Monday, April 04, 2016

Ambition in Ministry

In the past Sunday's sermon, I made the suggestion that the American church culture has been de-centralized as a moral leader. I also suggested that American church culture could become a leader in culture with regard to morality. The first step, says me, is that Christians should stop following Christian leaders who are not leading from a moral place. The comment brought some conversation up at lunch. The next sermon will deal more directly with this issue.

The conversation and the subject bring up a side subject: does ambition have a role in pastoral ministry?

I want to offer you a little insight into my psyche. I am going to share with you a conversation those little voices in my head have somewhat regularly. It goes something like this:

You know, I think I deserve a bigger church, a better appointment. I have been at this job for almost 20 years. I think I have learned enough to handle a church with a staff and bigger budget. I see colleagues who have fewer years of experience, have not been ordained as long, I know I could do better than. People tell me how good a pastor/preacher/teacher I am so I think I should get a chance to showcase those skills. 

You know, you have a lot to learn from people. You have not experienced a wide range of ministry settings. There are pastors who have spent much longer in ministry who can teach you a lot. There are times you cannot handle the little tasks successfully so maybe you should focus on that. Other ministers are just as equipped, just as talented in other areas, just as capable as you are. You are not here to show off  your skills. You are here, where you are appointed to serve people. Your skills are given to you so that you can help others become better and they need you right here.
 That conversation happens sometimes. Not verbatim. I'm just sharing the two sides of it. But it is a very real struggle for me. I am not immune to the call of ambition - move up/make more/be noticed.

I believe that I have kept the first voices arguments and sentiments under control. I look upon the work that I have done believing that I have subjected the desires to move up/make more/be noticed to a more humble attitude of serving where I am. Only those around me, in those churches I have been appointed, can answer that with authority. I will not claim to be perfect in my humility nor in my servant hood. But it is my hope that I have served out of the right spirit - a called servant.

But what do we ministers do with our ambition? It seems petty and selfish/self-centered to drag those thoughts into the light. It sounds shallow and weak to desire to be noticed and rewarded. Even Jesus brings this out. "Don't seek to sit at the head of the table. Let the host find you at the far end and invite you up. Otherwise, you will be shamed when asked to move down." (Luke 14:7-11 if you want chapter and verse) Ambition is one of our human qualities that pokes its head up into our lives.

Should pastors be immune to ambition? I don't think that is realistic. I can say that I experience it as a temptation. It leads me to feelings of ill will. It brings me to a place of frustration. It can lead me to resentment. So, at least for me, it is a path to sin. And I have to fight against it. I have to push it away.

That hasn't always been the case. I had to learn over time that I don't deserve what the lure of ambition offers. I had to see that the greater path, and reward, was in the path of serving where I was placed. I earnestly feel that the greater calling I have experienced is not to be moved up/making more/getting noticed. I feel that my gifts, skills, heart is oriented to the people where I am. I realize that in the clear moments. I realize that when the fits of temptation dissipate. I am reminded of that every time I see the faces of the people I serve, the community I live, the gracious acceptance of the churches I am appointed to.

Today, the temptation is weak. I can speak with a clear heart and mind about this. But when the temptation hits again, I will honestly feel that I deserve more. All I can do is ask that those who are around me lift me up in prayer. Help me, before God, to remember that the most important thing, the greatest work, the most potential reward is found in being who God has called me to be and gifted me to become in the midst of the people where I have been sent.
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