It was a silly thing to do, but I couldn't stop myself. During a "get to know you" conversation with a few acquaintances and a man from the church I serve, we were talking about interests, passions, and areas of ministry. I tried to keep the focus on others at the table. But then it happened.
The man from my church made a statement that I interpreted as making light of me. The fuse was lit, and within a few moments I managed to work into the conversation the areas where I was leading and the wide impact of those projects. I subtly reminded everyone what our church had accomplished in the city. I even managed to throw in some attendance figures for good measure. I pushed everyone else out of the conversation's spotlight.
When it was over, I felt like I had binged on junk food. Self-loathing set in: I hate when I do this, and I hate it even more when I do it as a servant of Christ. Why do I keep falling into this temptation?
I've been through this cycle enough to know that when I feel my capacity or identity as a leader isn't sufficiently honored (and when, really, does anyone ever feel that?), I slip into the sin of self-promotion. But how do I stop?
T.S. Eliot wrote, "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
Although our mission in Christ is to do good in this world, we will actually do harm if our deeper mission is to feel important and "think well of ourselves." Eliot's words forced me to ask, How much harm do I do to my family, my friends, the people I am supposed to lead, all because I want to think well of myself?
What I've come to see since that day, is that I am not alone. Many other church leaders share this struggle to one degree or another. We may not all be full-blown clinical narcissists, but we share that bent toward insecurity and selfishness. Most gatherings of pastors will usually include subtle or overt self-promotion. I'm not the only one who has used attendance numbers or new initiatives or "my vision" as a badge of self-importance.
Although I'm now aware of my tendency and what triggers it, I don't pretend to have it solved. This is simply my effort to be honest about our struggle with ambition and self-promotion as pastors, and how we can address it.
There is a long and celebrated history of church leaders who struggled with narcissistic tendencies—starting with the original disciples. After following Jesus for some time and recognizing his power, these (probably younger) men debated with each other "Who is the greatest?" They jockeyed for power. Who would be closest to Jesus? Who would get positions of honor?
I remember when those kinds of questions were mine. As a young man, I knew Jesus loved me and that I wanted to serve him. My mentor, Bryan, shared with me a quote from D. L. Moody's biography: "The world has yet to see what God can do with one man that is totally committed to him." Apparently when Moody heard this from a preacher, he decided he would be that man. The quote had the same effect on me. It awakened an ambition in me to do great things for God.
Having great ambitions is a good and necessary thing. The problem was how I defined greatness. I was measuring significance as the world does, rather than by the standards of God's kingdom. When Jesus heard his disciples arguing about greatness, he reminded them of the counter-intuitive nature of his kingdom. "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all" (Mark 9:35).
Jesus does not say to stop pursuing greatness. Instead he redefines it: The last will be first. The humble exalted. The small will be big. Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will gain it.
Yet it is hard to find that perspective today, even within the church. Self-promotion and worldly definitions of significance seem not only to be tolerated among pastors but even expected and encouraged. How many people are following me on Twitter? How's the traffic on my blog? How many Facebook "friends" can I count? How's our church's "brand" value?
The opportunities for self-promotion are proliferating. But there is an antidote to these temptations.