Ambition is a truly delicate issue for those of us who are in full time professional ministry. In fact, I believe it can be perilous and at the root of much ministry dysfunction, but more about that later. First, by ambition I am not speaking about:
- Wanting to use our gifts to their fullest. After all they were given to us by God to be used fully for him.
- Wanting to have the greatest influence for God that we can within the arenas He has given us. Of course that is the catch - within the arenas He has given rather than the ones we try to manufacture for ourselves.
- Being available to God for any assignment He may have for us. But they are His assignments not ours.
Given that caveat I would suggest that ambition as the world uses the term - to get ahead, achieve success, grow something big, make a name for ourselves and grasp the gold ring are incompatible with those in ministry. In fact, I can give story after story of ministry leaders driven by the their personal ambition and ego that have ended up not only hurting themselves but their ministries and the people they leave in the wake of their own ambitions.
At its worst, ambition becomes narcissism and there are plenty of narcissistic leaders in the Christian arena: more so I suspect than in the secular arena. I have seen any number of Christian leaders create carnage in the wake of their ambition and then go on to do it again and again. Using a veneer of spirituality it is possible to really about furthering our own life ambitions and advancement.
Why are these incompatible with leading ministry? Because they are far more about us than they are about Him. In fact, it is possible to use ministry as a means of self advancement rather than for the advancement of His kingdom. Any of us in full time ministry know that and deal with the internal struggle on an ongoing basis. If we don't we should!
Contrast that kind of ambition that has self very much at the center with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John that he simply does and says what the Father has told him to do and to say. Certainly Jesus was not out to make a name for himself (even being God) but was only concerned about the name of the Father and glorifying His Father.
Or think about Paul whose ambition was to know Christ and to make Him known (Philippians). In fact, contrast Paul's lack of personal ambition with the ambition of the pseudo apostles in 1 Corinthians who held themselves up against Paul. Their concern was their reputation, lifestyle and standing while Paul says in his defense that he came with trembling and trepidation to preach of Christ and Him crucified.
These are perhaps important correctives to the celebrity leadership culture we find in the Christian church today. We celebrate superstars and public Christian leaders who lead large ministries as if that is kingdom success. It is no more kingdom success than the pastor who serves his church of 150 with humility and faithfulness. It is all a question of motivation as well as how we define success. And whether our driving ambition is for ourselves or for Jesus and His reputation.
I believe all of us in full time ministry need to grapple with the following questions on an ongoing basis.
- Am I comfortable and OK with the role He has called me to play in His service today? If he were to have me play this role for the rest of my life would I be OK with that?
- Do I believe that it is He who elevates us to larger ministry platforms or do I need to seek that elevation myself?
- Am I maximizing my gifts and influence today with the platform He has given me or am I longing for something different?
- Is my ministry more about me or more about Him?
- What is my definition of ministry success and does that definition square with the Scriptures?
- How much of my personal definition of success and self worth is driven by the definitions of success around me in my culture?
I am always struck by the life of Moses. When he was forty and thought he was something God could not use him. When he was eighty and didn't think he was qualified God chose Him for the one of the greatest leadership assignments in redemptive history. Moses got it right. Do we?