry, but we cant force them to do the work of ministry, we cant force them to eat. I believe that one of the main reasons for the superman pastor syndrome that David has outlined above is the western 21st century wealthy apathy that has crept (slithered) into the church. The pastor sees the terrible need for the church to get involved, get busy, pick the tools, grasp the armour, weild the sword, but the sheep are too busy teeing off at 2:30 pm, leaving early to go fishing, or far too busy with the great financial rewards of working 14 hrs a day to be bothered with the work of ministry. The pastor faithfully teaches and preaches the word, but the flock are too busy working, or taking the weekend off to listen. While i agree with a lot of what David says in his blog, a huge part of the problem is the apathy of the sheep.

    • Jay Simon

      Affluence and apathy are huge problems in the American church, but the answer is not to throw our hands in the air and blame the sheep. If the congregation is happy to sit in a padded chair and relax while the world around them dies, then pull the chair out from under them! The Word of God and the Spirit of God are adequate for their job, so if the church is comfortable and apathetic, then the hard truth is that the preacher has not been “faithfully teaching and preaching the Word”. The sword is also useful to reprove and correct, as are the rod and the staff of a shepherd. If comfort is the problem, then leadership must strip away the comforts of church. Recognize that the routine may be part of the problem, and try shaking things up. Get rid of the band, or the comfy chairs, or whatever else may be a stumbling block for the people to get off their butts and on their knees. Our people are not going to be desperate for Jesus when we ourselves aren’t desperate enough to loosen our grip on the settled routine we’ve created. I’m convinced this is part of keeping “a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16). When our people are busy golfing and serving their 401K balance and we just keep on chuggin’ along as we always have, we are teaching them by our silence (i.e. lack of desperate action) that how they are living is fine by Jesus. Don’t hear me wrong, we might be passionately telling them from the pulpit that affluence and apathy are deadly for us and the people God calls us to minister to, but our actions speak louder than our words. Maybe the shepherds are also too comfortable with their pulpits and their office hours and need to let go.

      • David

        I agree with everything you say Jay. Sometimes we merely have to make our preaching a little more personal to our individual churches instead of “some people” or “there are churches where.” Sometimes it’s enough to say “you people” or “this church.” Sometimes the pews are so comfortable because it’s more like watching a tv show where you can sit, be entertained, be “encouraged” and go about your day. Instead, we need to be directly “challenged” not just broadly “encouraged.” We can’t forget that building people up sometimes includes tearing away the rubble in order to find something to build a better building on. If someone in sin leaves church encouraged they are not brought to repentance, but rather apathy toward their godless way of life. Sometimes people need to have falling tears than raising hands.

  • Jimmy Reagan

    This post is so well done and insightful! How well he pegged the problem. Because of a problem in my own denomination, I wrote a piece on what I saw in it.

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  • Riley

    I prefer the KJV rendering: 11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Ephesians 4:11, 12

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  • Gail

    I would to add that the gendered term “superman pastor” and the male pronouns in this article also undermine the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine of the church. A better choice would have been “super hero pastors”!

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