This is part one in a four-part series around the pitfalls of ministry success. The following three posts can be found here: Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
The student ministry at the church where I served for 10 years went very well. In a short while, I went from being a post-seminary volunteer, to a part-time youth minister, to a full-time student pastor with two other full-time staffers, six interns, and our own student facility. By the metrics that define ministry “success” in popular evangelical culture, things were going well. But behind the scenes, there were disturbing episodes of human brokenness (both mine and others’) that now puts that “success” into perspective.
New Chapter…Same Story
After ten years with that congregation, I ventured out to plant a new church with a crew of good friends and again, by worldly standards, the five years serving with that church went “well.” Good numbers. Good leaders. Good church reputation in the community. A church planted and property secured.
However, something was severely broken inside of me. I didn’t know what was going on in my soul until I moved to California to take the call to an existing church plant (its founding pastor left unexpectedly three years after launching).
Although I’d pastored a student ministry four times larger and a church plant twice its size, the particular type of conflict and people in that small church brought to the surface pain that had unknowingly been hampering me since my childhood. It also pointed out the driving force behind much of what I did–the need to be popular and have others validate my importance. Previous success in ministry had covered the broken place like a scab. God providentially guided me into an environment that would open the wound again.
Is Being Better than Others Your Real Goal?
Wanting to be loved is a good and necessary thing. Needing to be successful so you can feel better than others by comparison is idolatry. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.
If I am being honest (and God requires me to be, so here I go), to my shame, I confess that I came to California to make a name for myself. I thought moving to L.A. would make me more popular in the American Evangelical Christian subculture. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the compulsion to be the “top dog” in any room motivated so much of my life.
Clearing Out the Temple
The failure I experienced when initially trying to be a pastor in southern California lifted me off of the exhausting treadmill of success. I resigned after seven months on the job and the church eventually closed. I had failed and disappointed many. But that failure was the catalyst for self-reflection that helped my marriage and my relationships with my children and close friends. Sharing my brokenness also provided the foundation of the church I was able to subsequently plant. Failure not only humbled me (always a good thing), but it liberated me to again find joy in God’s love for me and the honor that comes from being his son.
Perhaps you sense something in yourself is amiss, but don’t know what. Is your life-engine running in the red by trying desperately to get the attention of others? Maybe you can relate to the experience of crashing and burning. Today might just be the day to call out to God to clear out the ministry idols of your life. But as I once wrote in a journal not long after my breakdown, “God, you’ve cleared the money changers from your temple in me, but it is quiet and lonely in here.” God will meet you there, friend. I can assure you that He loves answering the prayer of a soul desperate for Him.
Next up: How to spot the signs of success idolatry in ministry.