After the Sunday morning service he asked if he could make an appointment with me. I thought he had been touched by my sermon and wanted help in applying the truths to the details of his everyday life. What he actually wanted to do was to tell me how bad—"painful" is what he actually said—my sermons were. He also said he was speaking for others who felt the same way. I was hurt, of course, but I went about preparing as I had the week before.
The next Sunday when I got up to preach and looked out at the listeners, everyone in the congregation had a normal size head but this guy! His head seemed huge, with the eyes of the "Mona Lisa" that seemed to be staring at me from every angle. In ways I‘d been previously unaware, there had been a subtle shift in the motivation of my heart. Sure, I wanted to be faithful to the text and clearly explain the gospel, but I also wanted something else. I was determined to win this man. I was determined that he would come to me and say, "Paul, I was wrong; you really are a terrific preacher." I both prepared and communicated with him in mind.
The encroachment of the kingdom of self in ministry is really a matter of shifting treasure. Called to have everything I say and do ruled by the Christ-centered, grace-driven treasures of heaven, my ministry begins to be shaped by a catalog of earth-bound treasures. My ministry begins to be shaped by subtle but formative shifts in the kind of treasure that rules my heart, and therefore, shapes my words and behavior. Things begin to rise way beyond their true importance, as they do when they begin to control the thoughts and desires of my heart, and in so doing, shape the way I do ministry. Let me suggest just five of a long list of possible treasures shifts that can easy take place in the heart of any pastor.
1. Identity: From identity in Christ to identity in ministry
In pastoral ministry, it’s very tempting to look horizontally for what you’ve already been given in Christ. It’s possible to be a pastor and to be a functional identity amnesiac. When I am, I begin to need my worth, inner sense of well-being, meaning, and purpose affirmed by the people and programs of the church. Rather than the hope and courage that comes from resting in my identity in Christ, my ministry becomes captured and shaped by the treasure of a series of temporary horizontal affirmations of my value and worth. This robs me of ministry boldness and makes me all too focused on how those in the circle of my ministry are responding to me.
2. Maturity: My spiritual well-being not being defined by the mirror of the Word but by my ministry
Biblical literacy is not to be confused with Christian maturity. Homiletic accuracy is not the same as godliness. Theological dexterity is very different from practical holiness. Successful leadership is not the same as a heart for Christ. Growth in my influence must not be confused with growth in grace. It is tempting to allow a shift to take place in the way that I evaluate my maturity as a pastor. Rather than living with a deep neediness for the continued operation of grace in my own heart, I begin, because of experience and success in ministry, to view myself as being more mature than I actually am. Because of these feelings of arrival, I don't sit under my own preaching; I don't preach out of a winsome, tender, and humble heart; and I don't seek out the ministry of the body of Christ. This allows my preparation to be less devotional and my view of others to be more judgmental.
3. Reputation: From ministry that is shaped by a zeal for the reputation of Christ, to a ministry shaped by my hunger for the praise of people
My ministry should be functionally motivated by the glory of Christ; that his fame would be known by more and more people, and that together, we would all know practically what it means to submit to his lordship. Instead, my ministry becomes seduced by the treasure of my own reputation. My heart begins to be captured by the desire to be esteemed by others, the buzz of being needed, the allure of standing out in the crowd, the glory of being in charge, and the power of being right. This makes it hard for me to admit that I’m wrong, to submit to the counsel of others, to surrender control, to not have to win the day and prove I’m right. It makes it hard for me to accept blame or to share credit, and it makes me less than excited about ministry as a body of Christ collaborative process.
4. Essentiality: From a rest in the essential presence of Jesus the Messiah, to beginning to see myself as way too essential to what God is doing
Where once I viewed myself as one of many tools in God's kingdom toolbox, I now begin to see myself as too central, too important to what God is doing in my local setting. Rather than resting in the person and work of the Messiah, I begin to load the burden of the individual and collective growth of God's people onto my own shoulders. This causes me to devalue the importance of the gifts and ministry of others, and tempts me to assign to myself more than I am able to do. In ways of which I’m probably unaware, I've begun to try to be the Messiah instead of resting in my identity as a tool in his faithful and powerful hands.
5. Confidence: From ministry out of a humble confidence in transforming grace, to being way too confident in my experience and gifts
Longevity and success in ministry is a good thing; but it can also be a dangerous thing for the heart of a pastor. We’re all capable of becoming far too confident in ourselves. A confidence shift begins to take place from the treasure of humble confidence in the power of rescuing, forgiving, transforming, and delivering grace, to beginning to rest in my own knowledge, abilities, gifts, and experience. Because of this I don't grieve enough, I don't pray enough, I don't prepare enough, I don't confess enough, and I don’t listen to others enough. I’ve begun to assign to myself capabilities I don’t have, and because I do, I don't minister out of my own sense of need for Christ's grace, and I don’t seek out the help of others.
In each area it’s tempting for my ministry to be shaped by a shift of confidence in the treasure of the relentless grace of Jesus, the Redeemer, to hope in earth-bound treasures, which he reminds us (Matt. 6) are temporary by nature and have no capacity to deliver what we’re seeking. Could it be that these treasure shifts lead to so many of the familiar institutional problems and relational breakdowns in ministry? Could it be that these shifts are what cause ministry to become burdensome rather than the joy that it actually is?
The treasures of the kingdom of self become all the more seductive and powerful when, as pastor, I lose sight of the glories of what I’ve been given in Christ. When I do this, I begin to think of myself as poor when grace has made me rich, and I seek riches in places where they simply can’t be found. But I need not run away in shame or give way to panic, because the grace of the cross has covered this struggle as well, and will work again today to rescue me from me.