Pastoring the Wrongly Ambitious
I am a pastor, and I am addicted to work—just as I have been for most of my life. Like the participant at Alcoholics Anonymous who considers himself a “recovering alcoholic” after thirty years without a drop of booze, I will consider myself a recovering work addict until the day I reach heaven, because it is so ingrained in my flesh.
Perhaps you identify with this. Or perhaps “addicted to work” sounds as preposterous to you as “addicted to root canals.” Either way, let me share with you some advice from my experience pastoring those in my church (including myself) who are wrongly ambitious.
Notice that I said “wrongly ambitious” and not “overambitious.” That’s because for the Christian it is impossible to be overambitious. Work was created before the Fall (Gen. 2:15) and will continue on into heaven (Isa. 65:21-23). And so the apostle Paul tells us to “make the most of every opportunity” (Eph. 5:16). If that’s not ambition, I don’t know what is.
As Christians, we are called to be ambitious for Christ. And yet many seem ambitious only for the things of this world. How do we pastor them? I will give you five root causes behind wrongheaded ambition, and four ideas of how to help those who have fallen into these traps.
WHY DO PEOPLE BECOME WRONGLY AMBITIOUS?
Why do people become wrongly ambitious?
Root Cause #1: Insecurity
Let me describe a dinner conversation several years ago with five CFOs of Fortune-500 companies. “I’ve got a theory I want to test,” said one of them. “How many of you are the oldest child of divorced parents?” Every hand went up but one. “Right. Driven in your career because you can’t shake your perceived failure as a child?” All heads nod.
How many of the uber-confident, successful overachievers in your congregation are driven out of insecurity and fear rather than strength? Insecurity may well propel these Christians to the heights of their profession, but it will severely hinder their ability to serve Christ in their profession. Insecurity can stem from a broken home, past abuse, an unimpressive education, a struggling marriage, disappointing children, or a host of other factors.
Striving to make our mark on the world can be right and godly. Think of Moses’ asking God to establish the work of his hands in Psalm 90. But striving to promote ourselves rather than God is self-serving and idolatrous.
Root Cause #2: Impatience
Joe knows his wife has had a terrible day with the kids; it’s thirty minutes before he would normally go home; and he’s accomplished everything on his to-do list. So why does he feel so reluctant to leave early? Is it because he doesn’t love his family? Is it because he’s not allowed to leave before closing or because he’s afraid people will think less of him for leaving early? Let’s assume the answer to all these is “no.” So why the reluctance? Because his self-worth is wrapped up in his ability to get things done. And so leaving thirty minutes early feels like a denial of his basic identity. He wants to accomplish things with his life—which is a good instinct. In fact, it was part of God’s plan for humanity in Genesis 1-2. But when, in search of that impact, he elevates one particular calling in life (his job) above others that God has given (his family), he shows himself to be impatient with God’s plans. He’s like King Saul who couldn’t wait for the prophet Samuel to make an all-important sacrifice to the Lord. Saul’s goal (defeating God’s enemies) was right on. But instead of trusting God’s plan to get there, he went with his own plan instead.
Similarly, much wrongheaded ambition comes from trying to achieve something good (impact on this world) through human wisdom rather than God’s good plan. We become obsessed with a job at the expense of other things because we’re not willing to trust that obeying God’s commands across all of our callings is the best way to achieve the eternal impact we desire. God’s plans often seem circuitous and inefficient—but in his wisdom he really does know best.
Root Cause #3: Financial Fear
Sometimes wrongheaded ambition has nothing to do with identity, self-actualization, or any other existential desire, but is merely about money.
Ron bought a house that was on the upper end of his budget—and that was before he lost his job as a regional sales manager. Now that he’s found work in a different field, he feels intense pressure to perform or else his family will lose the house, which would also involve leaving a great school district, years of friendship with neighbors, and a lifestyle they’ve come to enjoy.
Most likely, the level of stress he feels at work is echoed through his family’s life, as everything seems to be about having enough money. Paul’s words to Timothy come to mind: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
Root Cause #4: Escape
You’ve been trying to convince Mary to get more involved with her small group, but work commitments always get in the way. Yet as you learn more about Mary’s family life, the reason for her interest in work comes sadly into focus. Her marriage is on the rocks and her kids seem to be a disgrace—but at work she’s a hero. In survey after survey, modern Americans say that their main motivator in the workplace is recognition—more than money, more than career advancement, more than great coworkers.
What if her job is the only place where Mary feels she gets recognition? What if her job is the only place where Mary feels she deserves recognition?
Root Cause #5: No Good Models
Javier grew up with a father who greatly blessed their city through his work as district attorney, and Javier is determined to follow in those footsteps. Unlike his father, however, Javier wasn’t blessed with a natural mind for the law, and so the only way he is succeeding at work is by making it the only thing that matters in his life. Beyond that, all of the other Christians in his life are exactly the same—or at least appear that way. Orthopedic surgeon, car dealership owner, judge, real estate magnate: the elders and other leaders in his church all seem to fulfill Javier’s vision for worldly and spiritual “success.” What Javier doesn’t know is that none of these church leaders allow their jobs to put a stranglehold on the rest of life like he does. His problem is a lack of models. He sees few examples of people with ordinary ability who are viewed as “successful” in his local church. And he lacks a window into the lives of those who have been recognized as Christian leaders.
FOUR PASTORAL RESPONSES
Now, having read through these five root causes, you undoubtedly have your own ideas of how you might pastor these various church members who suffer from wrongheaded ambition. But perhaps I can add to your list of potential responses. Here are four pastoral responses from my own experience and the experience of others.
Response #1: Encourage Satisfaction in a Paycheck
This idea could be easily misunderstood. But in 21st-century industrialized societies, recognition and self-actualization have replaced money as the primary motivation for employment in our society (see root causes 1 and 2 above). This is a problem for the Christian because nowhere in the Bible do we find self-actualization as a motivation for work. Instead, we see that work exists primarily to put food on the table and to allow us to be generous (Eph. 4:28). By God’s grace work can accomplish much more than that: it allows us to image God in Genesis 1:27, adorn the gospel in Titus 2:10, and provide enjoyment in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25. But all these motivations are also true of every other calling we have in life: being a husband or wife, a father or mother, a citizen, a church member, an evangelist, and so on. The only motivation that is truly unique to employment is financial compensation. So help your congregation come to learn the wonderful satisfaction of working for money.
Do the wrongly ambitious in your church take satisfaction in their paycheck? Or is their satisfaction primarily from other perceived benefits of their job such as status or a sense of significance? Or, to put the question another way, does discontent with work stem from a lack of status or significance? Most of the wrongly ambitious would be helped if they saw their paycheck as a more significant motivation for why they work. If they view money as a stewardship from God—and the enjoyment of money as the enjoyment of stewardship—then money can become a wise and godly motivator in the workplace.
Of course, if they use money selfishly in an attempt to reduce dependence on God (see root cause #4 above), the opposite will happen. But if you give your people a godly vision for money, and teach them that it is godly to take satisfaction in their paycheck (no matter how big or how small), you will help the wrongly ambitious shift their motivation in the workplace from what is idolatrous to what honors God.
Useful book: Managing God’s Money by Randy Alcorn
See also: the Capitol Hill Baptist Church adult Sunday School manuscripts for a five week class on money.
Response #2: Teach on what is valuable—and challenging—about pursuing excellence
Often, a wrongly ambitious attitude toward work is wrapped up with a wrong idea of pursuing excellence at work (see root causes 1 and 4 above). But rather than simply telling people what not to do, we need to help them understand what a right view of excellence is. In Colossians 3:23 we are told to work “as for the Lord.” In other words, no matter who your earthly boss is, behind that man or woman stands Jesus Christ, your true boss. And while your earthly boss has only given you assignments related to the workplace, Jesus has given you assignments related to all of life.
A wrong view of excellence optimizes life for only one assignment: the assignment of the workplace. This is how a godly desire for “excellence” leads to the ungodly obsession that we call “perfectionism.” But once people grasp that Jesus is their real boss, two things happen. First, a pursuit of excellence becomes an act of worship: a right response to who Christ is and what he has done. Second, a pursuit of excellence in the workplace is placed in the context of all the other assignments Christ has given, which extend far beyond the workplace. As you teach on the biblical foundation for excellence, you will displace the counterfeit concepts of excellence that are so prevalent in today’s workplace.
Useful book: God at Work by Gene Veith
See also: the Capitol Hill Baptist Church adult Sunday School manuscripts for a six week class on Christians in the workplace.
Response #3: Highlight examples of godly ambition
“Ambition” should not be a dirty word in your congregation. After all, the apostle Paul uses the translated Greek word for “ambition” to describe his desire to preach the gospel in Romans 15:20. When faced with a wrongly-ambitious member of your congregation, your desire should never be to scale back their ambition but to redirect it (see root causes 3 and 5 above). But if the only examples of “ambitious people” your congregation sees are those who are wrongly ambitious in their careers, they will struggle to be ambitious as Christ intends them to be.
As you have opportunity, then, highlight as examples to your congregation those members who are ambitious for God’s kingdom and whose ambition for Christ has resulted in success in the workplace. In addition, highlight those members who are ambitious for God’s kingdom but have decidedly normal careers in the workplace. Both types of examples can be useful in their own way. Neglect the first category and you’re suggesting that there is no spiritual value to be found in the workplace. Neglect the second and you communicate that only “successful” people need apply for service to Christ.
Useful book: Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey.
Response #4: Advertise the value of a life built around the congregation
Most Christians will make better use of their lives for the kingdom of God if they pick just one or two churches through their adult lives and stick with them (see root causes #2 and 5 above). Of course, there are exceptions to this. But as a rule, most people are not the exception. The relational ministry we build in the local church is not the only thing of eternal value in this life, but it is one of the primary ways that we can build for eternity. You will serve the wrongly-ambitious well if you advertise this fact.
How can you do this? First, generally, encourage people to structure their lives so that they can have a vital relational ministry in the church. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they sign up for a bunch of church programs. It does mean that they think about where they live and what kind of job they hold and what kind of leisure habits they develop in light of how well they can be invested in relationships at church.
Second, teach on the spiritual value of those things that compete with the local church for members’ time. What is the eternal value of what I do at my job? What is the eternal value I’m building through ministry to my family? What is the eternal value of a vacation? If your people cannot articulate the good they are accomplishing in those other spheres of life, they will have a difficult time making wise tradeoffs when those things seem to compete with the local church for their time and affection. As I mentioned above, God’s plans for how we can best spend our lives often seem circuitous and counter-intuitive, and his plan that we invest heavily in the local church is a prime example of that. Help your people trust God’s plan and show them what it means to do this well.
Useful book: The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.
A SENSE OF AWE
Finally, pastor, remember that there is nothing special about paid Christian work that protects you from being wrongly ambitious in your own life. In fact, because of the obvious spiritual value of what you do, as a pastor you may in fact be especially susceptible to being wrongly directed in your ambitions. Accordingly, I’ve written this article so that everything in it applies to you just as much as to anyone else in your church.
So, one final piece of advice, both for you and your congregation: make every effort to cultivate amazement at who God is. A sense of awe at who God is invests our lives as worshippers with eternal significance (root cause 1). A sense of awe at who God is helps us trust his plans for faithfulness even when they seem strange by the world’s standards (root cause 2). A sense of awe at who God is reminds us that the comforts of this world are merely passing, but real and eternal blessing is at hand (root cause 3). A sense of awe at who God is gives us hope that we can serve him in even difficult circumstances, obviating the need for escape (root cause 4). And a sense of awe at who God is opens our eyes to the value of his most faithful servants, be they giants of church history or the frail prayer warrior shuffling into the back pew (root cause 5).
My prayer is that you will help fuel your congregation’s ambition to serve this God and to make him known with every hour and dollar and opportunity at their disposal.