Ambition in Ministry

November 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Calling & Career (Nov/Dec/Jan 2010-11) issue of Circuit Rider

At a pastor’s retirement party, someone shared the observation that there was always “more church” when the pastor turned in his keys at the end of his tenure than when the keys were given him when he arrived. Every congregation became extraordinarily more fruitful because of the pastor’s service. I don’t know if the pastor went into each appointment with the specific goal of increasing attendance, but the idea made me wonder: Is such a desire a noble yearning or a self-serving goal?

Part of me wants to celebrate ambition in ministry, and scripture offers resounding support. Paul says “Do not lag in zeal” in the work of Christ. Many of Jesus’ parables highlight fruitfulness. He curses the fruitlessness of the fig tree. Jesus chastises the servant who buries his talent, and celebrates another who multiplies what has been given him. Jesus says, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8) Fruit evidences discipleship. Disciples bear fruit.

The Focus of Our Efforts

Each pastor has been entrusted with spiritual gifts, personal skills, life experiences, relationships, and a mission field to serve. God expects our best and highest, to pour ourselves out in service, and, as Mr. Wesley says, “to do all the good you can by all the means you can . . . as long as ever you can.”

If someone furthers the purposes of Christ while leading 100 people, is there anything wrong with desiring a greater impact by affecting 200? If we feed 35 people at a food bank, what is inappropriate with expanding to reach 100? Desiring success is absolutely appropriate. Our work requires personal passion and eagerness.

But we must also remember that any raw energy can be used either for good or evil. The same force that propels us to great accomplishment can drive us into destruction. Pastors can allow society to provide the channels through which our expansive impulses flow, replacing lofty spiritual ambitions with the personal ambitions of prestige, money, and power. Self-centered ambitions have us panting after position rather than striving for contribution.

The key question is, “Whom do our ambitions serve?” Self? Or God? Culture skews our focus. Like a magnet beside a compass, the attraction of money, status, and power pulls us off course and leads us on a blind pursuit. Culture forms us into consumers, and shapes us into materialists who believe that our worth rests with position and possession. We become competitors willing to destroy relationships to achieve superiority. And our sinful nature provides an array of personal passions, hidden desires, and self-serving motives to keep us pursing what cannot satisfy. The disciples argued over prominence and place even though Jesus teaches that they are here “not to be served, but to serve.” Unhealthy and unrestrained ambitions clash with humility, gentleness, and servanthood. When it’s all about me, it’s no longer about Christ. Self-focused ministry is self-deceiving .

Two Sides of Ambition

The word “ambition” can have negative implications, indicating a strong desire for high rank or position, the striving for which can seem self-seeking and intense beyond reasonableness. Ambition evokes images of people bent on accomplishing their own wishes while ministry connotes those who serve and place the needs of others first. But there is another side to ambition. Our ambition may be to alleviate suffering, eradicate malaria, or reach young people. Ambition leads people to start churches, serve the poor, pursue justice, and expand ministries. Ambition fuels achievement, providing the passion for excellence and the striving for improvement that moves the church forward. Ambitious pastors possess certain qualities that can be channeled toward more fruitful ministry or toward self-promotion.

Ambitious pastors take initiative. They energetically engage the world with their gifts and capabilities, even at the risk of failure. At best, this means they give all they have in service to God. At worst, it means they impose their will on the world.

Ambitious pastors are achievement-driven. They look for ways to measure their efforts. This makes some pastors search for evidence of lives changed. But it can make some pastors feel overlooked if they do not move progressively toward a higher salary and bigger churches. That it is statistically impossible for everyone to serve larger churches offers no consolation. We feel famished when we wish for more but receive less.

Ambitious pastors are future-oriented. Possibilities drive them; the next sermon, the next project, and the next visitor hold all the promise. At best, they are motivated by a hopeful vision of the church to come. At worst, ambition makes pastors squirm with an endless itch. They move at every opportunity that provides the slightest promotion, their families suffering through frequent relocations. Congregations suffer when their pastors endlessly pine for career advancement. When pastors focus more on personal recognition than on the church’s mission, the people of God intuitively know it. Ambition skews our view of success, lifting external evidences of achievement above the primary tasks of ministry. When pastors present the gift of God's grace without its demands merely to improve the statistics, or when they offer quick fixes rather than lasting change, then ambition overshadows their calling.

Ambitious pastors display a competitive spirit. They derive energy from comparing their results to their own previous accomplishments or to the results of others. At best, ambition drives pastors to improve their own performance. At worst, they only enjoy achievements that are undergirded with a feeling of victory over someone else.

There is a fine line ambitious pastors must walk. When they push to extend the church's ministry, we appreciate their skill and drive. When their pursuit is their own advancement, we deplore their sagaciousness. A self-serving attitude corrupts pastors. Most pastors would not want their peers to describe them as ambitious. They appreciate being called energetic, hard-working, or effective, but ambitious stirrings are hidden. On the other hand, most pastors would not enjoy being described as “unambitious,” which connotes laziness and ineffectiveness. Every church reformer burned with passionate ambitions, and yet our forbears named ambition as a shadowy cousin to the seven deadly sins.

Striving for Balance

Pastors work self-directed schedules. We answer to no immediate supervisor, and we punch no time clocks. Faithfulness to our call causes us to prepare sermons and visit hospitals and teach Bible studies. We easily slip to the minimum requirements. But ambition drives us to excel above the minimum. It provides the extra effort to rehearse the sermon for the third time, to rise early to review a lesson once more, to add another ministry to a crowded schedule, or to fastidiously care for a member in grief. Ambition gives us vivid incentives to do our best.

Reflection on ambition helps us explore what ministry means. Christ whispers motifs of self-sacrifice while culture blares strains of self-gratification. We hear both, and even though no one can serve two masters, most of us try. We expound spiritual values while we covet material rewards. We want the best for our colleagues while seeking places of prominence for ourselves. We offer ourselves in genuine service while also aspiring for recognition. We form our identities as pastors as we are pulled between these conflicting impulses. There are ambitions that we should accept, nurture, and direct in our calling. Others we should view as temptations to restrain, as threatening undercurrents in our calling.

How do we handle these ambiguities redemptively? We more likely remain faithful by embracing rather than denying the struggle. People aware of the possibility of getting lost will check the map more frequently and are more likely to stay on course.

Remaining actively engaged in the community of pastors, nourishing honest and supportive friendships, deepening the spiritual practices, and rekindling the call of God within us—these keep us returning toward God. These balance the unhealthy impulses of careerism with the deeper strivings to serve, lead, and live in Christ.


Robert Schnase is Bishop of the Missouri Area and author of Five Practices of Fruitful Living. Early in his ministry, he addressed this topic in the book Ambition in Ministry: Our Spiritual Struggle with Success, Achievement, and Competition.

comments powered by Disqus