October 28, 2010
The Ambition Engine
Ambition can drive us to service to God and others, or it can be a veneer that hides far less noble motivations.
When I entered seminary 12 years ago, I was humbled by many of my classmates. While we all suffered through "suicide Greek" (an intense six-week summer course that only a gifted linguist with a penchant for self-flagellation would enjoy), I learned that some students sacrificed far more than others to follow God's call into pastoral ministry.
Scott left his position as a Navy pilot, with a stable salary and excellent benefits. David left his management job with a Big Three automaker and relocated his family. He attended classes all day and studied while working as a night security guard. I have no idea when he slept.
Gregory, an engineer from China, brought his wife and two young girls from Hong Kong to Chicago—he'd never seen snow before, let alone 12 inches of it covering his car. In six months Gregory taught himself enough English to successfully translate the New Testament from Greek into English, and then into Cantonese for his congregation in Chinatown.
These pastors represent the power of godly ambition. God's call upon their lives, and their desire to serve his people, was the engine that drove them to make enormous changes and sacrifices.
But seminary revealed the dark side of ambition as well.
On the first day in a small class, when asked to introduce ourselves and say why we had entered seminary, the first student said, "I'm here because I'm going to be the next Bill Hybels." Really, I thought. Hope that works out for you.
The next said, "My grandfather was a pastor, my father was a pastor, and I'm supposed to be a pastor too." Daddy issues? The third student revealed his three-year plan to become senior pastor and then transform his congregation into a megachurch. "My denomination wants me to have an M.Div. degree," he said, "but once I've proven I can grow a big church, I don't think they'll make me finish the degree." Good grief, I thought.
Then the scary realization: What if my motivations for being here are just as questionable? That introduced me to the dangerous side of pastoral ambition. It can drive us to make great sacrifices in service to God and others, or it can be a veneer that hides far less noble motivations.
Sometimes our ambition engine needs a tune-up; a realignment toward Christ and away from self-centered desires. Discerning when an overhaul dilemma. There is no "check engine" light on our ministry dashboard, but Scripture offers wisdom in recognizing when our ambitions are misfiring.
Old Testament figures like Moses and Jeremiah were reluctant leaders. They did not seek power or influence, and at times actively resisted God's call into leadership. But he put a "fire in their bones" that they could not extinguish. They remind us that calling is a result of God's grace, not a selfish desire for acclaim. But is humble reluctance what we should expect in every godly leader?
Not according to the New Testament. Peter says elders ought to lead willingly and not under compulsion (1 Pet. 5:2). Paul affirms those who aspire to leadership (1 Tim. 3:1). It is clear that when ambition is sparked by our communion with Christ, it can be a righteous energy that drives our ministry. It inspires us to take risks, try new approaches, or venture to new lands. But any fuel that can accomplish so much good carries inherent dangers as well. Ambition, like an uncontained fire, can also be a source of great destruction. The drive to achieve can backfire on a leader causing great harm to families, congregations, and the leader himself.
This fall issue of Leadership explores the blessing and burden of ambition. What is the difference between a godly and a selfish ambition? How can a pastor resist the many temptations in the world and within the church to focus on self-promotion? How does our individual calling fit within a biblical understanding of community? And how do we discern the nature of God's call on our lives?
As I learned in seminary, we are all a mix of godly and terribly ungodly ambitions. And in his power and wisdom, our Lord can use even those driven by selfish motives (Phil. 1:15-18), but we certainly don't want to be counted among them. I hope this issue helps you tune-up your ambition engine to drive you closer to Christ.