Chapter 6: The Care of the Star Performer
Last Sunday morning during the sermon I noticed that the dais or platform was empty except for the pastor. A single spotlight accentuated his presence at the pulpit and the open Bible.
In most churches many other people want to share that spotlight. Some try to grab the attention as frequently as they can. They are nonprofessional actors who become a part of the drama at every given opportunity.
It is not by chance that many world-star entertainers get their start at church. This is not evil or bad in its own right. Yet some people with this penchant can be troublesome to pastors and lay leaders. They call for special understanding and care, which we will discuss in this chapter.
At the outset, let me refer you to a previous book of my own; in Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behaviors (1987), I said that the troublesome star performer is suffering from a histrionic personality disorder (p. 32-42). The word histrionic comes from the Latin word histrios, which means "actor." Life itself, according to Shakespeare, is a stage: "All the world is a stage, and all men and women merely players. And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages." Shakespeare then lists each age, from infancy to old age (As You Like It, act 2, sc. 4, lines 130-139).
In the life of a church, many audiences provide star performers an opportunity to shine—Sunday school classes, youth groups, committees, and so forth. Not all acting, drama, and work in the spotlight are bad. If somebody is disciplined in the art of drama and steadfast and dependable and has integrity, you've got a real asset to the church. And if you think of it, most actors or actresses are team players who readily mesh their parts in with those of others on the stage. But the disordered histrionic individual, our concern here, is that star performer who ignores fellow participants in the life of the church, the community of faith. This person is fickle, short-tempered, and inappropriately situated. An example is the loud choir member who overwhelms all others in the choir. These people are the despair of the minister of music.
A second criterion for separating the legitimate dramatist from the star performer is the person's steadfastness. Some people have the capacity to stick productively with the task whether or not the crowd is applauding. They have durable, faithful relationships. The troublesome star performer is oblivious to fidelity and loyalty to co-workers and the common good of the church as a whole. As we shall see, working with star performers, your challenge is to expect and encourage steadfastness and durability of relationship.
I see a third characteristic of troublesome star performers. They generally need superficial excitement; they are easily bored. Anything serious is a "turn off." Anything that is fun or exciting "turns them on." Star performers lead a “turn on-turn off” way of life! For this reason they capture a religious group's attention, but they offer superficiality that is empty of meaningful discourse.
Some Reasons for Being a Star Performer
To understand and develop a measure of empathy for the star performer, one needs to look at this person's history and heritage as well as the present situation.
"Show and Tell" Parents
Frequently star performers were reared by parents who—from the earliest years—pushed them into beauty pageants and/or competitive and academic achievement. Then in social gatherings, the parents play "show and tell," putting the children on display and telling what great achievers they are. This sets up a habitual pattern of seeking the center of a crowd's attention.
Unstable Child Care
Another childhood pattern characteristic of the star performer is being handed from one person to another for care. With no consistent, reliable relationship provided by any one person, the child was forced to form superficial relationships to many caretakers. The child learned to survive by "putting on a show" for the caretaker here today but gone tomorrow.
A variation on this phenomenon is the child of parents who themselves are in the public eye—politicians, ministers, actors, and the like. A child can become a "scene stealer," a "ham" actress; the "audience" becomes the child's caretaker! Star performing becomes a way of life. Again, these are momentary and superficial "contacts." Theodore Milton (1981) says that histrionic people are "lacking in fidelity and loyalty." I would add durability. Milton describes these people as "other directed." They get their cues and satisfaction from the crowd. As Milton says: " . . . cut off from external supplies ... [they] are likely to engage in a frantic search for stimulation and approval or to become dejected and forlorn" (p. 152, 155).
Children raised to play to a crowd can grow into adults with a religious experience that takes cyclical, fickle shape; it moves from one dramatic event to another, Easter, Christmas, the inauguration of a new pastor, farewells to departing staff members, and other dramatic occasions. Each of these events in the life of the church has its own particular spotlight. The star performers cannot resist a spotlight and must get in it. In doing so, they can create pain and aggravation for pastors and lay leaders.
The Star Performer's Boredom and Subsequent Demands on a Pastor
For a variety of reasons, star performers are prone to be easily bored. They need excitement, no matter how shallow it may be. They want exciting sermons—sermons that entertain and amuse; otherwise, they are bored. These people's attention span is short. They read very little. They spend a great deal of time watching television, big-screen movies, and video tapes and listening to audio tapes. This boredom is characteristic of more and more seminary students, which suggests that more of our future pastors will be histrionic star performers themselves. Yet they face an uncertain future because regardless of how much they try to entertain their audiences, the people soon tire of them, become bored with them, and want a new pastor. In with the new, out with the old.
Søren Kierkegaard (1949) said that "Boredom is the root of all evil. In choosing a governess, one, therefore, takes into account not only her sobriety, her faithfulness, and her competence, but also her ... qualifications for amusing the children." To Kierkegaard the star performer would be "the apostle of empty enthusiasm" (p. 231). A pastor is no governess and the star performer is no child, and yet the star performer expects such "amusement" from the pastor.
Star performers often live out their boredom by criticizing the work of their pastor who is in the spotlight every Sunday and at other times during the week.
The star performer, when placed in the audience, judges the pastor by her ability to amuse and entertain the congregation. If the star performer is able to gather a following, such a group may become an effective force in seeing to it that a pastor is dismissed. (This effort itself provides superficial stimulation for the bored star performer.)
This theme of boredom is further evidenced in congregations today by their preference for frenzied contemporary music and "Christian entertainers." The pastor who ignores or becomes a crusader against this entertainment sets himself up to be rejected. If you have not felt comfortable with such music, I suggest you go to a music or book store and read some of the lyrics of this music. Some of it reflects profound wisdom. I particularly like an older song by Simon and Garfunkel titled "Bridge over Troubled Waters." The singer promises to lay himself down and be a bridge over troubled waters. Not a bad metaphor! This music is old enough that a listener can understand the clearly enunciated words. Much music today sacrifices clarity to loud, screaming volume. Your only recourse is to read the lyrics. This way you can get in touch with the under forty-five segment of your congregation without becoming a star performer yourself.
All of this points to the fact that the pastor over the age of fifty is an endangered species. Many people under that age want to be amused. Neil Postman (1986) in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show comments on religious television shows:
On television, religion ... is presented as entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away.... The preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana. They offer people what they want. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed offer them what they need. (p. 116-117)
Postman does not go further and point out that these television dramatics are repeated again and again in locally televised services of mega-churches. Even in smaller churches, worship tends to be shaped to amuse and entertain. This plays right into the needs of star performers—as pastors and as parishioners.
When the Pastor and the Church Are Star Performers
The ministry, itself, attracts many star performers. These people are "just what a congregation is looking for," says the pulpit search committee. Committees negotiating with a district superintendent or a diocesan bishop for a pastor frequently request someone who is gregarious and outgoing, a "people person," and especially someone who is "good with the youth." They do not look for someone who is steadfast in tough times, who keeps promises, forms clear covenants with a congregation, and never lets the congregation forget these covenants.
When responding to the star-performer candidate, the committee and congregation are "swept off their feet." During the first few months things go well, until the highly dramatic preacher throws a tantrum when things do not go his way or the minister of music demands too much time in morning worship. The star-performer pastor wants to make changes very quickly. To her the old is boring. This pastor or minister of music craves new things and tires of them almost as quickly as they are adopted.
If we look at a star performer from a systemic point of view, we see that the church as a whole has a desire to be a "star" in the community-at-large. The church is ambitious to have a pastor and a program that will draw people from other churches as well as people who have no church at all.
Many churches think they want to become mega-churches, where bigger is better. Such a church majors in quantity of members—five, ten, or twenty thousand—and superficiality of belief and commitment. Most have no real tracking system allowing them to stay in touch with members; fidelity and loyalty are tested only at new-budget time. The drama and stimulation of the services are what keep members active and alert. New people get considerable attention. Many are funneled into small groups where they can find some sense of continuity and spiritual identity and personal relationships.
Even ambitious building programs can be a sign of a church wanting the spotlight. This is reminiscent of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. The people of the day said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." They were star performers!
Star-performer congregations need star-performer pastors. The stimulating and dramatic worship services keep the pastor from being bored. He—and these pastors are traditionally men, with the notable exception of Aimee Semple McPherson of a generation ago—makes a vast drama of preaching. He pitches his own emotions and those of the audience to a shimmering climax. Here is the star at its brightest.
Lloyd Rediger (1990) describes the process of becoming a star. The person keeps adding stresses to his or her life and "has a life-style of poor stress management." Stars allow "their primary intimate relationship, usually marriage, to deteriorate until it is no longer supportive." They lose "spiritual commitment and discipline." In this way, "a star is born" (p. 18-19). At this point in a pastor's pilgrimage, he or she is most vulnerable to severe impaired judgment in one or all of these areas: family life, money management, and/or acting out sexually.
If you are a fellow pastor reading these pages, join me in self-examination, taking a close look at our own star-performer needs. This is a discipline alongside caring for parishioners who complicate life. As we examine ourselves and our congregations, we nurture the empathy needed to care for the star performers among our people.
Keys to Caring for Star Performers
Are We Playing to the Crowd?
If you as pastor and lay leaders are in the swing of an effort to amuse and entertain the congregation, you are probably confirming the star-performer tendencies of such people in your midst. You will have opportunities to "use" star performers in the carefully choreographed "show" of the church. People will come to the church in great numbers to be entertained by entertainers.
You can see that I perceive superficiality and shallowness in this approach to church life. I liken it to what Isaiah says:
[They] say to the seers, "Do not see";
and to the prophets, "Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel.
I refer again to what Neil Postman said: We have congregations that expect their wishes and wants to be met but become upset when the message of the pastor and lay leaders addresses their needs and not their wants and wishes.
Deeper Needs of the Star Performer
When I look at star performers, I see needs beyond their penchant for excitement, stimulation, and freedom from boredom. I see these needs, which the church can address:
A need for friendship that is steadfast and durable. Friendship that does not hand them back and forth to others, as was the case in their early years. They need a relationship to God, as described in Psalm 100:5:
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever
and his faithfulness to all generations.
These people may tire of you and race on to new, exciting people. They may decide to go to another church, but you can interpret what is happening and tell them that they deserve something more lasting, responsible, and faithful. One sign of maturity is to form and maintain lasting, durable relationships. You and your church can offer this durability. You can stay by these people through thick and thin, in times of great celebration and severe grief and loneliness. You will not forsake them when they run out of opportunities for excitement, stimulation, and freedom from boredom.
Often star performers are essentially lonely people. Their shallow and short-lived friendships do not really satisfy their loneliness. A group centered on spirituality, mentioned below, can speak to this loneliness. Sometimes friendships run amok because star performers are not aware of their personal boundaries. Yet group members can stabilize these boundaries and make the friendship more secure and beneficial.
I also see a need for a richer spiritual life. If your church has a group dedicated to deepening the spiritual life (and if this group has a wise and considerate leader), a star performer could profit by attending this group. This provides the opportunity to move beyond the superficial and shallow spirituality characteristic of the star performer's life. If you do not have such a group, you and this star performer can collaborate in sponsoring one. This speaks to the star performer's need to be in the limelight as it gives her an opportunity to face up to the shallowness of her spiritual life.
Probably the most profound way of caring for star performers is by gently confronting them about their main purpose or calling in life. You might ask if they have ever thought of studying drama or participating in amateur drama groups in the community. You might affirm their gifts as performers and encourage them to bring it under discipline and development. God has a place in God's creation for all who follow the gleam of God's calling.
The troublesomeness of people, as I have said before, may well be "runaway creativity" that needs to be slowed down to a contemplative pace. It may be the stuff of God's calling that plainly needs direction, purpose, and appropriate expression. Our calling in caring for troublesome people is to search out their gifts with them and challenge them to the consecration of their gifts to God and in considerate use of them in relation to God's community of faith.
To come to this point with troublesome people represents no small demand on us as pastors and lay leaders. But my life—and I'm sure yours—has been enriched by troublesome people. The church throughout history has dramatized the depths of the gospel. The appeal here is that the depth and seriousness of the good news of Jesus Christ be dramatized, not trivialized. The key is to help people cross the gulf between undisciplined and disciplined drama.