For most people in this world’s workforce, moving up and moving on is the big dream. It’s all about the next promotion, the big break, the upward advancement, and the management position. There is nothing necessarily wrong with trying to advance one’s career or seek improvement in one’s situation. The problem, however, is when this same type of thinking infiltrates the calling of the Christian leader.
Again, there is not anything inherently evil in the desire to become established in one’s career or to move on to a better paying position. Nor is it wrong for pastors to desire larger congregations, increased giving, or a bigger building. Sometimes, however, the line between legitimate growth and selfish advancement becomes blurred.
It often looks like this. A seminary graduate quickly lands a position in a small church. He is the assistant pastor. In his thinking, this is only a temporary position. As soon as he can, he’s off to a bigger congregation, a better pay, and increased responsibility. Obviously, as any pastor matures, he should take on greater responsibility, but the ministry of a pastor ought not to be viewed as a stepping stone to celebrity status or megachurch mogul.
Discontent with their supposedly small-minded and backward congregations, some pastors are surreptitiously sending out resumes, dropping hints, phoning up friends, and keeping one eye open for their lucky break to a big-time church. Usually, youth pastor positions or assistant pastorates are seen as mere stepping stones to bigger and better things….whatever those may be. An elite congregation. A higher salary. A bigger parsonage. A chance at a TV broadcast ministry opportunity. Invitations to fight in The Elephant Room.
Such attitudes can drain the life right out of a ministry. Instead of feeding his sheep, the pastor is abusing his flock as a step on the ladder of personal aggrandizement. People are dealt with in a sterile, empty, and political way in order to push forward the leader’s personal agenda of moving onward and forward in his self-status. Instead of ministering to others, the pastor is serving himself.
Again, the desire to expand one’s ministry is entirely appropriate, even healthy. The problem comes when such an attitude gets mixed up with politics, selfishness, pride, self-promotion, and arrogance.
If a pastor senses the beginnings of this kind of attitude, it’s time to take an honest look at how the Bible describes pastors. “Pay careful attention to the flock,” says Paul to a group of pastors (Acts 20:28). Paul’s pastoral practice is the model for these younger elders, and he tells them, “I did not cease, night and day, to admonish every one with tears” (Acts 20:31). This is not the kind of ministry of someone who’s looking for the next lucky break. This was a man devoted to God’s mission, pouring himself out physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the good of others. Peter, the leader of the prestigious Jerusalem Church, didn’t shrink back from laying down a solemn warning to any pastors tempted to selfishly advance their careers: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you…as God would have you; not for shameful gain” (1 Peter 5:2).
If your ministry motivation is prompted by “shameful gain,” it’s time to rethink your role. Here are three areas of legitimate growth and advancement upon which you can (and should) focus:
- Pray for the maturity of the people rather than a better (or different) congregation. God has called you to the local church you’re at right now — not some group of people at a different local church. Focus on faithfully preaching meaningful messages from God’s Word. Pray for and pursue their maturity. This is the kind of “church growth” we ought to be seeking — the spiritual maturity of the people whom we lead.
- Seek for advancement of the message beyond the borders of your church. The pastoral ministry is not just about one flock, one church, and one congregation. It’s about the whole world. God’s commission is to go to “all nations.” Your role as a pastor is the role of a missionary in your own community and beyond.
- Pursue improved leadership through servanthood. As a pastor, you are a leader. In keeping with the Jesus paradigm of true leadership, leaders are servants. Rather than taking your cues from the world’s leadership style, take Jesus as your example of the best kind of leader. He served others.
Climbing the ladder of pastoral promotion might bring you some tenuous gains and hollow accolades. But it can also ruin your ministry. A rich, rewarding, and real ministry experience clings to God’s calling and humbly serves without any pursuit of that “next step.”