It could be that the greatest challenge of leadership is corralling that most unruly and unpredictable of spirits—our own. Leading with integrity begins here, and the greatest challenges that threaten to trip us up and imperil our influence are likewise internal—issues of the heart.
We spoke with six very different leaders, each with diverse backgrounds and experiences but with a shared passion to lead well—and a willingness to be candid—to help us get at leadership’s fundamental question: “How do I lead myself?”
I have found that many—maybe even most—pastors struggle with their own desire for approval and approbation. There is nothing wrong with that. We all need affirmation. But if affirmation is your primary motivator, you are very likely to end up disappointed and frustrated. You will almost certainly end up being egocentric and self-centered. The quest for status is not a fuel for a lifetime of ministry.
Ambition is a human drive and deeply ambiguous. The desire for status—to care about how others see us—is built into every person. There is a surprising amount written about it in the New Testament. When the church apes the wider-culture celebrity system, pastors become larger-than-life figures and enter into personality cults. You see it at Corinth with people saying, “I am of Paul,” or, “I am of Apollos.”
Ambition is an easy trap to fall into; we all love to be praised. Young pastors go to conferences and they see how the system works—what gets attention, praise and notoriety.
Ministry isn’t a career where you climb the ladder. Ministry is service, and service isn’t fair. The response Jesus had to his ministry was wildly unfair. “Calling” comes from the Latin word for vocation, and a vocation is different than a career. Paul could exercise his vocation—his calling—as an apostle while he was in prison. When we begin to look at a vocation as a career, we are tempted to choose greater success over greater faithfulness.
It’s like we are on a road with a ditch on either side. On the one side is indulgence; on the other side, repression. Indulgence unfetters our natural drives and hurts everyone. Repression drives down a natural drive, but like the Whack-a-Mole game, it pops back up—usually in a more dangerous form or disguise.
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” We need to bring ambition and status out into the open and be honest with ourselves. It’s easy to deceive ourselves about how natural drives motivate us. One question that is always good to ask is, “Would I do this thing if nobody could give me credit?”
In the Roman world, honor was of utmost importance. Romans sought to outdo each other in getting honor. In Romans 12, Paul asked Christians to outdo each other in giving honor. In Philippians 2, he encouraged believers to have the mind of Christ, who “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” In the Roman world, it is really extraordinary how countercultural and counterintuitive this message was. It flipped everything upside down and went directly against the grain of how people were expected to treat each other.
Craig C. Hill is dean and professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. His book Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2016) examines how recognition subtly forms us.