“I guess I just imagined things would be different than they are. This isn’t how I thought it would go. . .”
I sat with a friend from out of town, catching up over coffee and pastries. We talked about how the last year of ministry had gone, and the whole conversation was laced with sadness, disappointment, and weariness.
When I was twenty, I graduated from a Christian university with a ministry degree, some internship experience, and a head full of ideas of how church was supposed to be. My wife of two months and I packed up our little apartment of secondhand furniture and moved hours away from our families and friends to work at a church in Kansas City. It’s a good church with good people, but I quickly realized ministry is different than I thought it would be.
I wasn’t the confident, charismatic, visionary leader I imagined when I fantasized about my future. Young adulthood is a tumultuous time where many of the stabilizing forces in your life change and you figure out who you are in a new way. I discovered I was more anxious, self-conscious, and restless than I had thought. I learned that I had a lot to learn.
TEMPTATION AND VIRTUE
In my first year of ministry, I honed in on how Jesus framed leadership for his disciples. As Jesus worked with his disciples, he focused specifically on the nature of leadership. He would often send them out to apply what they’d learned, then process their failures when they returned. Like me, they had certain expectations for the way a leader would behave and be treated, often exemplified by their fixation on “glory.”
I was confronted and challenged by Jesus’ words to his disciples in their temptation toward entitlement. Some of these same temptations kept cropping up in my life.
So I made a list of temptations leaders face, and paired them with virtues in Jesus’ own character and teaching. Framing these temptations of entitlement side-by-side with the virtues of humility and fidelity is helping me stay grounded as I work through my own temptations. Perhaps they can help you as well.
HUMILITY SHRINKS YOUR NEED FOR RECOGNITION
I entered ministry wanting to prove myself: to my friends, my parents, my wife, my church, and to myself. I wanted to show I was worthy of affirmation. I wanted to be perfect, and to lead perfectly. I wanted to check all the boxes of what a healthy ministry should look like.
Little did I know that work with eternal results begets eternal anxiety about that work. This anxiety is like a spur in my side. On one level, the pressure is justified: to care for others’ faith is a serious, sobering responsibility. The problem comes when I confuse important work with self-importance.
Jesus warned his disciples to not be like the Pharisees, because “everything they do is done for people to see” (Matt. 23:5 NIV). What a gut-wrenching accusation!
Reflect on the last couple of days. How much of what you did was motivated by being seen by others, either positively or negatively? Over-developed self-consciousness turns us all into performance artists; playing at goodness for the sake of appearing good to others.
This temptation is amplified and easily recognized by social media, which allows what we do and say to be seen instantaneously by everyone around the world. Who among us is not guilty of uploading a picture of a book we’re reading, tweeting out 140-character distillations of our great ideas, or sharing how much “God is doing” in what we’re doing?
I know I’m guilty of doing good to be seen by others, and I’m sure you have been as well. Being constantly “on” is draining because our attention is drawn away from what we’re actually doing to focus on projecting our desired image into the world.
Jesus’ antidote to this over-developed self-consciousness is to reject titles and seek lowly places. When we live with an entitlement for recognition, we give our effort exalting ourselves over others so we will appear great. Jesus’ medicine for this tendency is brotherhood. He told his disciples, “You all are brothers,” undercutting their hierarchy, games and socio-political competitions.
If we are all brothers and sisters, I don’t need to focus my attention or energy on becoming greater than anyone. We are family because of our shared connection to the Father, not because of pious performance. To make sonship and daughterhood the core of our identity is to become humble, because it refuses self-made markers of identity. Pride makes idols of the self, making us in our own false image. Humility finds identity in God, accepting that we are made by God, not ourselves.
Humility is difficult to develop, because it requires a level of self-forgetfulness. To practice humility is to willingly take the low place, to serve without seeking honor, to lead without recognition, to love our brothers without exalting ourselves over them. As long as we are trying to become greater than one another, we cannot ever truly love one another.
THE ALLURE OF SOMEWHERE NEW
Another temptation I face in ministry is to “climb the ladder.” In school, you get “promoted” every year, climbing the ranks as you do the work assigned, and move on to the next class. If you complete college, you spend at least sixteen years fully immersed in this pace and rhythm. I carried this pace with me into ministry without realizing it.
I crave the variety and novelty of the classroom. The turnover rate for ministry positions, especially youth ministry, is staggering. I think this is, in part, due to pace. The temptation to always be looking over your shoulder for a better, bigger, more exciting opportunity is a big one. Amid the day-to-day tensions of ministry, it’s easy to be drawn away by the siren song of somewhere new, somewhere better.
Some of this temptation is due to our tendency to externalize the blame for our troubles. Quietly, in our hearts and minds, subtly under the words of our conversations with one another, we begin to say, “Ministry is hard because of these people—and somewhere else there are better people.”
The longer we live among people, the sharper their sins and shortcomings become to us. We see the deeply ingrained habits and beliefs that are unlikely to change, and we begin to hate the very people God has called us to love and lead. The vague superficiality of a new place and new people looks more and more attractive because it’s a way out of confronting the pain of loving the people we’re already near.
In reality, our biggest problem isn’t those around us but the sin within us. Therein lies the problem with running away to something new. We take sin with us, carrying it from place to place, while we run from the very thing we carry within in a never-ending search for the mythical “right” people for us to fit in with.
CHOOSE FIDELITY, NOT AMBITION
In another conversation with his disciples, Jesus addressed this temptation to search for better things. As he commissioned 72 of his disciples to preach, teach, heal, and drive out demons, he told them, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them. If not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for a worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house” (Luke 10:5-7 NIV).
Rather than move around from house to house, collecting a little offering from each, they were to go to the first house that received them and stay as long as they ministered in that area. Rather than build a following and leverage their influence to garner wealth and status, they were to stay put with those who received them in peace.
This conversation of Jesus got me thinking about fidelity. If there were one virtue to commend to my fellow young adults—it would be fidelity. Fidelity is the virtue of consistency and commitment. Ambition always looks for the bigger and better. Fidelity gives you the audacity to stay put, the vulnerability to be known, and the faithfulness to walk with people through years and decades. Fidelity walks into the peaceful home and unpacks its bag to stay.
The long walk together with others is good for us precisely because it’s difficult. Short tenures allow for us to remain superficial, to come in quickly and impress others with our ability, then move on to a new group of people to awe. The dysfunction and difficulties of long-term relationships are painful, but that pain cuts like a surgeon’s blade, revealing underlying, unhealthy growths in our soul. It’s the very discomfort and inconvenience we need in order to be made well.
In practice, fidelity is simply not quitting. Fidelity gives up on the search for the next thing to do and stops fantasizing about greener pastures. Fidelity means not quitting in your heart; not hardening your heart with cynicism and bitterness but remaining consistent to love others. It looks like showing up day after day, month after month, year after year, continuing to speak peace over the people who’ve received us. If we develop this virtue, we become steady, trustworthy, consistent people.
PEACE ESTABLISHED IN VIRTUE
Together, humility and fidelity work cooperatively as stabilizing forces in your life. Peace rooted in success, achievement, recognition, or comfort will come and go with the seasons, but peace established by virtue makes us steady and strong.
Deny the impulse to seek recognition. Refuse to pander to your own selfish ambition. Instead, rise to meet each day with humility. Commit yourself to people for the long haul, not the interim.
It’s there, at the end of prideful entitlement, that you’ll find the peace you crave.
Ryder Mills is a student director at Christ Church Anglican, where he oversees the discipleship and formation of middle and high school students. He lives with his wife and their dog in Overland Park, Kansas. They love walks, books, and trying new recipes.