Dear Normal Pastor,
The internet is a wonderful and terrible thing. There are more helpful resources at your fingertips than ever. You can connect with people in a flash and communicate the gospel more broadly than ever.
And yet it can be a pathway to darkness, discouragement and even depression. You know what I’m talking about, right? You see the “success” of the superstar pastor and before you know it, you begin comparing your success and value to his or hers. He’s got 123,000 followers reading his tweets. You have 23 followers and one of them is your mother. Their books, conferences, big church and platform all seem to dwarf yours. Pretty soon you begin to attach your significance to a fictional standard of success.
This affects normal pastors in different ways. Some, deep down, crave the success and recognition and begin to find ways to prop up their own personal status. Some retreat to cynicism and jealousy. Some question if their service, and even their lives, really matter.
Can we be honest for a moment here? Let’s admit that we’re more affected by the culture of our age than we realize. Celebrity and status are hailed as ultimate goals and evidence of significance. There is an intoxicating allure to the idea of being recognized versus being known. Consciously or unconsciously we believe we matter more if more people know about us and celebrate us.
Did they like or share my insightful social media post?
Why aren’t more people coming to hear me teach?
Why do people only e-mail complaints and never compliments?
Why haven’t they invited me to speak?
All of this is normal. It might not be right, healthy or best, but it is normal. Our hearts have longings. Pastors are no different than anyone else, meaning we too get lost in our longings. To be clear, ambition isn’t evil. As Zack Eswine writes in his book, The Imperfect Pastor, “Make no mistake. Desire is a firework. Handled wisely it fills the night sky with light, color, beauty, and delight. Handle desire poorly, and it can burn your neighborhood down (James 4: 1– 2).”
These desires and how we function in light of them reveal important truths about our hearts. When we seek significance by achieving recognition in the eyes of men, it might be a mirror into our insecurity. If someone else’s success ignites cynicism and hidden jealousy, it might be a mirror of our pride. If someone else’s blessing causes discouragement over our present situation, it might be a mirror showing us how we have misunderstood the very calling God has given us.
Is there a better way forward? I believe there is.
What if we redefined how we evaluate ministry success? What if we recalibrated our hearts and minds towards a better scoreboard? What if the ways of Jesus became the compass of our ambition? What if serving and anonymity became more appealing? What if our purpose was to grow an army of disciples instead of growing a big audience? What if faithfulness in the ordinary and mundane is really more important that we realize?
I’m not advocating for small “visions”, or that we stop leveraging our influence to impact as many people as possible. I am saying that we can get so lost in building our own castles that we stop building His Kingdom. I am saying that it’s possible we’ve elevated the glamorous and tweet-worthy more than we should.
Eugene Peterson, a man who famously turned down an invitation to meet with Bono because he was translating Isaiah, once said, “You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed.” Jesus had this to say about John the Baptist:
“…among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…”
That’s pretty remarkable coming from Jesus. What made John the Baptist so great? Maybe it was his life’s mission statement recorded for us in John 3:30.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
For the Kingdom of God to flourish, it may mean that we need to faithfully serve without fanfare, wide readership, retweets or fame. Yet, as the old hymn says, “my heart is prone to wander.” In moments where I find myself longing for the praise of man, it’s always because my heart and mind have shifted to a lesser, self-serving scoreboard.
Like Peter, I tend to be too self-confident and quick to speak. Like Peter, I tend to feel and wear heavy doses of shame. And in His infinite grace, Jesus invites me back to the table, just as He did Peter.
May He increase and we decrease.