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