Is it possible to be too sexy for ministry?
Did I get your attention?
I’ve got to confess. I never heard the name Carl Lentz before this past week. I guess I’m just not up-to-speed with evangelical celebrity. If you want, or need, and update, you can read this short Vanity Fair article. (The irony of this story appearing in a publication with that name should not be missed.) Lentz was a pastor to the stars. He was preaching to thousands at a big, flashy church in a big, flashy city to big, flashy people. None of that is wrong, of course. The up-and-outers need the gospel just as much (or maybe even more) than the down-and-outers. What was wrong was his affair. He cheated and he lied. He got caught, and now he’s fired.
In some ways, it is an unremarkable story. Tragically. “Man cheats on wife” isn’t exactly news. Tragically. “Preacher cheats on wife” also isn’t exactly news. Tragically. “Prominent pastor cheats on wife” also isn’t exactly news. Tragically. You kids may not be old enough to remember names like Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. Carl Lentz is basically Jimmy Swaggart with a better haircut. More recently, you could add names like Bill Hybels or (it pains me to say it) Ravi Zacharias to the list.
Why does this keep happening? There are a lot of answers to that question. 1) No matter who you are, sexual sin is always crouching at your door. Being in a position of power and influence undoubtedly adds to the temptation. 2) This is compounded by structures that lack any real accountability. There is almost always a cover-up or intimidation involved. 3) When you’re a pastor, people are inclined to open up to you in ways they wouldn’t open up to other people (therapists have this same issue). This vulnerability can create an environment where boundaries are crossed and connections become unethical and immoral. 4) Others have pointed out that this is a problem with evangelical celebrity culture. I agree that evangelical celebrity culture is gross. I can easily fall into a rant about pastors turning their pulpit into a platform to make their own name famous instead of making Jesus famous. One of the clearest signs of our worldliness is our craving for, and admiration of, celebrity. I’m not convinced, however, that this is a problem unique to Christian celebrity. There are a hundred Carl Lentz’s that you’ll never heard about.
There is truth in all of those explanations, but this post is really about a particular issue that Katelyn Beaty mentioned on Twitter.
Are “hot pastors” a part of the problem? Is Carl Lentz just too attractive for ministry? Well, the first thing that we should probably point out is that “attractiveness” does not necessarily correlate to marital unfaithfulness. Believe it or not, I know a lot of good looking people who are in ministry who have managed to not cheat on their spouse. Conversely, I don’t think anyone would look at Bill Hybels or Ravi Zacharias and say “My goodness! He is irresistible!” Still, this is an important, if awkward, question to ask. Is there such a thing as “too sexy for ministry?”*
To be clear, I don’t think the problem is attractiveness. The problem is desirability. There is an important difference.
When I taught classes on speech and communication, I would talk to my students about the four appeals a speaker needs to make to her audience. (These are Aristotle’s appeals plus one more.)
- Ethos – These are appeals to the credibility of the speaker.
- Pathos – These are appeals to the emotions and passions of the audience.
- Logos – These are appeals to reason.
- Mythos – These are appeals to common stories and histories.
First, a point on ethos appeals. An audience won’t listen to you if you aren’t credible. They have to trust you. Trust is built on credentials, competence, and confidence. Because we are visual creators who often make snap judgments, trust is also based to some degree on appearance. I would tell my students that how you present yourself as a speaker matters. You may not think it’s fair, but if you are slovenly in your appearance, your crowd is less likely to listen. Personal appearance shouldn’t replace content, but it does open the door so you can be heard. This doesn’t mean that a good speaker has to be attractive or have the best, most expensive clothes. They don’t, but they do have to be somewhat “put together.” There is also a point where a concern for appearance can become counter-productive. For instance, a 500 dollar pair of sneakers might actually make you less credible to many audiences than a 70 dollar pair of shoes. Now, Carl Lentz fits the description of a “put together” guy. He’s got the tan, the glasses, the haircut, the clothes, the “I’m kind of a big deal” pose. But none of that is necessarily wrong. Having hipster glasses or a nice haircut is not a reliable predictor of whether or not you will cheat on your wife. Being attractive is not a disqualifier for ministry! The real problem is when ethos becomes pathos.
It was said of Austin Powers that “every man wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him.” The joke, of course, is that Powers was not objectively handsome like the James Bond character he was spoofing (sorry, Mike Myers), but he was nevertheless desirable to everyone. Desirability is about pathos. Ethos says, “Listen to me. I can be trusted.” When we replace ethos with pathos, we start to say, “Notice me. Desire me.” When preachers confuse ethos with pathos, they basically become Rev. Austin Powers. I don’t have to tell you how perilous that is. A preacher who wants to be desired or noticed may not have an affair on his wife, but he will almost definitely find ways to make himself bigger than his message. His own want to be wanted, his pressing need to be captivating and impressive will eventually shipwreck his ministry. I know this is subjective. How do you know the difference between attractiveness and desirability? I’m not sure there is a way. I do know that some pastors have an unhealthy obsession with appearance and personal style. Such an obsession is definitely a warning sign.** But listen, we all have this aching need to be impressive and desirable. Some of us buy 200 dollar sneakers. Others of us just write blog posts that we hope people like. At the end of the day, it is a matter of personal reflection and inter-personal accountability. Do I spend enough time thinking about my own motivations and desires? Are those motivations and desires leading me into unhealthy and dangerous territory? Am I more interested that people desire me or that people hear my message? Do I have people in my life that have the freedom to call me out and bring me back to earth? Do I listen to them? Am I pursuing holiness or am I pursuing influence? These are the questions, and so many more, that I find myself asking when I hear stories like Carl Lentz’s.
*By the way, here is a physical description of Paul from the apocryphal book The Acts of Paul and Thecla: “A man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.” Paul did not seem to suffer from this dilemma.
**The cynical, bookish side of me wishes they were as obsessed with exegesis and theology.