I am not an authority on this matter but in my humble and accurate opinion, which I highly respect, I find that there are far too many in the ministry who have a need to be needed. Please don’t be offended by that statement. Someone once said of professional counselors, the only people crazy enough to be counselors are those in need of counseling themselves. Recently, I heard a Catholic priest make excuses for these priests who have been charged with child abuse. He said they shouldn’t be blamed because they were the products of child abuse. What happened to being a new creation in Christ?
Having served in ministry for over thirty years, I’ve seen every end of the spectrum, from the ego maniac to the paranoid. It is indeed unfortunate that even in ministry, we have those who have never embraced the truth of who they are in Christ. While we talk about victory, walking in fullness, living in the power of the Spirit and overcoming, our walk does not always match our talk.
It seems that the ministry is a profession filled with persons who battle with self-esteem. I’ve met more than my share of men and women in ministry who tend to be moody. They are constantly getting up on the wrong side of the bed. Others battle feelings of inadequacy and self worth. Rather than living in awe of God’s grace, we tend to focus on the lint in our belly buttons.
It is dangerous to judge the effectiveness of our ministry by the number of folks who pat us on the back I’ve never been one to stand at the back door of the church after a service. Howard Hendricks calls this the ‘glorification of the worm’ when our members tell us how wonderful we are. If they criticize the sermon, and we are living for approval ratings, we can go in the tank.
Never tie how you feel about the message to how the people responded. We are messengers of truth. We are not responsible for the response. We are simply responsible to deliver the Word. We are stewards, not pollsters or politicians.
If one is not careful, the need to be needed will lead to a compromised message. It’s hard to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ when you are staring at someone you are obsessed with pleasing. It’s hard to be a prophet when you know they kill prophets and build monuments to those who say what they want to hear. Yet, that does not change our calling.
Let’s be honest. Our desire for affection and affirmation will always exceed the supply. I get prayer cards, encouraging notes and phone calls every week from people. But, I have to ask myself, how many is enough? Should I get depressed or think about leaving the ministry if it’s a slow week? Is the declining number due to declining popularity or an increase in postage rates?
Getting a buzz from your church is like trying to get a buzz at a family reunion. Everyone is so busy talking about themselves, who has time to notice you? I’m not against affirmation. Every dog likes to be petted. We are all like puppies, we like to be scratched behind the ears. What I am worried about is someone coming to the point of measuring their worth by what others say or don’t say.
Paul Borthwick writes, “If I asked people at my church, ‘Do you love me?’ they would give me a Fiddler-on-the-Roof response: ‘For all these years we’ve tolerated your jokes, paid you a salary, approved your budgets, given you an office, watched you grow up. What do you mean, ‘Do you love me?'”
You may be a staff member who is never affirmed by your pastor. He assumes if you have a job, you know you are wanted. Don’t live for the applause of men. If it’s there, you will think you are better than you are. If it’s not there, the enemy or your flesh will convince you, you’re worthless. You have to be, dead to flattery and flattening. We tend to embrace flattery and then want to jump off a bridge when we are flattened. Both extremes are barriers to a healthy ministry. Those who think you can do no wrong, are wrong. Those who think you can do nothing right, are wrong. God is the judge and don’t you forget it.
You may be a pastor who labors unrewarded. The church doesn’t recognize your efforts. They never consider what it costs you to minister. They don’t provide enough time off, benefits, book allowance or conference money. If you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking these things are a sign of your worth, you’re in trouble. Your worth can not be measured on things that will ultimately be wood, hay and stubble. Your worth is being measured in heaven by a different standard. What you do for Jesus never goes unnoticed.
Through the years, I’ve watched ministers – and served with a few – who had a tendency (or even an obsession) to be needed. If you didn’t stroke them, encourage them, prop them up, they would go in the tank. I recall one minister I served with who would sink into a dark mood and pout for weeks every time we added a new staff member. The attention given to the new staff member caused him to lose a little of the limelight. He didn’t handle that well. The one man show might look good to him – but if he doesn’t change, he’ll die in the spotlight.
I know one man, if he wasn’t the center of attention in staff meeting, he would just draw on his paper and keep his head down. I remember him saying in one staff meeting, with 12 other ministers present, “I care about the people. I’m the only one doing real ministry around here.” That’s either a statement of arrogance or insecurity. You decide.
I was at a conference recently where a pastor insisted on telling us that his last church begged him to stay. That’s not the story I heard. Nor is it the story that the next pastor got from the pulpit committee. Be careful about wearing your ministerial spin on your sleeve. Someone in the audience might know the truth.
I’ve watched ministers perform funerals and barely talk about the deceased. They spend their time saying, “Look at me. You need me to minister to you. I’m the only one who cares. What would you do if I wasn’t here to hold your hand? Let me recount how many times I came to your house, visited the dearly departed and prayed sweet prayers at the bedside.” Beware of making yourself invincible as a minister. Typically, this is a sign of insecurity. This is the sin of needing to be needed and needing to tell you so you’ll know it.
John Maxwell calls this the Silver Bullet syndrome. The pastor has to rush into every hospital room and every bedside. After all, who else can pray for the dead and dying but the pastor? When he leaves, he pulls out a silver bullet and places it on the night stand. As he walks out the door to his next divine appointment, the patient says, “Who was that masked man?”
How sad that we’ve communicated to our congregations that only the prayers of the pastor can get through to heaven. We’ve handicapped our churches because we’ve demanded that they depend on us. We are all living with the result of this kind of ministry and the vicious cycle can not soon be broken. Yes, we should minister. However, we should minister with the spirit of Christ. We should never minister so that we might find acceptance, gain approval or get our kicks.
There’s another danger in ministry. It’s the trap of titles. This is the minister who insists on being recognized by their degrees. Churches are dying by degrees. We’ve got men with Ph.D.’s who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag. Paul had more degrees than any of us will ever have. He could have camped on the title, “Apostle” but he also chose to use words like, “bond-servant”, “prisoner of the Lord”, and other less than flattering words of identification.
I’ve had men with honorary degrees insist on being called, ‘Doctor.’ I’ve known men who wouldn’t answer you if you didn’t call them, ‘Brother.’ By the way, I’m just Michael. When people talk to me at church, they either call me pastor (a title of respect) or Michael (a reminder that the ground is level at the cross).
Henry Nouwen wrote, “The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. God loves us, not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love.”
Here’s a warning that must not go unheeded. If you minister out of your insecurities, you are never going to attract leaders. You’ll only attract insecure people. They will demand your undivided attention and the more you have, the more your time, emotions and energies will be stretched.
We are called to minister in the power and name of Christ. He is the overcomer. We have His Spirit residing in us. Whatever we didn’t get as a child, He can give us. Whatever insecurities we might have, He is able to do exceedingly abundantly more than we ever hoped or imagined. Do you want to minister out of your insecurities and find your worth in the words of others? Or, do you want to minister out of the overflow of what God says about you in His Word? Are you standing and serving in your feelings on by faith?
Let me make some closing suggestions. I’ve blended some of my own thoughts with two other sources I’ve found helpful in writing this article. Some of these suggestions are mine. Others were drawn from an article by Paul Borthwick entitled, “Ministering Without Applause,” which appeared originally in the October 3, 2001 issue of Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox at www.pastors.com. I’ve also gleaned thoughts from the book, The Unnecessary Pastor, by Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn, published by Eerdmans.
One. Lower your expectations. We can self destruct because our expectations are too high. The honeymoon won’t last forever. It may not last for two Sundays. Some churches are preacher killers. It has nothing to do with you. Don’t take it personally. Borthwick says, “Pride goes before a handshake. Take God seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously.”
Two. Don’t play the comparison game. Don’t try to figure out who’s getting the most strokes from the congregation. Affirm those God is using. It may be you. It may be Paul or Apollos. Who cares, as long as the ministry is done?
Three. Keep a rainy day file. When I am blue or a little down, I keep the cards and notes of affirmation that folks have sent me through the years. It’s in a file, in case I’m feeling under the pile. Mark Twain said he could live two months on one good compliment. Keep a journal, we do tend to forget the positive comments that come our way and remember only the negative ones.
Four. Take all feedback, good and bad, to the cross. Ask God to teach you what you need to learn. Ask Him to help you forget what you should never remember. This requires discernment and discipline. If you hang on to what some folks say, you’ll find yourself wondering what your worth is through their eyes, not the eyes of God.
Five. Be a person who ministers without any thought of something in return. I recently shared a funeral with a man who did nothing but talk about his ministry and how those who were there to honor the dead could contribute. Most of the time, I give back the check I receive for doing a funeral or wedding. I need to remember that I’m doing it as a servant of God. I also know that some folks will expect something in return if they’ve given me money.
Six. Beware of Greeks (or anyone else) bearing gifts. I once accepted a week at a house on the beach from a church member. For the next five years, he wanted me to pay for it by giving him my undivided attention. I’ve watched men, driven by insecurity or the need to be needed, cave into those who provide them with cars, vacation homes, clothes and other items. Owe no man. Nine times out of ten, the one giving the favor expects something in return. If you aren’t secure enough to say, “No thanks,” you could end up worrying about what you are doing that might cut off a perk.
Seven. Relax and enjoy the journey. Six weeks after we are dead, no one is going to remember us anyway. Who do we think we are, Spurgeon? Don’t worry about pleasing men. Think often about standing before God and giving an account of the works done in the body. Go home, pet the dog, let the cat rub on your leg, go bird watching. Vance Havner was a bird watcher. He was also fearless in the pulpit. John Stott said, “I’ve never known anyone to suffer from high blood pressure who takes time to watch birds.”
Eight. Focus on Christ. He emptied Himself. He didn’t parade around in His glory. He took on skin and walked among us as a carpenter. Don’t focus on your peers. They are dealing with insecurities in their own way. They aren’t talking about you, they are too worried about themselves.
Nine. Don’t allow the church that didn’t call to define who you are. Don’t go hide under a rock just because a church didn’t call you. Don’t look for your security in the number of pulpit committees that contact you. God may be protecting you from something or someone.
Ten. Remember, you were not called to be successful. You were not called to be popular. You were not called to be funny, cute, or witty. You were called to be faithful. Whether or not anyone else appreciates that, God does.
Borthwick writes, “I asked a ministry veteran of more than forty years how his church appreciated him. ‘Once every two weeks I get paid,’ he responded. He believed that the workman was worthy of his wages, and he was satisfied with that.”
We must learn to be content in whatever state or church we are in. Our contentment must have nothing to do with applause, praise of men or approval ratings. The fact that we have been called, knowing that we are sinners saved by grace, should be sufficient.
Lest we think we deserve accolades, praise and applause, might I remind you of the prophets? How about the martyrs? No one applauded the ministry of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others. The Reformation leaders were scoffed at. Those we brag about today were the objects of ridicule in their time. If these men and women of faith had worried about pleasing people or being stroked, think of how different Christian history (and the Bible for that matter) would be.
©2002 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.