It was a sad scene. The followers and donors slumped in their chairs as they heard allegation after allegation about their former hero.
Last week I watched from the back of the room as damning stories unfolded about humanitarian Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea.” His friends and former friends reacted with dismay, sadness, anger and some denial.
Earlier this year, a “60 Minutes” investigation charged Mortenson with lies and financial improprieties. His not-for-profit organization, Central Asia Institute, built schools in Afghanistan. However, investigators said Mortenson’s ascent to fame included false stories, accounts of non-existent schools, mis-use of donated funds, lavish spending on travel luxuries, and improper promotion of his books.
One of the critical speakers last week said that some of Mortenson’s fallen values may trace back to his upbringing as the son of Christian missionaries. But I don’t think he was ruined by his faith. I think he was ruined by his fame.
His exaggerated stories catapulted his book to best-seller status, and his high-profile speaking gigs fueled a place in the spotlight that eventually shone harshly on him.
That’s the thing with fame. It tends to eat people alive. Even in our lesser-known world of Christian ministry, fame kills. It rots the humility and poisons the self-concept of those in the public eye. Christian speakers, authors, musicians and leaders in local churches are not immune to the dangers of the toxic spotlight.
No one who seeks ministry fame escapes undamaged. Like Mortenson, the work usually begins with good intentions. But something ugly happens when the fans begin to adore their stars. Pride takes over. And that creeping pride turns good intentions into an insatiable lust for seeing one’s name in lights. And that turns the Lord’s servants into self-absorbed inflated egos.
The phenomenon is not new. Gospel accounts tell of the disciples arguing over who was the greatest among them. Jesus warned, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
May we all take a cue from Jesus, and guard against the seduction of fame:
1. Don’t confuse servanthood with the spotlight.
2. Ask, “Would I still passionately pursue this ministry (position, book, gig, etc.) if my role were completely anonymous?”
3. Don’t lead others into temptation. Don’t fawn over Christian “stars.”
The Mortenson meeting ended with a man admitting, “I feel so betrayed. Last year I remember sitting spellbound at Greg’s talk. He was such a hero for me. What happened?”
Fame corrupts. Even among those with the best of intentions.