Most people get their self-worth from their vocations and this is no less true for those in Christian ministry. Most Christians in ministry—whether apologetics or other Christian ministry—want to become renowned, or at least more well-known, more respected than they are. We see other renowned ministers and we wish we could have the renown they have and we strive to get it because we base our self-worth on our ministry success. Many of us Christians realize that we will never be Tim Keller, William Lane Craig, or [fill in the blank of your favorite minister or apologist] _____________, but we are trying to get as close to famous as we possibly can.
Obviously this temptation is greater for full-time ministers but this temptation also occurs when people vie to be the most respected Sunday school teacher in their church, or the best worship leader, etc.
Some of us in ministry may never have consciously realized that this is what we are doing. All we know is that we lust to be more renowned, more respected. The majority of Christians in public ministry struggle with this because it is so easy to base self-worth on ministry success. And this is disastrously destructive to disciples of Jesus.
The reason this is destructive to discipleship is that basing our self-worth on ministry success fosters selfish ambition, jealousy, and every kind of lust. As we read in James 3:16: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” We should not be surprised, then, that so many famous and not so famous ministers supernova in a sex scandal. Lust is lust.
In the last couple of years I’ve had some candid conversations with famous apologists about self-worth and ministry and they’ve confessed that they struggle not to base their self-worth on their ministry success.
I’ve certainly struggled with it! Thankfully, however, this has diminished over the years (but not disappeared—I’m working on that!) as I’ve internalized several Scriptural truths.
My Self-Worth Story
I became a Christian in 1969 and by 1970 I was devouring the New Testament (I didn’t get to the OT for quite some time). By 1972 I was the 16-year-old co-leader of a high school ministry on my campus that met for several years. We had about 65 high school students meeting in my parents’ house every Saturday night. The head ministry honcho was 19 and I was second in charge. I taught Bible studies to those students, and (I know this is bizarre, but it was during the Jesus movement) many of them called me “pastor.” Frankly, mentioning this is embarrassing.
This early success fed a lust for human acclamation but I really did also want to please the Lord.
Soon I set my ministry goal of being the pastor of a mega, mega-church. It was going to work like this: I was going to become the youth minister at a mega-church, then I was going to be the associate pastor of a mega-church, then I was going to be the senior pastor of a mega-church, and then I was going to be the senior pastor of an even bigger mega-church. Those were conscious thoughts. I had those thoughts all the time. I repeated them like a mantra; they ran through my head regularly (by the way, I never desired being on TV).
Well, as soon as I graduated from college I started my M.Div. and I became a high school youth minister in a church with about 10,000 in regular attendance.
I was on my way! God’s man of power in the hour!
Sadly, however, the Christian education director didn’t see in me the glory that was there. The CE director was holding me back from the recognition I deserved! He liked another youth guy better!
Although my position was secure, I became jealous over the lack of recognition and boy was I working at making it big. Let me say again that I really did want to please the Lord in spite of this worldly lust.
One day the college pastor passed me as he was walking up the stairs to the church office and pronounced, “You’re just trying to build your own little kingdom!”
I could have said a lot of things. I could have replied that he got me wrong, that I just wanted to please the Lord (that would have been a lie). I could have said that I knew I had those lusts in my heart but that was something I was working on (that wasn’t exactly true either).
So, being very, very spiritual, I shot back: “So are you!”
I’d like to claim that at least I was being honest but I’m not sure he was trying to build his own little kingdom! I paid little attention to him, after all, as I was totally focused on my ministry.
Soon my jealously turned into bitterness and then I got tired. Very tired.