Ministry Greed: Diagnosis & Treatment

Author

Conrad Hilario | Dennis McCallum | John Ross

In most American churches, leaders feel disappointed by members’ lack of interest in developing personal ministry. Many members don’t have a category for personal ministry and can’t understand why people would exert energy to win disciples or develop other consistent outlets to build up the body of Christ.

At Dwell, we see a different picture. Our leadership has stressed the importance of every-member ministry and lay leadership. This has created a hunger among our members to engage in ministry. Even younger members desire to win lost people and help newer Christians become disciples of Christ. Our members relish the idea of spending numerous hours every week meeting with younger believers for study, sharing and prayer.

Such hunger to serve the Lord is a good thing and highly coveted in many groups where it is lacking. Dwell leaders fear its members losing ministry hunger. Indeed, some groups have substantially lost this quality and are languishing as a result.

But we are aware of a different problem in highly motivated groups: ministry greed or ministry hogging. Ministry greed involves a constellation of symptoms that can be quite different in different personality types, but all come from a common core. In this core, ministry has become a means for self-aggrandizement, proof of one’s significance, and a secure sense of identity. In this mindset, Christian workers cross over an invisible line from God-serving to self-serving. Although ministry greed may be lacking in some churches, it’s a well-known problem among pastors and other professional Christian workers, often taking the form of sheep stealing (trying to draw people from other churches). It likely manifests differently in most congregations.

At Dwell, we see many acute forms. The most obvious are aggressive: boxing out others for key discipleship or leadership opportunities; taking on more responsibilities than you can handle; or prematurely ditching slow-moving ministry for something new. More subtle forms are just as dangerous: refusing to release disciples to lead new groups; agreeing to plant a new home church only under very specific conditions; being territorial about who interacts with our disciples; or holding out for a “perfect opportunity.” Ministry greed manifests in self-promotion — and indirectly when someone lobbies too forcefully for one’s disciples or home church.

Because the line between healthy hunger and sinful hogging can be subjective and inward, we must be careful when discussing it. We are not equipped to judge motives, and Paul warns us not to do it (1 Corinthians 4:5). We would like to admit, at the outset, that all three of us have familiarity with ministry greed because we’ve seen it in our own lives. Anyone who thinks he or she doesn’t have this problem should ask God to reveal the inner workings of the heart (Proverbs 21:2). We don’t need self-righteous denunciations of this sin— causing people to question their involvement in ministry—just a proper opening of the eyes to the dangers of this disease.

In this paper, we want to examine the sources of ministry greed, distinguish it from healthy ministry hunger and offer preventative measures.

Motives for Ministry Hogging

Pride takes many forms. It’s elusive. Thus, the motives behind ministry hogging are moving targets that fall into one of four broad categories.

Deficit thinking. Pastor Bill Lawrence sketches the profile of what he calls the “deficit thinker” in his book Effective Pastoring. Deficit thinkers seek to fill a void by chalking up ministry successes. It’s difficult to detect deficit thinking because deficit thinkers don’t always seek people’s praise; instead, they build their identity from ministry success. Insecurity marks deficit thinkers. They long to nourish the belief that they’re the best, or at least very important. Anything that threatens this sense of identity might lead them to unethical behavior.

Ironically, deficit thinkers are often highly committed to Christ. They long to have their lives count for Christ. Yet they hold one or more of these faulty views.

First, deficit thinkers see themselves as competing for limited resources. They are hesitant to empower others or to release people in ministry. They tell themselves, “I need to build my ministry and there are only a few quality people to invest in.” They’ll cut to the front of the line for ministry opportunities. Or they pursue ministry in an overly aggressive way. We’ve seen young Christian workers surround a new person after a home church meeting, like a pack of hyenas stalking an injured wildebeest.

Second, deficit thinkers view relationships as a means to an end, calculating the value of their relationships based on how they contribute to ministry success. Deficit thinkers often leave a wake of broken friendships and don’t have time for long-term connections; they’re too busy constructing their identity from ministry success.

Third, deficit thinkers measure their value by current achievements, rather than by character. Lawrence states, “Rarely do we hear someone say, ‘I’m far more loving at forty than I expected to be.’ That’s because, for many of us, the number of people in our churches is more important to us than the amount of love in our hearts.”[1] Each day, the deficit thinker sees a zero-balance next to his identity. If he doesn’t fill his account, he sees himself as a failure. Each failure fuels the drive.

Now, we’re not suggesting you shouldn’t seek satisfaction from ministry. Jesus felt fulfilled after accomplishing God’s work (John 4:32) and promised we would experience happiness through serving people (John 13:17). Paul exhibited relentless drive to preach the gospel. He compares completing spiritual goals to a boxer landing a sweeping right hook to his opponent’s jaw, to a distance runner stealing the race in a photo finish. James argues that not all ambition is selfish, including the ambition to lead at a high level (James 3:14-16). Paul applauds anyone who “sets their heart on becoming an overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1).

But when we validate ourselves from ministry success, we’ve lost sight of God’s truth. We’re the most valuable creatures in the universe. God has never done for others what he’s done for us in Christ. When we appraise ourselves at our correct value, deficit thinking loosens its grip.

Ministry insecurity. Some turn into ministry hogs when they feel insecure about not having ministry. As a result, they feel a powerful impulse to keep their ministry stocked.

For as long as I (Conrad) can remember, my dad has carried food wherever he goes. One day, I found some crackers in the center console of his car and asked him why he always carried food with him. He told me that when he was a young boy, his blood sugar suddenly dropped and he fainted. In 60 years, it’s never happened again. Just the fear of passing out compels him to take precautions.

Some of us recall when we didn’t have a ministry. We toiled for years to get something going. Anxiety fills us when we look back on those times waiting on God. We tell ourselves, “I’ll never get to that point again.” So we’ll stop at nothing until we’ve filled our stable with ministry.

Insecurity-based ministry hogging often surfaces when someone delivers a disciple into leadership or when a disciple walks out on God. A disciple refuses to send her people in a church plant, fretting it would leave her ministry too small. Or they recruit people away from other churches, disrupting God’s arrangement of Body of Christ.

In other cases, ministry insecurity pushes people to take on more than they can handle. They’ve got plenty to do and may even struggle with the work God has already assigned. But they can’t turn away another opportunity. Their ministry resembles disciple-collecting, more than disciple-making.

Again, it’s normal to feel nervous about sending disciples in a church plant. We’re taking a step of faith, trusting God to provide more people to serve. In some cases, God will make us wait. But we shouldn’t grow anxious or, worse, succumb to ministry hogging.

God can use waiting on him to build our faith. Sometimes God withholds what he plans to give us, in order to accomplish his greater will in us. Although we’re seeking gifts from him, God seeks to give us more and reveal himself.

Elitism. Still others engage in ministry hogging because it feeds a subtle form of elitism. They don’t regard themselves as morally superior to others. They regard themselves as superior because of ministry success.

Ministry elitists often develop a silo mentality. They’re unwilling to cooperate or help those who they don’t view as “their people.” They rigidly hold to a certain ministry method, judging others as inferior. Elitists often justify hogging by convincing themselves they’re doing people a favor. They aren’t disrupting the way God has ordered the body of Christ; they’re rescuing someone from a lame group.

Competition drives elitism, since elitism relies upon comparing yourself to others. You can detect elitism when people tout their superior method: “We’re not like other groups; we’re different. We don’t need to do what others have to do, in order to see results.” But there’s no place for competition in ministry.

There was a time when I (Conrad) thought that a little healthy competition was OK in ministry. But I’ve changed my mind after seeing its toxic effects on my life and relationships. Management expert Kenneth Blanchard warns of us of the dangers:

The need to compare and draw comfort from comparisons to others is a sign of false pride, insecurity, and fear of inadequacy…When leaders foster internal competition and rivalries as a way of driving performance, they can erode both performance and relationships… “A little friendly competition” rarely stays little or friendly when the leader makes the rewards for winning too great and the price of failure too high. When you seek to determine your level of self-worth and security by comparison with others, the end result is either complacency or anxiety. In a larger sense, it devalues the promises and provisions of God, who has already guaranteed your value and security based on His unconditional love.[2] 

Competition doesn’t even make sense in the context of ministry. If God gave everyone a unique role in the body of Christ and called us to work as a team, how could we compete with each other? This would be as foolish as an offensive lineman in football competing against his own quarterback. The team’s overall success depends on each player executing together.

Further, the New Testament speaks directly against a competitive spirit in the Body of Christ. Paul despised the factions forming within Corinthian church, even though some aligned themselves with him (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). He viewed these allegiances as a threat to the mission and unity of the body. In Philippians 2:3, Paul calls us to have Christ’s attitude, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.”

Glory seeking. Others rapaciously seek ministry because they’re desperate for people’s praise. In the world, people strive after career achievement to be noticed and commended. People absorbed in building a personal ministry often face temptation to use service to God as an outlet for self-glorification. Glory seekers feed off people recognizing their ministry success. Some openly boast. Others take credit for things they haven’t done or embellish accomplishments. Of course, not all glory seekers want celebrity status. Some simply crave approval from peers. They don’t want generic praise; they want it from people who matter.

From our experience, God will permit a certain amount of this early on, then uses unanswered prayer and ministry failure to address this drive to obtain people’s praise. If we don’t repent, it will eventually cripple our spiritual life and service. Scripture lists three primary dangers of seeking glory from men.

First, glory seeking leads to spiritual blindness. Jesus critiques the Pharisees along this line in John 5:44, “How can you believe, if you accept praise from one another and don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God?” If we strive to win people’s approval, it will cause us to disregard God’s will, since what God wants and what people want often stand at odds.

Secondly, it’s incompatible with serving Christ. In Galatians 1:9-10, Paul writes, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Sometimes, you’ll hear people trivialize man pleasing. They chuckle, “I’m such a man pleaser.” But if God deserves all glory, we’re essentially robbing God when we seek it from men. Next time we tell someone, “I’m just a man pleaser,” we should say, “I consistently rob God of his glory.”

Third, seeking glory may prevent us from seeing a return on our spiritual investments. Christian workers should earnestly seek eternal rewards. But when we draw the spotlight from God onto us, we make withdrawals from our eternal account. Seeking glory from men would be like selling your Apple stock before the iPhone launch in 2007. Jesus warned his disciples not to follow the Pharisees’ example:

Whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward…And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full (Matthew 6:2, 5).

Aside from the dangers, it’s just plain foolish to seek glory from men. South African author Andrew Murray illustrates, “Suppose I were to borrow a very beautiful shirt, and walk about boasting of it as if it were my own, you might say, ‘What a fool!’ And here it is the Everlasting God owns everything we have; shall we dare to exalt ourselves on account of what is all His?”

As servants of Christ, we’re under constant temptation to snatch away glory for ourselves. But it’s a danger we must avoid. Chuck Smith, founder of the Calvary Chapel movement, warned:

I think one of the greatest dangers in the ministry is when God truly begins to use you in a supernatural, marvelous way, because the people want to exalt the instrument. Many people cannot distinguish between God and the instrument God uses to accomplish his purposes. When Paul was in Lystra, he faced the greatest peril of his ministry, not when they stoned him, thought he was dead and dragged him out of the city...but when the people were ready to exalt him as a god.[3] 

God has built in us a desire for glory, but the Fall twisted it, making us eager to be center stage with God in the background. God originally created us as a conduit of his glory. In John 15:8, Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Just as people’s praise for a beautiful piece of art reflects their admiration for the artist, when people admire God’s work through us, it results in praise for him. Also, God wants us to share in his glory. Jesus prayed to his Father, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22). It’s unbelievable that God allows us to share his spotlight for playing a small role in his great work.

Further, God has given us our thirst for praise and approval. But again, the Fall warped it into something selfish. God intended us to seek his approval. The parable of the talents suggests God will praise us for our faithful service. Joy will fill our hearts when God says, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matthew 25:21).

What’s at stake?

Put simply, a lot.

Workers caught in the snare of ministry greed often blame or resent others for ministry failure or slowdowns. When our ministry isn’t moving at certain pace, it’s easy to blame the people God has entrusted to us. We get frustrated: “They just aren’t trying hard enough.” Agonizing over a member stagnating or backsliding is understandable, but the greedy worker reacts with scorn, not sacrificial love. He might hold members in contempt because he believes they’re blocking his goal. He might single out individuals and their sin as the reason God isn’t growing the group. In some cases, anger may boil over and cause him to lash out. Rather than wade in creatively, he will give up on these individuals and hope they’ll just go away.

As we mentioned earlier, ministry greed might negate eternal rewards. Paul cautioned the Corinthian believers:

Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is…It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

At the end of our lives, God will test the quality of our work. He will host a raging bonfire, and flames will incinerate unethical things we’ve done in ministry, leaving behind only faithful service. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Paul means by flammable materials. The immediate context reveals that the Corinthians served with jealousy, quarrelling, fleshly desires and contentious attitudes (1 Corinthians 3:1-4), so faulty motives, bad attitudes and divisiveness make the list. After this purification process, God will generously reward us. We should be excited for that day. But we should also heed Paul’s warning, “Each one should be careful how he builds,” to maximize our reward.

Left unchecked, ministry greed will diminish our effectiveness or even disqualify us from ministry. Paul tells us, “if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2). We must observe ministry ethics as we serve God; otherwise, our tactics might disqualify us from the race. John speaks of a man named Diotrephes, who shipwrecked his faith because he “loves to be first” (3 John 9). And the first three chapters of Revelation remind us that if sin seeps into our corporate identity, we’re in danger of God no longer using us.

For some, ministry greed has poisoned our desire to serve. We saw God work through us in powerful ways, then we smacked into failure. Shame and embarrassment replaced fulfillment and purpose. We grew disillusioned, wondering, “Why would I ever put myself through that again?” These days, we’re reluctant to give our heart completely to serving God. Or we vow never to lead again. Failure has the unique ability to expose pride in ministry.

We, the authors, thank God for showing us grace in these areas. We’ve been guilty of our fair share of glory seeking and selfish ambition in ministry. Remarkably, God still manages to use us. However, he’s impressed upon us the seriousness of ministry greed. If God has made it clear that you’re guilty of ministry hogging, ask him to show you its dangers and to transform your heart.

Preventative measures

A primary cure for ministry greed is humility. Many view this virtue as a byproduct of following Christ, but it’s also a basic requirement for spiritual growth. Murray makes this observation:

Humility is the only soil where Christ-like character can take root. A lack of humility is the only explanation you need for every flaw and failure you have. Humility is not one of many good character traits; it is the root of all of them, because it places us in the right relationship with God and frees Him up to do all that He desires.[4] 

One way we can humble ourselves would be consistently choosing the lower seat (Luke 14). When we seek the higher position, we may find ourselves in way over our heads. Nothing’s worse than finding yourself in a place where God hasn’t put you. It exposes our incompetence and interrupts closeness with God. Author Francis Schaeffer expresses it best:

We should seek the lowest place because there it is easier to be quiet before the face of the Lord. I did not say easy; in no place, no matter how small or humble, is it easy to be quiet before God. But it is certainly easier in some places than in others. And the little places, where I can more easily be close to God, should be my preference. I am not saying that it is impossible to be quiet before God in a greater place, but God must be allowed to choose when a Christian is ready to be extruded into such a place, for only he knows when a person will be able to have some quietness before him in the midst of increased pressure and responsibility.[5] 

Finally, we must consciously lay any glory people try to lavish upon us at God’s feet. As a new leader, I (Conrad) recall sitting through my first Harvest Meeting, a gathering hosted to celebrate what God has done, when a home church grows and plants a new home church. A veteran leader carefully set the tone: “I’ve sat through quite a few of these Harvest Meetings, and there’s a tendency for it to become a celebration of what we did or how wonderful certain individuals are. I’d like us to keep in mind that God deserves all the glory here. He’s the one who did all of these miraculous things through this group.” That experience stuck with me. God deserves all the glory because he’s the one who caused the growth.

Part of the solution to avoiding ministry greed involves serving weaker and helpless members. The body of Christ is designed to care for all people and even provide special attention to unseemly members:

[T]hose parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty. (1 Corinthians 12:22-23)

Jesus diligently served the poor, diseased, disabled and marginalized, and scripture calls us to do the same (Luke 10, James 1:27). Serving the “weaker” and “less honorable” members of the body of Christ trains us to value everyone, regardless of what they offer in return or how they boost our status.

In a similar way, a collaborative ethos guards against greed. Those who feel the temptation to jostle to the front of the line for every opportunity should learn to support others’ ministry. A silo mentality erodes the body of Christ, but teamwork enhances it. Someone can thwart the risk of ministry hogging by experiencing the joy of serving someone else as a ministry wingman: hanging out with a new person to knit them into fellowship; praying for a peer’s conversations with a first-time guest; and talking up a peer to new converts.

Many other solutions can thwart ministry greed. If you lead a group or feel the pull in your own heart, ask God to reveal where the tendrils might be creeping and how to sever them before they take root.

[1] Ibid. loc 255-26.

[2] Lead Like Jesus, 60.

[3] Chuck Smith, “Beware of Ambition.” The Word for Today, 2002.

[4] Murray, Humility

[5] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982) 12.