The Blessing And Curse Of Ambition


By: Robert Schnase

Joe Perry had nurtured the dream of serving City Church for at least five years. He fantasized about preaching from the huge, dark-wood pulpit in the beautiful sanctuary. Whenever he met staff members from City Church, he imagined what it would be like to work with them. He attended workshops on church growth – not just to sharpen his skills for his current church, but to prepare for an opportunity like City Church. The church was not huge, but it held a place of special prominence. It offered an excellent salary, the highest among churches in the area. And it had a certain prestige.

When he heard that the pastor was planning to retire, Joe talked to his supervisors and those entrusted with pastoral placement. He explained his interest in City Church, described his experience and strengths, and tailored his resume to accentuate the match between his talents and the church’s needs.

Soon the list of candidates for City Church had been narrowed to two. But Joe learned he was not one of them. He felt the pain of disappointment twist through his soul.

The news was made even more difficult when he heard the names of the final two candidates. The first was the most ambitious, self-serving, manipulative pastor in the area, whom Joe had resented for years. Now
indignation welled up with new ferocity. And he resented a placement system that would consider advancing such a person.

The second candidate evoked a different mix of emotions. This pastor was a solid choice, an excellent administrator, a gifted and challenging preacher who had done outstanding work in several churches. This person was more difficult to resent, but still Joe felt envious.

As Joe contemplated the two candidates and his feelings toward them, he wondered what other pastors felt about him. Was he viewed as ambitious and self-seeking? (His interest in City Church had long been widely
known.) Or did his peers see him as qualified and appropriately assertive?

Now what? Joe sighed at the prospect of settling back into his church. Somehow his ministry there seemed lackluster compared to his fantasies of City Church. He felt guilty about his neglect of his present responsibilities while he had poured all his energy into his hopes for advancement. He wondered where he would find the strength to re-engage. Only after he heard the disappointing news did Joe realize how focused his ambitions were toward City Church.

One dictionary defines ambition as “the ardent desire to high position or to attain rank, influence, distinction.” The picture drawn by these words is not altogether positive. “Ardent” sounds overheated, intense beyond reasonableness. Neither do “high position” and “rank” seem the loftiest of human strivings. The words tilt toward self-seeking. The definition rings a warning bell.

But the word “ambition” casts a wider net. We do not use the word simply to define empty and selfish strivings. One’s highest ambition may be to alleviate suffering or to produce the most perfect performance by a master composer.

To account for the positive and lofty strivings that have motivated the founders of schools, hospitals and churches, that have led to great discoveries and brilliant masterpieces, Joseph Epstein has amended the
definition of ambition as “the fuel of achievement.” Ambition is the passion for excellence and the striving for improvement that moves civilization forward. It releases the energies that propel us to fulfill our dreams.

Which are we to trust? Ambition sounds like the train we ought to take. On the other hand, we are warned about troubles on the track and almost certain derailment.

Our ambivalence about ambition is accentuated when we consider its place in the ministry. Being ambitious and doing ministry seem to be opposites. Ambition evokes images of a hard-driving person bent on accomplishing his or her own wishes. Ministry carries the connotation of one who serves, who seeks to help others meet their needs. Those in ministry may be tempted to believe that having ambition could be a
denial of their calling.

Jesus’ teachings about humility and his warning against doing things in order to be seen by others make us suspicious of striving in almost any form. We may genuinely congratulate professors, bankers and corporate workers in our congregation who do excellent work, aspire to higher positions, offer themselves for consideration and receive promotions. We are happy for them when they seek and are named to important boards in their profession. But people feel awkward about pastors who strive for similar goals.

Because of this discomfort, most pastors conceal any stirrings of ambition. Pastors who admit to ambition threaten others. They are considered either ethically derelict or neurotic about their work. Consider these elements of ambition in pastors:

1. Ambitious pastors take the initiative. They seize opportunities, rather than passively waiting for things to happen. In the church, in the community and in their careers, they actively influence outcomes. They energetically engage the world with their gifts and capacities, even at the risk of failure. At best, taking the initiative means they imaginatively and enthusiastically give all they have in service to God. At worst, it involves frantic efforts to impose their will on the world.

2. Ambitious pastors are achievement-driven. They look for ways to mark their progress; they seek outward measurable results for their efforts. This makes some pastors keenly aware of salary, church numbers or awards as they desperately search for evidence that they are progressing toward personal goals. Others search for evidence of lives changed, and thrive on a sense of having made a difference.

3. Ambitious pastors are future-oriented. A vision of possibilities ahead drives them. The next sermon, the next program, the next new member holds all the promise. At worst, they look down the road to calculate every consequence to themselves, motivated by the next promotion. At best, they are motivated by a hopeful vision of what the church should become, of the deepening spiritual life and extension of community blessings, pouring themselves into work to fulfill the vision.

4. Ambitious pastors have insatiable appetites. We do not view the person who sets a goal, reaches it and enjoys satisfaction as ambitious in the same way we view the person who reaches goals but remains
dissatisfied. Most positively, this means that ambitious pastors always have horizons to pursue, unfinished work that beckons, new projects that enliven their interests. The words “more” and “higher” and “deeper” and “better” inspire them, whether this means doubling the attendance at Bible study or rising to the presidency of a club or pursuing an idea through a trail of books or polishing a sermon to brilliance.
Negatively, this means that many pastors pursue receding goals and seldom enjoy the fruit of their effort before beginning other projects. Rather than celebrating what they have attained, they look at what they
have not attained and feel discouraged.

5. Ambitious pastors often display a competitive spirit. They derive energy from comparing their results to their own previous accomplishments or to the results of other pastors. At worst, this means that they can enjoy accomplishment only when their achievements are undergirded with a feeling of victory over someone else. At best, competitive elements are directed inward, driving pastors to surpass their own past performance.

6. Ambitious pastors are sometimes single-minded, intensely and persistently dedicated to a particular cause. When the concern is to improve a situation or to extend the church’s ministry, we appreciate
their dexterity with the issues and their energetic pursuit of action. When the cause they pursue relentlessly is their own advancement, we deplore their selfishness. Some characteristics of ambitious pastors do not reflect the positive elements of ambition, but rather the corruption of ambition.

Sometimes we deride ambitious pastors as people we shouldn’t trust, those who willingly overstep moral boundaries to pursue their aims, who by definition are self-serving, avaricious, rapacious and acquisitive.
They seek only wealth, privilege and power. We narrow our definition of ambition to those who have no depth, exercise no sympathy, practice no introspection, display no imagination. They are “doers” and “go-
getters,” placing themselves onto every stage, without the counterbalance of thoughtfulness, prudence and reflection.

Ambition’s most fundamental characteristic, however, is the energy of the soul that propels us to use ourselves to the fullest. It is our yearning to be, to do, to become. Ambition is what causes us to step
forward into life rather than retreat, to lean into the future rather than withdraw. Our fundamental need to make a positive difference, to expand into our environment, to work with others and take up new challenges – all of this comes from the stirrings of ambition in our souls.

Pastors work self-directed schedules. We answer to no immediate supervisor each day, and we punch no time clocks. Faithfulness to our call causes us to prepare sermons and visit hospitals and teach Bible
studies. We can easily slip to the minimum requirements for the job.

Ambition drives us to excel above the minimum. It provides the extra effort to polish the sermon for the third and fourth time, to rise early to read over our Sunday school lesson once more, to add another program to a crowded church schedule, fastidiously to follow the progress of our members through illness and grief. It gives us the vivid incentives, the eagerness to do our best and use ourselves to the fullest.

When Christ invites us to preach and teach and heal and feed, and when our church ordains us to baptize and bury, to marry and counsel and visit, he expects us to do these things as well as we possibly can. The
church never intended to provide pastors with just a way to make a living; it expects them to provide all Christians with the opportunity to develop and express a rich and varied assortment of inherent

Without ambition, we turn inward and live in ourselves. We fail to project our souls into the world. When we deny the energies to grow, we risk becoming untrue to ourselves and to God.

Lest we soar too far, crowning ambition with too high an exultation, we must remember that any raw energy can be used either for good or for evil. The same force that propels us to great accomplishment can drive us headlong into destruction. Many of the most painful personal tragedies in pastoral ministry result from corrupted ambitions. The energies of the soul are so easily misdirected.

Pastors can allow society to provide the channels through which our self-expansive impulses flow, replacing the lofty ambitions of the gospel with the personal ambitions of money, prestige, position and
power. Such empty and self-centered ambitions have us panting after position rather than striving for great contribution. Usefulness for God in the world fades to obscurity behind pursuit of promotion. Such
lowering of goals and narrowing of vision bring a torrent of negative and deadly results for pastors and churches alike. Consider ambition’s many victims in the church:

1. Hard-driving, workaholic pastors are relentless in their strivings and can never stop to rest. Feverishly driven, sometimes toward ill-defined and unachieveable goals, they risk marriage, home life and their
own mental well-being in the fervent pursuit of success and accomplishment. Seduced by the insatiability of ambition, they run full speed until they faint with exhaustion.

2. Some pastors sustain ambitions out of proportion to their abilities as they strive to fulfill responsibilities beyond their capacity. They yearn for churches they could never serve well. By setting illusory goals, they guarantee themselves a painful fall. Either they acquire the churches they want and fail miserably, or they do not acquire them and feel cheated and frustrated. Their ambitions lead them into water too deep to get a footing. Propelled beyond their competencies, they live with chronic unhappiness and a disillusioning sense of failure.

3. Some pastors fulfill their callings with excellence but feel painfully discouraged by a lack of the distinction and recognition they desire. Guilt-ridden for craving honor and distressed by its absence, their souls are darkened with despair.

Some pastors consider themselves failures because they had assumed that they would always move progressively upward toward more salary and bigger churches. The knowledge that it is statistically impossible for all pastors to serve larger churches, given the ratio of small churches to large, offers no consolation. We speak regretfully about pastors who make lateral moves, and who move toward lesser salary or responsibility. Even though it may make an unnoticeable difference in lifestyle or comfort, our ambitions make such steps backward an emotional catastrophe. We feel famished when we wish for more but receive something less.

Ambition makes some pastors feel painfully underutilized, serving churches that cannot absorb all their energies. They exercise excellent competencies, but feel frustrated and overlooked.

4. Ambition makes some pastors heedless of the competing claims of other clergy. Unharnessed personal ambition will shatter cooperative and covenantal relationships. After realizing that other clergy are all that
stand between them and the church they wish to serve, they perceive such pastors as obstacles to their happiness. Their ambition isolates them, and the ulcerous gnawing of competition eats away at their spirit. As the cause of their ailment, spiritually depleted pastors often point to unfulfilled ambition, coupled with guilt about ambitious desires.

5. Ambition makes some pastors squirm with an endless itch for other possibilities. They no more than arrive at a new responsibility than they raise their heads from their own plowing to look for fields that
hold more promise. They move at every opportunity that provides the slightest advancement. Their families pay the price in frequent relocation, in pursuit of larger churches and higher salaries.

6. Pastors can victimize churches through their personal ambitions. Congregations suffer when their pastors endlessly turn their hearts toward greater opportunities. Some churches perceive themselves as mere stepping stones for their pastors’ career aspirations. When pastors are more concerned about their record of accomplishments than about the health of the church, the people of God intuitively know it.

Ambition shapes salary systems and ministerial deployment processes, as pastors strive for places of prominence and compete for high salaries. Ambition skews our view of success, lifting external evidences of achievement and measurable progress above many of the primary tasks of ministry.

And the most important victim of misdirected ambition is the gospel message. Pastors corrupt their ambitions when they compromise the gospel message or hedge on its truths in order to gain the approval and support they need to pursue their personal goals. When they present the gift of God’s grace without its demands, merely to add new members and improve the records; or when they offer quick fixes to churches instead of working at foundational change; or when they sacrifice community by engaging in ugly competition with other clergy, then ambitions undermine the faith.

Ambition drives pastors toward excellence in ministry. It also fosters fierce competition, unhappiness, disillusionment and isolation. Ambition causes some to maximize their work, transform churches and bring people to Christ. It propels others toward destruction of community life. Without ambition among its pastors, the church withers and dies. On the other hand, pastors engulfed by ambition kill the church’s most vital witness.

Most pastors would not want their peers to describe them as ambitious. They might appreciate being called energetic, hard-working, effective or competent, but ambitious stirrings are downplayed, forbidden, hidden from public view.

On the other hand, most pastors would not enjoy being described as unambitious. The word brings to mind laziness and ineffectiveness.

Our ambiguity about ambition reaches our spiritual roots. Jesus warns against our pursuit for prideful place. He redirects the selfish ambitions of his disciples who seek to be first and greatest, and he restrains their acquisitiveness for power, prestige and wealth. On the other hand, Jesus teaches the parable of the talents, which lifts high our responsibility to use our lives and our gifts to the fullest. Virtually every church reformer has burned with unquenchable ambition for the gospel, and yet our forebears in the faith named ambition as a shadowy cousin to the seven deadly sins.

Reflection on ambition provides an arena for considering what it means to be a pastor in today’s world. Christ whispers motifs of self-sacrifice, while the culture blares strains of self-gratification. We hear both, and even though no one can serve two masters, most of us try. God and mammon seldom team up to give us everything we desire.We expound spiritual values while we covet material rewards. We want the best for our brothers and sisters in ministry, while we seek places of prominence and prestige for ourselves. We offer ourselves in genuine andhumble service, at the same time aspiring for honor and recognition.
Believing in love, sometimes we hate; valuing community, sometimeswe compete in destructive ways. Self-giving impulses sometimes fade from view behind self-seeking appetites.

We form our identities — as pastors as we are pulled to and fro, rocked back and forth among these various external forces and internal impulses. There are ambitions that we should accept, nurture and direct in our calling. But there are others that we should see as temptations to fight against, dark undercurrents that we should condemn, restrain and seek to overcome.

We face innumerable tensions as part of our calling. And among the difficulties with which we must cope is our unwillingness and inability to face the tension of our ambition honestly and redemptively. Tension
is an inescapable feature of ministry. But from this tension can come life and growth.

When we accept tension on these terms, it helps us hold our call clearly in focus by keeping the question of servanthood freshly before us and the issues of integrity sharply in view. We are more likely to remain
faithful by growing through the struggle – by using the tension to exercise our spirits and become stronger. When we lose sight of the tension by denying or ignoring it, we miss the opportunity of growth it can stimulate and are more likely to fall into hazards we don’t see coming. People aware of the possibility of getting lost will check the map more frequently and carefully, and so are more likely to stay on course than those blinded by their own confidence.

By granting the presence of tension, by naming the dangers and confessing the temptations, we loosen their grasp on us and lessen their destructive impact. Through faithful reflection, we can harness and
redirect some of the more destructive aspects of ambition, restore a sense of genuine community among pastors, and free ourselves for more and greater work in Christ’s service.

(The above material appeared in the January/February 1992 issue of The Christian Ministry.)

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