Texas has a lot of big churches. It’s the first thing I learned when I moved to Dallas last year: there are a lot of churches and, consequently, a lot of big churches with big-name pastors. For a newcomer, it was weirdly unsettling to think that I could go to any one of a number of large churches and hear sermons from pastors I “knew” (or thought I knew), only because I’d heard them on podcasts or read their books.

Such is the nature of pseudo-relationships created by the evangelical version of celebrity culture. For example, a friend was recently telling me about meeting Matt Chandler while visiting the Village Church, and how weird it was. “He didn’t have to explain things about his life to us, he could just assume that we knew things about him—little facts about his kids or his battle with cancer. We knew him, and he knew that we knew him, but he didn’t know us.”

Anytime we place undue responsibility for our spiritual or emotional growth on a fallen human being, we jeopardize that very growth and the well-being of another. On each side of the equation, someone is taking on vulnerability they have no ability or the necessary relationship to do anything about.That’s basically the story the new hit podcast Missing Richard Simmons tells—of a man many people are familiar with, even if he doesn’t know them. While the eccentric exercise guru is now readily recognized as a campy Halloween costume or a wacky late-night TV show guest, Richard Simmons originally found his fame with popular aerobics videos, his “Slimmons” fitness studio, and a range of cookbooks. He was also incredibly open and receptive to fans and friends alike, at least until he “disappeared” in 2014. He hasn’t made any public appearances since then, he’s cut off almost every close relationship in his life, and he closed Slimmons in November 2016.

Missing Richard Simmons host Dan Taberski attended Slimmons classes and knew the fitness instructor personally. After Simmons’ disappearance, Taberski set out to discover what happened to him, not just where he went, but why he suddenly vacated his own life. And especially why he left behind so many people who cared about him. Missing Richard Simmons is equal parts investigative journalism and public intervention, and Taberski actually ends up spending more time diagnosing Simmons than uncovering his whereabouts. In the midst of this search, Missing Richard Simmons provides a detailed look into the complexity of human relationships, and the deep need we all have for truly reciprocal relationships.

As Taberski painstakingly details through interviews with dozens of Slimmons attendees and personal friends, Simmons was an overwhelmingly relational person. He started and maintained close friendships with attendees of his studio, his “Cruise to Lose” participants, and plenty of people who wrote him letters or attended one of his public appearances.

Simmons was passionate about helping people lose weight. So passionate, in fact, that he was willing to become a sort of “weight-loss therapist” for anyone, at the drop of a hat.

That backdrop gives way to the central conflict of the podcast: why would someone who claimed that he would “devote his life” to the weight-loss cause suddenly disappear, leaving behind the people he so attentively and intentionally helped?  Taberski runs through a variety of possible answers: he had a knee injury, his beloved dog recently died, he is being held hostage by his housekeeper (a rumor propagated by a former employee).

In the end, Taberski settles on one loose idea: Simmons was emotionally exhausted. He gave so much to so many people, and he couldn’t sustain the weight of it all any longer.

While Taberski is no professional counselor, he does provide fairly compelling evidence that Simmons had taken on an unhealthy level of emotional stress. Not only does Taberski show the overwhelming amount of “therapy” Simmons was providing (without any training, as he notes); he also interviews many close longtime friends of Simmons to gain a deeper understanding of his state of mind, landing on emotional overload as the culprit. As friend and licensed therapist Rebecca Meredith said, “You can’t hold all of those people inside you all the time and live in that state of empathy too much or it’s harmful to you.”

Taberski describes Simmons as playing “extreme armchair therapist,” taking on the emotional burdens of anyone (and everyone) he came into contact with. Another friend of Simmons concluded that he needed to be needed, noticing that “when people lost weight, he really lost interest in them.” Simmons seems to have fallen into a trap that far too many do: he had moved from fulfilling the human need for community to finding his identity and worth in how much (or how many) people needed him. In the process, he was taking on the vulnerability of so many broken people, and yet he couldn’t share his own vulnerability with true reciprocity.

Not that he didn’t perhaps aim for such a mutually supportive community. Simmons was openly emotional in his classes (Taberski explains that at some point during every Slimmons class, he would cry and “bare his soul”), so one might assume that this was his reciprocal sharing of vulnerability, letting his students take on his own pain as he took on theirs. But as Lauren Weedman, a friend of Taberski’s, described, that’s not the way it worked. She says, “At the time, I remember thinking it was scary.” Taberski agrees, “Cause you don’t know what to do.” She goes on, “And then he’s crumbling right in front of you, and you’re like, well, what do we do now? And no one’s going to take care of him.”

Even the people who knew Simmons more personally understood: they had no authority to do anything about the vulnerability he was sharing. Instead of intimate relationships with people who witnessed and understood all the different aspects of his life, he was opening up to fans and “friends” who saw only one dimension of his fame, his antics, and his passion for fitness. For them, he was more of a character than a real human being. In one of the most poignant moments of the show, Weedman comments, “It’s as if we’re there to watch it. So I come back tomorrow and watch him lose it again?”

Simmons’ emotional exhaustion becomes the focal point of Missing Richard Simmons. Taberski details it carefully, and plays his own game of “armchair therapist” in diagnosing the source of Simmons’ seclusion. As he does, Simmons’ condition starts to look a lot like another phenomenon: the celebrity culture of prominent church leaders and the burnout that is often associated with any kind of ministry leadership. The stories of the people Simmons left behind start to sound like the stories of people who leave the church over a fallen pastor or leader: they attributed their salvation to another broken human being, and they didn’t know what to do without that person.

Simmons’ mission was deeply religious in nature. Describing one Simmons infomercial, Taberski says the audience is “transfixed” as Simmons “preaches,” “taking a page from the playbook of the other TV preachers of the day.” A crying woman is plucked from the crowd, and she tells Simmons her story, adding, “This is my last chance, I really wanted you to try to help me.” Another says, “He’s truly made me into a better person.” As Taberski describes it, “He was on a crusade. . . . He was fat and he lacked self-worth, but he was born again, he found the answer, and he’s going to help you find it too.”

Missing Richard Simmons paints a picture of the dangers inherent in our celebrity culture—and in turn, the dangers inherent in the church’s adoption of this phenomenon. Anytime we place undue responsibility for our spiritual or emotional growth on a fallen human being, we jeopardize that very growth and the well-being of another. On each side of the equation, someone is taking on vulnerability they have no ability or the necessary relationship to do anything about.

In his wonderful little book, Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch explains the need that leaders have for relationships that can help them deal with their own struggles. Leaders (or in this case, celebrity weight-loss therapists) live with all kinds of challenges and weaknesses that those without intimate knowledge of them or experience at their level of authority cannot possibly understand. Crouch argues that hidden vulnerabilities are inevitable and good. Everyone endures struggles that outsiders cannot understand or do anything about. In fact, he argues that hidden vulnerabilities can lead to real flourishing, but only if people build relationships with those who actually can help them bear them. “No one survives hidden vulnerability without companions who understand.”

Missing Richard Simmons paints a poignant picture of the importance of truly reciprocal relationships. It shows how relational imbalances (whether due to power, influence, or celebrity) deeply hinder the sharing of vulnerability in relationships, and the consequences of idolizing human beings.

Without deep and reciprocal relationships, some of us will seek our own worth in our ability to save others, and some of us will turn other human beings into our savior. Instead of either suffering exhaustion due to vulnerability overload or facing frustration when leaders fall short of our expectations, Missing Richard Simmons teaches us to build relationships that can sustain our vulnerability in healthy ways—with people who truly know us and have real authority in our lives.

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