This article is addressed to pastors, discussing the pastoral danger of pride and overconfidence. The author talks about what it means to be a humble servant of your flock.

2011. 6 pages. Transcribed by Ineke van der Linden.

Christian Leadership Part 3: The Humble Servant, Part 1

Today I would like to look at the humble servant. As I describe him: a man with a towel (taken from John 13, obviously). This is one of the most dominant models of leadership in the whole Bible. I want to begin by asking a question that I saw on the Harvard Business School symposium a few weeks ago: What is the biggest mistake a leader can make? I was very interested to see that a number of the answers were very similar. Bill George of the Harvard Business School said, “Putting their self-interest in front of their institution or organization.” Evan Wittenberg, head of Global Leadership Development at Google said, “Betraying trust.” Ellen Langer said, “Being certain—why bother when you know already?” Andrew Pettigrew said, “Not to live up to their own values.” He is from the University of Oxford. Gianpiero Petriglieri said, “To be so overly enamored with their vision that they lose all their capacity for self-doubt.” Carl Sloane from Harvard Business School said, “Personal arrogance and hubris.” “Acting too fast”—Jonathan Doochin from Harvard College. Scott Snook, from the U.S. Army Code of Engineers (retired from there) said, “It’s all about the leader being authentic, consistent and predictable.” I think you can see, there’s variation in these answers, but there’s a common thread as well running through them, and that is: the danger of pride and overconfidence. And if that’s true in business, how much more true in pastoral ministry. So I want to consider with you: the particular causes of pastoral pride, the perilous character of pastoral pride, the pastoral consequences of pride, and the personal cure of pride.

The Particular Causes of Pastoral Pride🔗

First of all, the particular causes of pride. Everyone is susceptible to this sin, but the pastor is uniquely vulnerable to it. Firstly, think for example of his public gifts. Our gifts are much more likely to be exercised in the public arena, unlike those with much more private and unseen gifts and ministries. So the pastor is in the public eye; their gifts are much more likely to be recognized, admired and praised. Public gifts make us vulnerable.

Secondly, our official status. As many of God’s people respect and honor the office of pastor (sometimes regardless of who fills it, sadly), you may be inclined to think it’s you they respect and honor. So just the fact that you fill this much respected office automatically, at least in some circles, gains you a measure of honor and respect which you can mistakenly transfer from the office to yourself.

Thirdly, man-centeredness. When people are blessed under your ministry, they will often attribute it to you rather than to God. And your inclination will be to take the praise rather than to deflect it back to God.

Fourth area of vulnerability is having worldly ideas of leadership. You see yourself as in charge of all these people rather than seeing yourself as their servant. There are many pastors who really do view themselves much more managerially, much more as a boss, than as a shepherd or as a servant. And that’s a worldly idea of leadership that tends to puff up; it puts you above others.

Fifthly, inexperience. The church really is quite unique in how it places untested and inexperienced young men into positions of the highest responsibility without them having to go through the humbling school of hard knocks. You join any other institution and you begin way down there, right at the bottom—you’re filing, you’re shredding, you’re photocopying. But you go into the church, and you can come straight from school to college to seminary to being a pastor of a few hundred people, and you’re at the top. At least, that’s how you think and somehow people also view you as that. So you really have never known what it is like to experience being led. You’ve never known what it’s like to experience being at the bottom of the ladder, maybe. And so, never having learned how to be led, you sometimes do not know how to lead. And as Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 3:6, pride is a special danger for young pastors: “Not a novice,” not a new convert, “lest they be lifted up with pride.” So our own inexperience, perhaps. If that’s what describes us, if we fit that description, then you have to be aware: this lack of experience is going to expose me to the temptation of pride.

But on the other hand (and pride gets you whatever way you go), there’s over-experience. Inexperience, yes, but also over-experience. A man may set out in his ministry in very humble dependence on God, conscious of his need, seeking God’s constant supply of gifts and graces, but ministry can become very routine. Tasks that were once mountains to you can just become easy. And as your need diminishes and disappears, self-confidence grows and strengthens. And the experienced minister, therefore, can sometimes be very susceptible to this sense of self-sufficiency. Also, older pastors can become embittered by various pastoral disappointments, and they can get into the habit of viewing God’s people with contempt and speaking of them derisively. I think that’s one of the saddest things in an older pastor sometimes. They are just going through the routine. They have gotten so used to preparing sermons, they don’t do it prayerfully in a sense of need. And then they have seen so many disappointments in their lives, so many people have let them down, and they really have no love left for people. And they end up looking down on “these people” rather than “my flock.”

Seventhly, misunderstanding of the call to the ministry. Paul did not see the pastoral ministry as a prize he had earned. Some people tend to see that. And that can even happen in some of the most conservative of churches. The ministry can become so high and peoples’ admission to it can become so demanding—the standard is set so high, it has to be these people with special calls and extra-special gifts and so on—that if you do get into it then there’s that temptation to think, “Well, I must be that special person!” But Paul saw the ministry as much as a grace, an unearned gift, as he did salvation. Ephesians 3:8: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” And that’s not say, of course, that we shouldn’t be qualified and we shouldn’t be aiming for exceptional devotion and holiness and godliness. But the danger is when that becomes, as it were, a ticket—that becomes what earns you the call to the ministry—viewing it in that way is definitely going to build pride.

The eighth particular cause of pride is jealousy. Oswald Sanders, in his book Spiritual Leadership, says that “envy of another pastor’s gifts, position or success reveals and promotes pride.” He asks, “How do we react when another is selected for the position we wanted to fill? When another is promoted in our place? When another’s gifts seem greater than our own?” That is very common in the ministry—jealousy. And it definitely promotes pride. You have to ask yourself: are you feeling envious of a person’s gifts or role or blessing? You maybe feel the temptation to try and bring them down a peg or two. You have to ask then: Whose cause is this? If it’s the Lord’s cause, if we’re aiming at the glory of Christ, and you see another man being raised up and used more than you, who cares? The Lord is being glorified, the kingdom is coming. Why should it make me feel envious or bitter? There’s something wrong there. Whose cause is it?

The Perilous Character of Pride🔗

Secondly, the perilous character of pride. Some of you will have heard of the bestselling author Jim Collins, an author of From Good to Great. He writes business books. His latest book is called How the Mighty Fall, and in it he shares research demonstrating that stage one of organizational failure is hubris born of success. This guy does amazing research. He’s not one of these bestsellers who make it all up; he has his own research institute, and before he publishes a book, five to ten years of research goes into it. He employs twelve researchers. So he has done a lot of research of businesses and organizations, and this is his conclusion. Of all the businesses he saw that went from mighty to fallen, he said that stage one is always hubris born of success.

“Confidence is an attribute that every leader needs to embrace and to foster in others,” he says. “But when confidence goes too far, it can become hubris.” Collins warns that “overdosing on confidence is easy to do, but difficult to detect.” We therefore offer some warning signs. Let me give you some of these, and I think you’ll see the crossover. Remember we talked in a previous lecture about how you can learn from non-biblical sources? Here are some of the ways to detect if we have become overconfident.

You make many decisions independently. No, dithering isn’t good. But bosses who make all of their own decisions without speaking to others are asking for trouble. How much do you ask for others’ input?

You can’t remember the last time you spoke to a customer. Failure to discover what people think about what you offer is not only foolhardy, it’s a recipe for failure in the future. If you think you’re “too busy” to connect with customers, that’s a warning sign.

You always have lunch with the same people. Socializing only with select peers cuts you off from people who might offer alternate views.

Your team always seems to agree with you. If no one has contradicted you in a while, you may have inadvertently created a no-bad-news culture. Surrounding yourself with people who can only do one thing–nod–is an invitation to disaster.

When something goes wrong, the first thing you ask is, “Who’s responsible?” This may be a sign that you overemphasize accountability at the expense of problem solving–which your team may see as finger-pointing.John Baldoni, 2012, pp. 94-95

Well, you can go back through these and make them pastor specific, can’t you? “You make many decisions independently”—well, I think we know a few pastors like that. They have courts, kirk sessions, consistories, boards, but really they’re dictators for all intents and purposes. You can’t remember the last time you spoke to—not a customer, but a—parishioner, member, churchgoer. Easy. That becomes very easy to do. Especially if the Lord blesses you with success, or leads you to a church with a large staff. “You always have lunch with the same people.” “Your team always seems to agree with you”—you have kirk sessions, consistories, and yet you go home saying, “It’s wonderful, we had no disagreements, and everyone is on the same page.” Well, if I was your wife I’d be saying, “Hey honey, do you not think there’s something wrong if you have a room of twelve men and no one ever disagrees with you?” There’s something wrong with that atmosphere. That can’t be in a world of sinners! “When something goes wrong, the first thing you ask is, ‘Who’s responsible?’”

So, with some minor modifications, some of these are applicable to pastors. But let me add some pastor specific warning signs to help you detect pride.

  1. You dismiss criticism as personal dislike. “Well, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with my preaching or pastoring, can there? So it must be that they just don’t like me. They’ve got something against me. It is certainly not objective and fair, is it?” A warning sign of pride is that you dismiss criticism as personal dislike.
  2. You start shortening prayer time because you have so much ministry to do. In fact, you can go for long periods of time in a day without a breath of prayer heavenwards.
  3. You no longer need to read your Bible for yourself. “I mean, I know all so well anyway, don’t I? I’ve preached through it all and read about it. Really, do I need to read the Bible anymore?” You might think that’s crazy. How could any Christian minister ever come to that conclusion? But surveys show that a large percentage of pastors do not read the Bible just for their own souls. I know of one pastor who became very well known and he was asked at a conference, “What do you do to stop professionalism in your own Bible reading—reading it just for sermons?” He said, “That doesn’t bother me at all, because I don’t read the Bible anymore for myself. I know it all very well.” Obviously people were stunned, and unsurprisingly in a couple of years there were allegations of moral impropriety swirly around him.
  4. You don’t listen to your members’ views on any text. “After all, they don’t have Hebrew or Greek, do they? What can they possibly teach me?” If you ever get into that position where you can’t learn from a godly old widow or even the youngest Christian, that’s a bad place to be. God does reveal things to babes that he doesn’t reveal to the wise and prudent.
  5. You resent the twice-yearly meeting with the elders charged to oversee you. In other words, you resent accountability. “Remember the impertinent questions they asked me the last time about my internet use? Imagine counseling me to avoid visiting single females alone in the evening! What kind of man do they think I am?” I’ve heard that; I’m not making this up.
  6. Another sign of pastoral pride is you threaten to resign if you don’t get your way. “They need me far more than I need them, after all.”
  7. You stop visiting your flock. “After all, that’s really for deacons, isn’t it? Surely I’ve done my stint, hearing about Mrs. Moaner’s hip replacement and about Mr. Payne’s arthritis. Surely somebody else can do that now. I’ve kind of gotten beyond that, have I not?”
  8. You stop evangelizing. “That’s for the young people, after all.”

Well, you may think, looking at all this, “That could never happen in my life!” I encourage you to go back to these notes in five years’ time, in ten years’ time, and use it as a checklist. Because there’s a good possibility that at least some of them will appear, and I hope it will take you back to repentance and humility. Bill Lawrence in Effective Pastoring calls pride “leader’s disease,” and defines it as “a chronic condition of heart that is contaminated by expectations of self-reliance, position, power, recognition and control” (p. 32).

The Pastoral Consequences of Pride🔗

So we’ve looked at the particular causes of pride and the perilous character of pride. Now thirdly let’s look at the pastoral consequences of pride. If you fall into pride, there will be serious consequences in your ministry.

  1. You’ll start depending on your gifts rather than on God.
  2. You’ll become impatient with your less gifted brethren in the ministry or in your eldership.
  3. You’ll become thoughtlessly insensitive to and scornful of the traditions and customs of the past—a particular pitfall for young pastors to fall into.
  4. You will resist personal criticism and mature counsel from other believers.
  5. You’ll become discouraged and discontented because your view of “I deserve better than this crowd.”
  6. You regard yourself as above the small, dirty jobs in the congregation. I believe your deacons were appointed to free the pastors for the ministry of the word and prayer. I really do believe that. But I don’t believe that means pastors are unable to lift a shovel, or a paintbrush, or a cloth to do a bit of work and tidy up now and again. And when there’s a work party in your church to clear the car park or paint the walls, do really try and get your work done in your sermon that week. It will mean a lot to a lot of these men if you turn up there in your work clothes and throw in your effort with them. People do have this view of ministers: that they’re lazy, or that they think they are above ordinary jobs. Now, you don’t do that every week of life—that is when you fail to see your role and delegate to deacons—but there’s nothing wrong (and a lot good) in doing small dirty jobs from time to time. Never regard yourself as above it.
  7. Another consequence is you’ll stop learning, because, well, you know more than everyone else anyway, don’t you? As long as you stay one step ahead, what’s the point in learning?
  8. Even more seriously, you may fall into the condemnation of the devil. 1 Timothy 3:6. That’s what Paul says when he is speaking of the young convert being elevated too quickly. 1 Timothy 3:6 says, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” That is a serious consequence, isn’t it? I don’t know all that that means, and I don’t want to know any of what it means—to fall into condemnation of the devil.

[Article continued in Christian Leadership (4): The Humble Servant (2)]

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