Being a “fifty-something” (54-year-old, to be accurate) pastor means that I am at an unsettling place in my ministry. I am at that stage where the end is in sight; I probably have just over a decade of good ministry time ahead of me. I have discovered that knowing most of my ministry time is behind me makes me think of my legacy. In fact, it makes me wonder if I will leave any legacy at all. I speculate about when I retire: will anyone notice I am gone, or even care? Will my years in ministry have any lasting impact?
If I am open and honest, I have to admit that this way of thinking has led me to other ways of thinking that frankly I am embarrassed to admit to. I found myself wondering recently “how to raise my profile.” I have spent idle moments wondering what I could do to get more people to notice me, to appreciate what I do. I think marketers call it “building your platform.” I have daydreamed of being invited to speak at conferences that would lead to invitations to speak at more significant events. (I did warn you these admissions were embarrassing!) I have been seduced into thinking that the bigger the events I speak at, the more people who know who I am, the more effective I will be as a pastor and the greater legacy I will leave behind.
I don’t think I am the only church leader who has these thoughts. Both culture and our Christian subculture tempt us and cajole us along this way of thinking as church leaders. We subconsciously or sometimes very consciously compare those following us on social media with the followings that other church leaders have gathered. We find ourselves wondering, “how many times has my sermon quote been retweeted and by whom?” We check our blog stats to see if our latest post has attained the holy grail of social media and gone “viral.” Probably like every pastor, I think somewhere inside of me is a book, but I have been told that the first thing any prospective publisher will look at is not whether or not the content I could provide is good, but rather how big a platform I have. They would be interested in how many people are in my congregation, how many Twitter followers I have, how many hits my blog gets per month. Publishers want potential authors to have made a “name for themselves” before they take a risk on them.
All of that weighed on my mind recently when I read these two verses which are physically very close in the pages of Genesis yet are spiritually worlds apart in the attitudes they represent.
“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.'” – Genesis 11:4 (NIV)
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 (NIV)
More than just building a tower, the people of Babel wanted to build a reputation for themselves. They wanted others to recognize their intelligence and skill and to admire them. They wanted to create their own identity as the premier architects and builders of the Ancient Near East. They wanted to be the first people that the organizers of a “Purpose Driven Tower Builders” conference would think of when they wanted keynote speakers. You know how the story ends: in their pursuit of making a name for themselves they became a lesson in arrogance and failure. They certainly did make a name for themselves, but not the one they intended. I saw a reflection of myself in their desire to build a reputation for themselves. What about you?
Abraham, on the other hand, didn’t seem that interested in making a name for himself. He was happy to follow God, to obey God’s calling (with a few hiccups) and to entrust his reputation to God. God took care of Abraham’s reputation and made his name “great.” Abraham was happy to move from one of the “happening places” of the Ancient Near East to the relative obscurity of life in the backwater of Canaan. An unsettling thought crossed my mind: most of us pastors want to move in the opposite direction, from obscurity to a more important place, the church in the bigger town, the move to the congregation with the higher profile in our denomination.
In my more honest and introspective moments I have been contemplating why, when it comes to my reputation as a church leader, I have been more Genesis 11 than 12, more a humanistic Babel Builder than a God-trusting Abrahamic Sojourner.
I think I may have found the answer in some words from Lance Witt: “I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the way, the measuring stick for what it means to be an effective pastor got switched. My concern is that the measuring stick of size alone can fuel a kind of ambition that is destructive.”
Witt issued a warning for all of us who serve the church: “When you’ve been in ministry leadership awhile, you learn how to cloak ambition in kingdom language. You can wrap ambition in God talk and sanctify it.” We so easily fool even ourselves that what we are doing is to glorify God’s name, when in reality the goal is to get our name noticed.
That switch took place in my head and that ambition took root in my heart. I started to measure success primarily by size, the size of my social media following, the size of the congregation I preach to, the size of the events to which I am invited to be a speaker. I was a fully-fledged Babel Builder, and my goal was to make a name for myself. I allowed myself to believe that effectiveness, true greatness in ministry, was given through the approval of people rather than through the grace and approval of God. I subtly and then overtly came to value people’s approval of my ministry more than God’s approval of me as a disciple. I wanted to have a name that people recognized rather than to entrust my reputation to God.
I have this quote on ministry, though I don’t know who said it: “We should take care of the depth, God will take care of the breadth.” Whoever said it, I am determined to try to live it out consistently. I am going to focus my energy and ambition in following Abraham’s example rather than building a following. I want to make journeying with my God in faith and obedience my priority and leave my reputation in his hands, not mine. Jesus once said, “I am not seeking glory for myself.” (John 8:50) I am now trying to filter everything I do in ministry through those words to honestly analyze my motivation.
So, how about you? Where are you when it comes to reputation, Genesis 11 or Genesis 12? Who are you trying to build a name with? Who do you really trust with your reputation? What’s your priority right now in your ministry, the depth of your relationship with God or the breadth of your influence with people? For me it’s been an awkward journey, but I have come to the place where I am content with obscurity if my name is great in God’s eyes because of my walk with him.