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7 Performance-Enhancing Drugs of Ministry

7 Performance-Enhancing Drugs of Ministry

The 'roid oft traveled.

I personally have never used steroids. Just so we're clear on that. I've never really been tempted. Partly because I've never played the kind of sports where steroids come into play. Partly because I have always had the kind of body type that would be magnificently steroid-resistant.

But what if some denomination or church-planting network had a lab that came up with Pastor-Enhancing Drugs?

Jimmy Mellado, who recently became the CEO of Compassion International, was an Olympic decathlete a few years ago. For that grueling competition, he was somewhat undersized, and I remember him talking about how hard it was to compete by the rules while knowing others were taking chemical shortcuts to get ahead. He went on to describe the wrong sorts of fuel that all of us can use at times to energize us in life; motivations that may catalyze impressive performance for a while but put our spiritual and emotional health at risk.

So here's a list of ecclesiastical performance enhancers that you'll find available in the sacristy (or green room, depending on the kind of church you serve). They may fuel an impressive looking ministry run for a season. But the long term effects don't become fully visible until eternity.


This is the Human Growth Hormone of the ministry world.

We live in a celebrity culture, and the church has not escaped. In the early days of the church, people didn't refer to churches as if they were the possession of the senior pastor ("I go to John Chrysostom's church").

An interesting contrast: name one person who has become famous through Alcoholics Anonymous ("Bill W. is a 12-step rock star!"). Adam Grant's wonderful book Give & Take notes that ego-driven CEOs can be detected by little signs like having more and larger pictures of themselves in annual reports, and using "I," "me," and "mine" disproportionately often.

Instead of simply receiving feedback about ministry as a learning tool, I can start to use it for fuel. I can live as though being praised for a sermon is simply the way things ought to be.

How do you know if you've been using Ego as a performance-enhancer? In Acts 16, Herod was looking good and gave a great talk; the people said it was divine, and he didn't bother to contradict them. He ended up being struck down by an angel of the Lord, being eaten by worms, and dying. In that order. That's a bad sign.

Guilt and fear

A certain amount of this is healthy. I saw a movie recently where a mother was confronting her adult daughter for a series of terrible, destructive, dishonest choices.

"You're making me feel bad about myself," the daughter complained.

"In this case," her mother explained, "your low self-esteem is just good common sense."

However, as a general rule, in the Bible God rarely says, "Lead from fear."

In some church settings, a dynamic of "Fear/Relief" gets set up where the performance bar gets set impossibly hard; staff run on anxiety-fueled adrenaline to clear it, and when they do it feels so good that they think they must be happy. But it's not happiness or satisfaction; it's relief.

Energy can be either high or low.

Energy can be either positive or negative.

Fear is "high energy" (someone running scared has lots of motivation), but it's high negative energy. It may be better than no energy at all. But it's not sustainable. It's not God's will. And it will wreak havoc with family and soul.


This doesn't get talked about nearly often enough. Church ministry is not generally associated with money: there are no old expressions of someone being "poor as a corporation mouse." It's the "church mouse" that's poor.

But I don't have to possess a lot of money to be driven by the desire for it. Sometimes people early on in ministry find themselves motivated more by finances than by sense of calling. Sometimes people in ministry find themselves in a position where they are not making great contributions, but they allow themselves to be locked in by a paycheck.

To be able to serve a church rightly, I have to be able to trust God enough to say: "I don't need this job."


It's possible to draw motivation from seeing someone else in church ministry work at a larger church, or give a better talk, or receive more widespread recognition. It's an endless source of motivation (someone is always doing better than me), but it carries the whiff of the insatiable torment of hell.

People in the Jesus Camp have been comparing themselves to each other ever since Peter found out he was going to have an unpleasant death and wanted to make himself feel better by finding out how John would check out.

"What does that have to do with you?" asked Jesus. Still a good question.

The "I know theology" trump card

Sometimes we pastors will use our alleged expertise as a way to motivate people to do what we want.

"I know you have to work at your secular kingdom-of-this-world day jobs, but get that done as quickly as possible so you can come and volunteer at my church." We can imply that "ministry" is the same thing as "church work."

We may get more hours of church work this way. But workplaces will miss getting trained, wide-awake agents of the kingdom on the job.


For another audience, this might require more explanation. But I don't need to tell someone as discerning as you about this one.

Upon further review …

I said at the top of this piece that I've never used steroids. When I look at this list, I realize that sometimes I have. Sometimes I do. These performance enhancing ministry substances are always nearby.

But I'm trying to get off.

Because the health at stake involves a little thing called my soul. And the souls of those I touch.

John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.