Pastoral Ambition: Does success chip away at our souls?

In the summer issue of Leadership we told the story of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California. Over six years Oak Hills jettisoned its consumer-driven methods to focus more on spiritual formation and deeper community. Today, the leaders of the church are pleased with their radical turnaround despite the turmoil it caused and the thousands who left. Kent Carlson is co-senior pastor of Oak Hills Church. In this post he discusses the shift in pastoral values in recent decades, and how we have come to view ambition not as a sin, but an asset.

I want to talk about pastoral ambition. I do so with some apprehension.

A few years ago, our church was "successful" enough for me to be invited to a small, elite group of pastors of large churches who were being mentored by one of the more successful and talented pastors in the country. It was a heady few days for me. I got to mix it up with some of the biggest names and up and coming stars in the large church subculture. I felt very important.

At the end of the conference, I rode back to the airport with the pastor who was at the bottom of the food chain in this little group of successful pastors. He was a bundle of insecurity and authentic enough to admit it to me. He was three years into his church plant and he only had 750 people coming to his church. He didn't feel he had the right to play with the big boys yet. Even back then, in the midst of my most ambitious days, I remember thinking that something is very wrong with a church culture that would make someone like this pastor feel insecure.

Something has happened in the past thirty or so years that has shifted our pastoral ethic from one of faithfulness to one of productivity and success. I believe this has stirred the fires of ambition. Given the nature of our American culture, this doesn't surprise me. It also doesn't surprise me that the battle with ambition will be a ferocious one, for the tendency toward self-absorption plagues every one of us. I just wonder why this is not a front burner item that is being addressed with greater passion in the popular Christian media. It would be so refreshing to hear Christian leaders in some panel discussion copping to the fact that they struggle with it and it often drives their ministry. We all know it's there. If only we could start being honest about it.

Pastoral ambition is not new. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians told us, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others."

October 03, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 64 comments


November 21, 2006  5:19pm

Most churches start with the noblest ambitions regarding serving Christ and ministering to people. Then, after a time, the most important thing becomes "feeding the beast". We manipulate and coerce the flock instead of shepherd them. I'm not a pastor, though I have a seminary degree. I see this, however, and I believe that much of the rest of the flock sees coercion and manipulation for just what it is.

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November 20, 2006  10:10am

What man or woman that enters into ministry does not want to change the world for Christ? Don't we all want to see positive change because of our preaching and pastoring? The Apostle Paul desired to see the churches he planted grow and develop. I see nothing wrong with earnestly desiring to see our churches grow. But we should be careful that numeric growth does not become the sole measure of our success or failure in ministry. The ultimate measure is how many disciples of Christ, not us, are birthed into this world. The numeric measure of Jesus' 3 year ministry was only 12, and one of them was a devil. (By our standards, many of us would have called this ministry a failure!) It is not until after Christ has returned to his Father, that the 11 began taking the Gospel to the world. We may never know the real impact our churches of 10 or 1000 will have during our lifetimes. We should all look at this conversation as a wake up call to why we answered God's call into minstry. To quote Rick Warren, "It is not about you!"

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November 04, 2006  11:47am

I know that I am late to the discussion, but I just recieved the article. I am so blessed to know that I am not the only one who struggles with this problem. I don't knock big churches. I am in a church that runs 40 to 50 in Sunday School. I know that I cannot build the Church. God must. I do however struggle with ambition. I was just talking to my wife last week about it and longing for another pastor that I could talk to about it. To be completely honest, I have been questioning why I want to win people to the Lord. It is mostly because I want the Church to grow. Not because they will go to hell without Jesus but so I can be seen as successful. Terrible! I want to be the "big Church" in town. I want the recognition that I am not just a dud. I am new to this Church. Only been here four months. Only three baptisms. I feel like a failure already. The people are excited. But I leave Church on Sunday's discouraged that more didn't happen. Not because I care about the kingdom, but because I care about how I look to others. I am in a struggle with this sin and keep crying out to God to forgive me, to change me. I have older pastors tell me. God called you to be faithful. Not successful, but I struggle to give up this drive to look good in my denomination. My denomination at the end of every year recognizes the top churches for souls won, for growth, for giving. etc. They call them to the front and award them. My desire has been for so long, to be the one who gets called up for the most growth and baptisms. God please forgive me and deliver me. Thanks for the article and the honesty.

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November 01, 2006  3:15pm

Is it truly ambition or is it motive that is being discussed? I would say that we need to be ambitious because it drives us to accomplish God-sized things for his kingdom. The motive I suspect is the issue; does the glory center around "me" or is it glory that is given to God because his spirit moved amongst the church in a way that drove us to participate in the expansion of his kingdom? I serve in a denomination that appoints pastors to charges(churches) and what we have lost is the model of faithfulness as motivation. It is a system of looking for the next better appointment and politicing for it generally because we feel like more church equals more money and a more comfortable lifestyle. Sad I know but it is reality. I personally find that I have been called to faithfulness but being a participant in this system I find my motives to be questionable at times and ones that I must struggle with, confess, and receive grace for. So where does the answer lie? The pious answer of course is in God. Listening to the stories of faithful followers of Jesus I find reality also points to God. I pray that God will motivate me through these stories to be ambitious for his kingdom!

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November 01, 2006  11:34am

Ambition has done more to ruin me as a young pastor than money (or lack thereof), stress, and crazy work weeks combined. Ironically this 'odorous ambition' has come from the leadership in the churches I have worked in. I am called to do, and not be. I am called to 'smoke and mirrors', not substance and spirituality. If I spend too much time with people and not enough time on the things that look good (whatever that means) I am reprimanded for being lazy and having poor time management. I am forced to choose between a job and people. I work just as hard as the next guy to be used by God to accomplish His purposes. I simply don't believe that most of the purposes God has called me to can be quantified. Ephesians 4:1-3 "I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." The life we have been called to has less to do with our accomplishments (what we do) and everything to do with our character (who we are).

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November 01, 2006  8:02am

Ambition is a two headed monster. One head of ambition eats at us pastors/preachers to be better than we are or to be like those who are or appear to have a lot of ambition. The other head is the "lack of ambition" for pastors who are just trying to get by ... as Isaiah says, "run and not faint" ... not even thinking about "flying." Yes lack of ambition is a real threat ... some call it burn out, others might call it laziness or "just getting by" but it is ever so real as "selfish ambition." This morning at 4:30am (couldn't sleep, stress, headache etc) prior to reading this article I penned a list of 30 items that are heavy on my heart pastoring a church of 400 or so in worship. I am wondering where to find the ambition to address them, how and when. May I be so bold to say, "I am tired of pastoring, and yet I hold onto a call from God." Ambition ... if it were sold I might buy a pound or two. What a moster ambition is!

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Janna Rust

November 01, 2006  6:47am

As our church has been on an upward growth pattern with a move into our first new building, I've heard plenty of times how we can "impact more people for Christ". While I believe in the hearts of our pastors as to the fact that this isn't about numbers, but about reaching as many souls as we can in our area, we are walking a fine line. Ego and pride can so easily creep in along with the excitement of seeing new people come and being reached with the gospel message. However, we must examine ourselves as to what we are really the most proudest increase in church membership or the number of lost souls saved. Would we be just as happy if the newly saved took their church membership elsewhere? We should be. After all, we are really working for the global Kingdom anyway. Great article.

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October 31, 2006  8:19pm

As a religious historian, I'm an odd bird to take part in this discussion, but I keyed in on it for reasons of my own. Among religious historians, (I'm shamefully unaware to provide a reference here), there is a strong suspicion that in England, the great urban tabernacles (such as Spurgeon's) that marked the high point of Evangelical influence in its homeland, were actually a crucial part of the decline of the tradition, a precursor to collapse. Though the preaching and music were extraordinary, and though the crowds and offerings were astonishing, and though the missional outreach empowered by those offerings was worldwide in scope, they were still a crucial part of the decline of the tradition because they constituted a brutally effective competitor that ate all the small churches. They created an enormous concentration of precious resources that helped rid the land of the small, locally rooted congregations that constituted the principle institutional form taken by Evangelical religion and which accounted for much of its diversity of worship and theology. In fact, the growth of the great tabernacles in England could be seen as a crucial step in the secularization of England. In this era, while extremely large churches and their leaders deserve genuine commendation for creating innovative ministry methods, I believe that there is a strong case to be made that the megachurches of today are growing largely at the expense of smaller churches, and though their growth may not constitute an actual sign of decline, one should not feel completely cynical for actually "worrying" about it. To put aside my historical hat for a moment, I would like to opine that when folks baptize the commercial language of the marketplace and talk of numbers in the pews and revenue, only a very thin line separates them from the business owners fretting over their relative "market share." The brutal logic of competition may actually claim some limited ethical warrant in the business world, but when the smaller, weaker churches are put under by their mammoth cousins, it is not at all clear that the kingdom of God has been well served.

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October 31, 2006  7:22pm

I pastor a rather very small church (+/- 50) but we have a great vision and are growing. As I read this blog I think we may be in danger of sounding a little harsh in our criticism of larger churches and their pastors. I believe that the desire for success, rather than being insidious, is a reflection of the nature of God in us and the mandate of God to us to subdue the world and exercise dominion over it. The inner drive to rule is the beautiful stamp of our Creator's character within us. Although the environment of success is indeed filled with temptations and pitfalls (and we have seen many fall to these) - we fool ourselves if we think that the small-church leadership environment is any less so. In many cases they are simply different - but as perilous. I believe there is room for the mega-church and room for the more intimate type - they reach different people, they have different strengths and God uses them in different ways. To pastors of the large churches and to pastors of the smaller churches I say the same thing, ‘Well done - keep up the God work - mind the pitfalls - and I pray God blesses your ministry even more."

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Stan Wilson

October 31, 2006  6:04pm

Stan, I know emails like the one you received from Ben and Pricilla hurt. We feel the same. It is like receiving a failing grade regarding what we feel called to do best. This article is a great reminder that the grade we receive is based on faithfulness not human measurements or opinions. You and Cammie are faithful pastors. You live the walk and put all your energy into loving and equipping your flock. Our depth of relation and growth is growing as is our impact on the community and world. You know in your hearts that you have been faithful to the call you received and we affirm that and our proud to be a small part of your team. BOB

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