“My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse…” —From The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
I begin this article with the disclaimer that I am writing out of my own journey in life as it relates to ministry. In doing so, I am aware of the challenge pastors often face in distinguishing between life and ministry because the two often and easily blur together. I also realize that my story might not be yours. Regardless, my prayer is that this will give insight and encouragement.
Back in 2011, well into my 27th year of pastoring the same church, I was preparing to take a sabbatical. Deep inside, I knew there was something wrong. I had taken a sabbatical fifteen years earlier because of burnout. But this time it wasn’t burnout. This was different. And I had this nagging sense that somehow the issues were more related to me than to the ministry itself.
In preparing for my time away, I read several recommended books that significantly helped me. Yet I had been unable to pinpoint the heart issues with which I was wrestling. All of that changed when a well-known Christian leader came to our community to speak at an event for the local chapter of a national ministry. I had known him since my days in Bible College where he was on the faculty.
We reconnected briefly before the event and I gave him my five-minute version of what was going on in my life. He said, “Stay afterwards and let’s talk …”
“Repeat after me …”
When we met, he initially asked me questions about the church I pastored and listened intently as I responded. Finally, he said, “I want you to look me in the eye and repeat after me.”
Then, he said, “I am not a mega-church pastor.”
I was a bit startled, but I repeated the words.
He continued, “And I don’t want to be one.”
Again, though somewhat startled, I parroted the statement. And I knew that I was sincere in what I was saying.
He looked at me in silence, and thought for a moment. Finally, he said, “Let’s try that again.”
“I am not a mega-church pastor. And I don’t want to be one.”
I repeated the words again, more easily this time.
But he wasn’t done. He added a twist, “And I’m okay with that.”
I hesitated and briefly reflected as I struggled to say the words. I wanted to tell the truth. The first two statements were true, but not this one.
So I honestly said, “I’m learning to be okay with that.”
He gently smiled at me. “No. Say it, ‘I’m okay with that.’”
At first, words didn’t come, only tears. I was exposed, confronted and convicted about a challenge in my life that many pastors experience: the struggle with what the Bible refers to as selfish ambition.
It might not be the desire to be a mega-pastor. But we clamor for “success in ministry,” which we often measure by attendance, finances and buildings. We can even convince ourselves that it is all for God’s glory, which sounds hauntingly similar to people in our churches who say that if the Lord lets them win the lottery, they promise to give Him ten percent.
Illusions of Ministry
Selfish ambition in a pastor’s heart often gives birth to disillusionment in ministry. An illusion is a false perception of reality. Unfortunately, some false perceptions of reality are so etched in our minds and hearts that they become deeply held core beliefs and convictions.
I look back to when I first went into pastoral ministry. Unknowingly, I had all kinds of illusions about the ministry. To be sure, vision is a must. And there is nothing wrong with ideals. However, some vision and ideals can easily turn into false perceptions of reality. Over time, and typically through painful experiences, those illusions are seen for what they are; we discover that we have been unknowingly living in denial of reality. And that’s when we end up disillusioned.
To become “dis”-illusioned means that I now see the reality instead of the illusion. The problem, of course, is that the reality is more painful than the illusion. But maybe that’s not so bad. After all, a dose of reality is good for all of us.
So, what does that have to do with selfish ambition? Many ministry illusions are rooted in our selfish ambition. We have our own ideas about how God is going to “use” us. We can even develop a mindset about how “lucky” God is, to “have a servant like me.” We become no different than James and John who wanted the places of honor in the Kingdom in Mark 10.
It is painful enough to discover that many of my dreams about ministry are only an illusion. But it can be absolutely devastating when ministry illusions grow out of self-illusions, a false perception of who I am before God, how He has gifted me, and how He wants to use me.
We are like the horse character, Bree, in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Horse and His Boy. Bree had the illusion that he was a noble, gallant, and brave warhorse of Narnia. And out of that, he projected that same image to the boy, Shasta, and others.
It wasn’t until he actually went into battle that he discovered the harsh reality of who he really was. He failed and was deeply humiliated, and became disillusioned … with himself. It prompted the firm, but gentle words of The Hermit of the Southern March: “You’re not quite the great horse you had come to think … It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse …”
Romans 12:3 says: For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
Selfish ambition can lead to illusionary thinking that gets in the way of sober judgment. Without realizing it, we set ourselves up for great disillusionment. I now refer to it as “Divine Disillusionment” because I have come to believe it is one of those “severe mercies” that God, by His grace, will give us to break through to our hearts.
Over the years I have become close friends with another pastor in the community. Curt pastors a small denominational church of about seventy people, ninety on a good Sunday. He is the pastor, church secretary, custodian, youth director, worship coordinator, and visitation minister. It is doubtful the church will ever go beyond 100 people in attendance and/or that he will ever have additional staff members.
But I have always admired and appreciated this friend of mine, in part, because he has no grand illusions about himself. He is ambitious to wholeheartedly serve the Lord. But it is not selfish ambition. I would like to say that I envy him, but that would be an admission of my own selfish ambition!
“… and I’m okay with that.”
My time away on Sabbatical gave me the opportunity to do some deep soul searching by reading my Bible, as well as some insightful books dealing with heart issues in life and ministry. I spent hours prayerfully reflecting before the Lord on the things I was reading.
I didn’t focus on my battle with selfish ambition. I didn’t need to. Instead, I just allowed God, by His Spirit, to speak to the depth of my soul about it. And out of that, He did major heart surgery in my life. By the end of the summer, the selfish ambition that was diagnosed a few months earlier had been significantly treated.
As a result, I am learning to live on what I call the good side of disillusionment. One dictionary definition of disillusion is: to be freed from illusion. And it really is liberating!
I still face battles with selfish ambition. And there are illusions about both ministry and myself that are yet to be “dis”-illusioned. But one thing I have learned: I am not a mega-church pastor. I don’t want to be one. And I really am okay with that, because there’s nothing wrong with being a decent sort of horse.