Is the Church Being Taken Over by Success-Seeking Pastors?

pastoral pride

Some are recognizing a trend in the church toward focusing less on humility, weakness and sacrifice, and instead prioritizing triumph, power and boasting of success.

Authors Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel wrote about the trend in The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb.

In it they write about pastoral pride with some personal confessions, “I have seen my thirst for power driving my ministry. I have viewed other pastors as competition and the church as a means of self-glory. I have acted in ways that place me alongside the power mongers I so readily critiqued.”

J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., sees the trend too and it worries him. He is so concerned that he had his staff read Goggin and Strobel’s book.

Pastoral pride is real

In a recent article on his website he said the criticism hit close to home.

“Early in my ministry, I was praying for miraculous revival in Durham, where our church is. The Holy Spirit impressed upon me this thought: “What if I bring the revival you are asking for…but do it through another church?” I knew the right answer. I should have said, ‘Yes, Lord! You must increase and I must decrease!’ But the impulsive answer that bubbled up from my heart was much less flattering.”

Ethan Renoe, a youth pastor in Denver, says that need for power and influence doesn’t happen only in the confines of the church building; it’s now evident on Facebook and Twitter:

“I think social media highlights everyone’s insecurities, not just pastors. I have felt the pull to be a famous pastor, like a new Judah Smith or Carl Lentz, rather than to focus on the people God has placed me over in a given season. If anything, I wonder if this is something younger pastors can learn from the older generation. For instance, my current pastor is in his 60s, has never been on social media, and is unquestioningly committed to his small, local church. He feels no temptation to gain followers, likes, views or a book deal; his focus is to pastor well the church God has given him for the past 30 years.”

Greear identifies “focusing on the big things” as one of the danger signs of becoming obsessed with power.

“This is probably my greatest temptation in ministry. I am always eager to rush ahead, trying get to the “next thing.” That impatience might look impressive to others (and it may feel great when I’m “accomplishing” things), but it leaves hurting people by the wayside.”

Another example of a desire to be a “dragon,” according to Goggin and Strobel, is an inattention to developing the next generation of leader: “Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders because they pose a threat to their own power.”

Renoe, a young pastor, has seen it.

“I feel like there are elements of the older generation which are unwilling to ‘pass the torch’ to the next generation of church leaders. This is evidenced most widely by the Boomers’ invention of megachurches and tele-preaching to satellite campuses. What better way to tell a millennial pastor-to-be, ‘No, you’re not ready to preach, I’d rather preach to all of the campuses than to raise up a new leader and let you preach to one of them.’”

Renoe points to Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City as one church leader who’s doing it well.

“Keller could easily seize the preaching control and install giant screens to do the preaching, but instead he has chosen to raise up new, younger pastors to fill his shoes when he moves on. Personally, as someone who has seven years (and counting) of theological and biblical training and education, and about the same amount of time in practice, I can count on one finger the number of times I have been asked to preach to a pastor’s congregation.”

Greear offers this advice to senior pastors:

“Our attitude toward power should always be, ‘I will serve in this role until someone better comes along.’ Always. Don’t get caught up asking, in fear, ‘What will happen to me if I raise up this other leader?’ After all, people don’t usually look to those who empower new leaders and think, ‘Well, that person is dispensable.’ Empowering others isn’t self-sabotage; it’s wise.”

And he suggests pastors look for two or three others who they can invest in “hoping that they will one day excel, replace or surpass you.”

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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