The Disturbing Temptations of Pastoring in Obscurity
Gregory the Great, so tradition tells us, was a reluctant pope. Well-educated and from a wealthy family, Gregory experienced inner tension between his longing for the contemplative life and his sense of calling toward secular responsibilities. After converting to the monastic life and transforming his house into a monastery—the happiest years of his life—Gregory often was called into service of the church in public ways, including serving as Pope Pelagius II’s legate to Constantinople. When troubles gathered around Rome, Gregory was called from his monastic life to the city to help. Soon afterward, Pope Pelagius died of the plague sweeping through Rome at that time, and Gregory was elected to succeed him. Gregory tried to refuse the office, preferring his monastic life, but once elected, he accepted his duties faithfully and worked hard to serve God in his new position. The best leaders, according to the old proverb, are reluctant leaders.
Of course, as my own story shows, reluctance is not an inherently laudable trait.
My calling into pastoral ministry came when I was in high school, in a small Presbyterian church in the Mississippi River Valley of western Illinois. I hoped to be a music minister of some sort, though I wasn’t sure if churches hired people to do that. Following my internal inclinations and external affirmations toward pastoral ministry, I studied at a Christian college where my eyes were opened to some of the great ministry leaders of that time: Billy Graham, John Stott, Dallas Willard, John Piper, Elisabeth Elliott. Many of them spoke at my college. I prayed, God, use me however you want—even like these great women and men. I didn’t want to be a big deal in peoples’ eyes, but I did want to be a big deal in God’s hands for his kingdom.
Eventually, I transitioned from music ministry to college ministry, and I was hired to my first full-time pastoral position at a megachurch in the suburbs of Milwaukee. It was an amazing experience, but I slowly became enamored by celebrity ministry culture. I wanted to accomplish great things, speak at Christian conferences, and write life-changing books—all for the glory of God, of course. The temptations Henri Nouwen wrote about in In the Name of Jesus surrounded me daily: the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be popular by doing something remarkable, and the temptation to be powerful in leadership by leading rather than being led.
After a while, however, I started to sour on celebrity ministry culture. I emceed an event in our area with a big-name author, and I was excited to meet him. Backstage, however, he revealed an arrogant attitude toward those serving at the event, which left me confused. After a few more encounters with celebrity ministers who were less than pleasant to be around, I became cynical about North American evangelical church culture, including the publishing industry and the speaking circuits. If this was what high-profile ministry brought out of people, I wanted no part of it. I started looking for an escape route. The prayer I had prayed in college changed to God, use me however you want—but get me out of here as fast as you can.
From Celebrity to Obscurity
God answered my prayer, and I was sent out to plant a church at the edge of the suburbs, where rural and suburban life collided. It was a chance to step out of the spotlight and become obscure. I could not wait.
My family moved into an unincorporated area on the edge of town, and I did my best to serve God faithfully as a second-chair leader, wearing more hats than I could handle as the church became established. I was in a small-but-growing area, in a small-but-growing church. It was one of my favorite seasons of ministry. My wife and three boys loved the pace of life, and the community-oriented ministry seemed natural and powerful as we all served beside many wonderful people in those early days of the church. Stepping away from the temptation of celebrity and into a ministry of obscurity was a gift to my soul. My own pursuit of recognition was checked in this new ministry context, as was my cynicism.
Yet something lingered inside of me. Whenever I flipped through the latest Christian book catalogs or attended a ministry conference, I said things like, “I’m glad I’m not in that merry-go-round of ministry anymore,” and “Real ministry doesn’t happen on big stages, but in the unknown trenches of small settings.” I heard in my voice an odd mixture of pride in my obscurity and jealousy of others’ celebrity.
One afternoon I was talking about ministry with a friend who also pastored a small church. As we enjoyed lunch, we shared stories about how we saw God at work in the small groups within our churches. “I’m grateful our efforts can actually transform people since we pastor in small churches,” I said. “No one but God will hear about what we’re doing. Our work will never make it into a book or be lifted up from the stage of some mega-conference. But at least we’re real pastors who know everyone’s names.” Driving home afterward, I realized something inside me was not right.
Leaving the limelight of high-profile ministry was supposed to remove the pride from my heart, or so I thought. But my heart didn’t feel dramatically different in this new setting. As the old saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I thought I had escaped the temptations of celebrity ministry culture, but there were just as many temptations in my new setting of relative obscurity.
My impulse toward obscurity had become something less noble: a desire for recognition through reverse optics. I smugly stood at a distance and criticized celebrity pastors with their new books and accompanying curriculum being hawked in the household of God, as if they were money changers in the temple. I was just waiting for an opportunity to turn over their tables.
The temptations Nouwen wrote about were just as close in obscure ministry as they had been in high-profile ministry. I had simply turned them upside down. The temptation to be relevant took the form of resisting mass-market appeal in favor of “what people really need.” The temptation to be popular by doing something remarkable showed up when I took pride in just how remarkably countercultural my obscure ministry was. The temptation to be powerful in my leadership by leading instead of being led became clear as I led myself into the “only place” Jesus really did ministry.
But something else was happening that took me longer to notice. My obscurity had become an attempt to escape responsibility. After a few years at my small church plant, I received a call from another church in the area to consider following a founding pastor of nearly 30 years as their new senior pastor. This urban church of over 1,000 people was exactly the sort of place from which I had run away.
The first conversation I had about this opportunity went well, but I never called back because I had convinced myself that the Jesus of Philippians 2 and John 13 would not lead me back into that type of ministry. A friend challenged me on this. “Don’t be so sure this isn’t God’s plan,” he said. “You have the right gifts and experience for this new role. You should consider whether God might be asking you to step out of your comfort zone to be used in a different setting.”
Shortly after that conversation, I met with a mentor to get his opinion. He wondered if I was succumbing to the temptation to plateau in ministry, referencing the work of Robert Clinton in The Making of a Leader. According to Clinton, leaders plateau when they fail to see their need for growth, becoming complacent in the comfort of their current situations. “Is your resistance to this new context really about Jesus in Philippians 2,” my mentor asked, “or is it about you trying to have things your way?”
The more conversations I had, the greater my sense that God might actually want to plunge me into this role in the heart of the city. I felt like Gregory the Great, called away from the comfort of obscurity into a high-profile position I didn’t really want. It was so much easier to critique larger ministries from afar than to actually pastor in that context.
Late one night, my wife, Kelly, and I decided we would call the church the next day and tell them I was not going to take the role. This decision to stay in obscure ministry granted us a sense of peace and resolve, and we went to sleep peacefully.
Then in the middle of the night, I was startled from sleep by a dream in which I sensed God calling me directly into the new role. What is going on? I wondered. I left this all behind to save my soul. Surely God would not make me feel uncomfortable in ministry! That thought scared me. Was it possible I had turned away from Jesus’ command from Luke 9:23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”? Could leaving obscurity behind actually be God’s calling? In the morning, I told Kelly the dream, and we both felt something different from the simplistic peace we had experienced the night before. We felt a sense of resolve to follow Christ no matter the cost.
We left what we loved in our small-but-growing ministry to enter a bigger-but-growing ministry context. In the nine years I’ve served this urban, multi-ethnic church, I’ve realized that ministry is hard no matter where you find yourself. The work of following a founding senior pastor is not for the faint of heart. There is a reason the pastor after the founder is sometimes called “The Sacrificial Lamb.”
The church has grown, and we have weathered many storms together, but I still grapple with the temptations to grow in popularity through my preaching and pastoral care, to be relevant by having the most interesting multi-ethnic church in town, or to be powerful by imposing my will instead of remembering I am only an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd. Through it all, the words of John the Baptist in John 3 have become my ministry mantra:
I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:28–30, ESV).
Matt Erickson is senior pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.