This is a confession. It is an outing of the truth that, as a pastor, I have embraced a form of power in ministry antithetical to the way of Jesus. There is no salacious story to tell, no tale of “moral failure”—at least not as it is usually defined. I am repenting of selfish ambition, prideful autonomy, and manipulative leadership. These are, of course, real moral failures.
This is not to say that I didn’t have a true Spirit-led calling and longing for ministry. I desired to faithfully preach Christ crucified and to feed Christ’s sheep. Yet I did not have a holy heart. Deep within me, woven within Spirit-given affection for God’s kingdom work, I harbored desires for significance, recognition, acclaim, and notoriety. I wanted power.
God took me on a journey into the truth of my heart’s desires, using failure to expose my fleshliness. During this season, God unveiled how pervasive these temptations were in every corner and crevice of my life. But I also discovered how pervasive these temptations are for all pastors, and how little we talk about them.
Pastors are in a position of power. Our vocation is vested with influence. If we remain naïve or stubbornly inattentive to this reality, we will fall prey to worldly forms of power in ministry. We need to cultivate honest dialogue marked by repentance and exhortation. In short, we need to confess to one another.
Let’s begin this dialogue right here. While not exhaustive, I hope to share some of my temptations to power with which my fellow shepherds can relate. I have invited some friends to join me and briefly share the ways in which they face these realities. May our shared confession be an invitation to you as well.
Power to Manipulate
I have embraced a worldly form of power to control, and in so doing have viewed God’s people as resources or tools to get things done. Often this stems from good motivations; I genuinely desire a kingdom-oriented goal, but I seek to achieve these good ends by manipulating others.
This showed up early in my ministry. As a youth pastor, I found myself in a common position: struggling to find volunteers to help in the ministry. Sometimes I was so desperate to get volunteer support that I used subtle forms of guilt to engender commitment.
Joshua Ryan Butler, pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon
I want to change the world. But in the process, I’m tempted to see people as a means-to-an-end rather than servants to be discipled deeper into life with Jesus.
When this happens, I find myself using manipulation and guilt as tools to mobilize volunteers. Instead, I want to emphasize the beauty and grandeur of Christ, and use the tools of celebrating who he is and what he has done to draw others to embody his love and serve the world—because they want to, not because they have to.
I often try to free up ministry leaders by asking, “Is it time to take this horse out back and shoot it?” meaning “We don’t have to keep doing this ministry just because we did it in the past.” The Holy Spirit invites us to be motivated by desire rather than duty, affection for Christ rather than obligation to a religious institution.
The Holy Spirit invites me, as a pastor, to display the majesty of Christ to motivate the desires of the heart.
Power to be Significant
I have used my pastoral position to groom a persona worthy of esteem and praise. I have craved the recognition and adoration of others in unhealthy ways. I have at times been driven to be a “special pastor.” I have leveraged my education and training to impress others, rather than humbly stewarding them as gifts for the sake of God’s glory.
At times I felt threatened by the gifting and appeal of other local pastors. Fearing I might “lose people” to them, I push forward my gifts and my resume to keep people coming to my church.
J.R. Briggs, former pastor of The Renew Community in the greater Philadelphia area
Eugene Peterson has written that the church cares too much about image. I confess: I succumb to the temptations of ministry by striving to keep up a certain image all too often. How does it come out?
I’m a relevant pastor—therefore, I dress a particular way.
I’m a connected pastor—therefore, I tweet often.
I’m a needed pastor—therefore, I’m busy.
I‘m an educated pastor—therefore, I know what I am talking about.
I’m an active pastor—therefore, I want you to know how tired I am.
Each one of these is not inherently bad or wrong, but what I choose to do with them in ministry tempts me to convince others that I am important, influential, and should be listened to—and thus, powerful. This is not leadership; it is manipulation. When I begin to believe that ministry is about perception management, I have, at that very moment, failed to believe the gospel message I so ardently preach. When I embrace worldly power in the form of perception, I am no longer a pastor. Instead I am a religious PR specialist.
Power to Make a Name for Myself
I have been tempted to forsake the calling to local and personal ministry for the sake of “making it big.” I have used the pulpit as a platform. I have at times been enthralled with the idea of speaking at conferences and writing books simply as a means of making a name for myself.
I recall, when I first began to get speaking requests at conferences and camps, how much more excited I was about those opportunities than I was about the day-to-day life in ministry at my church. That excitement was connected to a deep belief that these speaking opportunities were more significant.
Tyler Johnson, lead pastor of Redemption Church Arizona
In ministry there is a consistent temptation to make a name for yourself. Like Genesis 11 and the tower of Babel, our culture, social media, and the current church climate is not-so-subtly speaking, “Make a name for yourself.” There is a temptation to say yes to many things that dislodge me from local ministry and in turn disembody me into a sea of opportunities with people who do not really know me and tempt me to tell stories of a yesteryear when I actually was in the flesh with real people. Our bygone stories can generate a buzz amongst those who do not know us or our context while ultimately dehumanizing us and our ministries.
Power to Control
I have sought to get things done and make things happen in ministry, usurping the role of the Holy Spirit. I have sought to generate outcomes, make definitive decisions as a leader, and employ persuasive rhetoric to generate excitement and commitment. I have craved quick, quantifiable results that I can manage.
During one season in my pastoral tenure, I was tasked with developing a new area of ministry. I was given very clear expectations for growth. My response to this pressure was not to move into prayer, but rather to appeal to my own gifts and abilities in order to manufacture results.
Glenn Packiam, associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado and lead pastor of New Life Downtown
I am tempted to use power to get people to follow me, rather than to earn their trust through service. The New Testament model of leadership is different from the Old Testament model, where the man of God ascends the holy mountain and comes down with a word. Because the Spirit is at work in every believer, leadership is gained by earning the trust of the people through faithful and humble service. But that is a slower way! And I’m tempted to go for the more efficient path of control, especially when bringing changes within the church.
An Invitation to Confession
As pastors, we are called to embrace a way of power defined by the cross of Jesus. We are called to power in weakness for the sake of love. It is a power that serves rather than uses. It is a power that bears witness to the work of the Spirit and makes much of the name of Jesus.
My fellow pastors, perhaps you, like us, find yourselves embracing worldly forms of power. You desire to follow Jesus’ way of power, but you are tempted to get things done and make things happen. Where do we begin? We begin with confession.
Jamin’s journey with his friend Kyle Strobel to understand pastors’ temptations to embrace worldly power can be found in The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb (Thomas Nelson, 2017).
Jamin Goggin is a pastor at Mission Hills Church in San Marcos, California.