THE PERILS OF SELF-PROMOTION: 8 Mistakes of Seminarians & Young PastorsDelivered to Westminster Seminary, CA- URCNA Students
Text: Now Absalom would rise early and stand beside the way to the gate…So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel (2 Sam 15:2).
The peril of self-promotion in the Christian ministry is nothing new. Jesus himself had to deal with this problem on numerous occasions in his own disciples. The Son of God became a servant to seek and to save that which was lost, and before him were his own followers often arguing about greatness, fighting over the best seats, and pushing their earthly agendas upon him for their own glory in the here and now. Jesus took every opportunity to correct this problem, summarily when he said, “whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matt 20:27-28).”
Over the years I have witnessed this problem in the pastoral ministry both in myself and in others. As I see a new generation of young pastors aspiring to the pulpit ministry, I would like to offer some reflection upon mistakes that are common both to young men training for pulpit ministry and for young pastors. No one ever warned me of these things, so I hope such a reflection will help us all to remember that our calling is to be servants.
1.I’ve Got A Hero
We are used to a Christianity that is full of stars, and the Reformed world has some of the most notable. Combine personality with a robust theology and you have quite an attraction in our day of mindless Christianity. The Reformed world has really become its own little theological Hollywood, and we unite together around the theological giant who has a name. While nothing is wrong with appreciating, learning from, and implementing the teachings of godly teachers set apart for our training, this does become a problem when we are trying to become that giant. This easily becomes our identity in our formative years. We think like, act like, and begin to speak like the success who has influenced us the most. We’re afraid to speak apart from that identity. We feel safe within the personality of the hero we have adopted. What becomes of our homiletic training and preparation? We are emboldened in our preaching in so far as we achieved sounding like our hero.
The danger here is evident. Not only are we guilty of following Apollos, Paul, Sproul, Piper, Beeke, et al, but we have pushed to the side the real agent of blessing in the Christian ministry, the Holy Spirit. If the ultimate goal of our training and study is to preach Christ, what good is such preparation if we have forgotten the one who bears witness to Christ, even though we have achieved exegetical accuracy through the lens of our hero? Hywel Jones summarizes the problem well when he concludes that preaching is today driven by the importance of exegetical accuracy and contemporary relevance, but in our attention to Scripture, has the Holy Spirit been forgotten?
2.I’ve Become, Look at Me
As time goes on, the new pastor begins to realize that the identity he has adopted isn’t working real well in the ministry itself. It was good for the seminary days, but for some reason, the draw just isn’t happening out at ground zero. Where is the interest? Why did it work for my hero and not me? What often happens is that pastor begins to search for a new hero, or he tries to develop himself as his own new brand of hero. If he adopts the former, often an overt shift in theological emphasis occurs with the goal of breaking the perceived stagnation. He adopts Piper's satisfication message, Beeke's assurance emphasis, Sproul's holiness of God recovery. Everything becomes built around one of these themes.
If the latter is pursued, the result will be some kind of pastoral make-over. Excessive attention is given to books, lectures, speaking engagements, sermons, all with the goal of trying to get people to adopt the pastor himself as their hero. There is a real danger here of theological narcissism, and radical paradigm shifts often follow. I’ve been amazed in my short time of ministry how many pastors continue to swing from pendulum to pendulum—low liturgy to high, Chuck Smith to Pope Benedict, belief to unbelief. What is most disturbing is how much public attention is given to these theological shifts, along with the readiness to dissect, debate, and dissemble, in public, the former views once held, and with robust passion.
3.I’m Ready For Debate
Young pastors, especially seminarians, should stay out of, as much as is possible, theological controversies. As a side note, I also think our churches and seminaries should protect our seminarians from these controversies. Seminarians are quick to jump into the fight. I observed recently that a seminary student wrote a chapter in a book on one of the major theological controversies in the Reformed world. This was poor oversight of this young seminarian and it opened him up to scrutiny before he has even been ordained. Seminary students have one job, and that is to learn and to be teachable. Theological controversy will always be around. Those who are the most humble and teachable in their preparation today will be the greatest defenders of the truth tomorrow.
4.I’m the Vox Dei
In the Reformed tradition we have a high view of preaching. The one who proclaims the Word of God is sent by Christ to authoritatively declare his will. But what happens when that Word is not being heard? What is the pastor to do when, in the middle of controversy, it seems that no one is heeding the admonitions of the Lord? There is a view of the pastor as the vox dei that is abusive. In the midst of controversy, it’s easy for the pastor to brow beat the congregation into submission with the added threat that the people are sinning against God if they do not accept lock, stock and barrel everything the pastor says.
Controversy can often so easily warp the pastors sermon preparation that he is unable to think, see, or apply Scripture beyond the controversy. Never does the pastor stop and ask why, in every sermon, am I coming up with the same applications to the current controversy? When the pastor uses the pulpit this way, he has struck the rock sinfully, and will have the slow effect of losing his congregation. I have seen many a pastor end up defrocked from the ministry for such abuse.
5. I’ll Deal With This
The pastor holds an incredible position of power. He is used to everyone coming to him for the answers. The young pastor is prone to tackle every single problem in the church. Beware of this, the devil will attack your ministry at the inception with some kind of controversy in the church—a divorce, a mixed marriage, a leadership problem, a discipline case. The pressure for the pastor to get the situation solved immediately, exercise the key of discipline hastily, and take the problem into his own hands is a dangerous one.
My advice to a young pastor is to make a distinction between those things that pertain to your office and those things that do not. With regard to the later, stay out, with regard to the former, lean heavily upon your elders. They are given to shepherd the congregation, and the pastor is sent to minister the Word and assist in the shepherding of the elders. Pastors who are too involved in disciplines cases and in the minutiae of church life will lose their effectiveness in the pulpit. We are not micro-managers. We are shepherds. For this reason, I believe the pastor should not be the one reading discipline statements from the pulpit. An elder should do this, if only for the sake of the one being disciplined that he will still be able to receive the preaching of the Word.
6. You Should Call Me
Seminary is an artificial atmosphere. Here students pick-apart, dissect, and “make perfect” the sermon as they are taught by qualified men who the Lord has set apart for this important task. The student then takes his well-crafted sermon out to the churches, preaches it over and over until it is perfected. People approach him after the sermon saying things like, “Wow, you are a great preacher. We would love to have someone like you here.” They mean well. The people are generally excited about the fresh new seminarian—his life, his excitement, his passion.
After a bit of this, the seminary student begins to take it in. Everyone has confirmed his gift of being a pastor, there should be no barrier to his receiving of a call. He begins to think, “Wow, I would love to pastor that church that has received me so well.” Though not overtly, he is preaching so as to candidate, even though the church has a pastor. He visits, preaches with enthusiasm, and secretly would love to have that pulpit.
What he has not considered is that the pastor of that was once treated like that too. He was the young guy on the block, and the honeymoon was really enjoyable. But after years of the warfare, and a current conflict in the church, things have weighed on him. Pastor is tired. The seminary student and young pastor should realize this dilemma. Such a praised situation is not the normal life of the ministry. Be careful not to self-promote when you preach in another pastor’s church. While you should receive the encouragements from God’s people as a blessing and confirmation of your calling, realize that what you are receiving is not the normal life of the pastorate.
7. Are You Questioning Me?
Always be willing to ask for forgiveness and be humble. If you ever get to the point where you cannot accept or receive any criticism, pride has overcome you. We will sin and make many mistakes along the way, and the willingness to seek for reconciliation is a big qualification of a servant. There will always be antagonists in the church, and I believe God allows for these thorns in the flesh to keep us humble. We should see in these thorns a representation of ourselves in how we have treated the Lord, being reminded of his unfailing love for us.
I never accepted criticism well in my early years. A seasoned pastor once reminded me that he was often roasted at the Sunday lunch by his parishioners and that I should get used to this about the ministry, lest I start acting like a cult leader. I never forgot that advice.
8. Here Is How I Do Things
Inflexibility in matters of indifferent things will kill your ministry. Be balanced and never forget why you are doing what you are doing. The letter to church in Ephesus is one to remember. They were commended for their doctrinal integrity, but were charged for leaving their first love.
What exactly was a leaving of the first love? Ask yourself, why are you preparing so diligently to become a pastor? Imagine rising early every week to prepare a sermon, working hard, tending to the calling, and forgetting why you are doing these things. Your heart would not be in the work. This was the problem in Ephesus. It was wonderful they were exposing error, but why were they doing this? Was it to validate them or was it because they cared deeply for the souls of those who being seduced away into false teaching and things that Christ hates?
We can apply this to ministry. Are we preaching and teaching to validate us, or are we doing all of these things with the goal that every man would be presented perfect in Christ, as Paul states. If it’s the former, we are merely promoting ourselves, if it’s the later; we are servants in the calling Christ has placed upon us.