“I want to be famous,” he told me. Now this was in a prayer session, and he obviously saw it as a struggle, but nevertheless it was a vivid and naked confession and I think it is right on target for many young men in ministry.
How many times have I sung the hymn, “Father I Know That All My Life” and in it is the phrase, “content to fill a little space if Thou be glorified?” I sing it with conviction and passion because that is not a normal part of my desire. I think I was actually saying, “Lord, I want this to be true of me but I don’t think I am content to fill a little space.” I wanted to be famous too.
I have a firm theological conviction that our mission is to make Jesus famous, not ourselves. Yet, as with many pastors and church planters, my conviction is not always as the same or consistent with my emotion, personality, and nature. We struggle with ambition, with ego, with competition. Our identity is tied up with our reputation, with whether or not anybody knows our name, and how we compare with our peers in being given opportunity, or even respect. I believe in humility, and yearn to have others mention me as an example of it, just as long as I am mentioned.
Recently, in a workshop taught by Mark Reynolds of City to City, he quoted from a book on leadership a fascinating phrase, “the suffering of obscurity.” It just rang out to me as a common problem among striving church planters and pastors. It really does feel like suffering, as envy often does, and isolation, and loneliness. This led me to think and ponder on the reality of the struggle of ambitious young men in the ministry.
As someone who has been involved in cross cultural ministry and has sought to recruit and encourage minorities coming into my denomination I have seen how this very issue of significance play a role in the attitude men have about their place, or lack of place, in the PCA. The Presbyterian Church in America is a great leveler when it comes to fame and significance in the ministry. It is not an easy place to “make your bones” or a name for yourself.
Sometimes I get the impression from some of these young men that the secret to being significant is to know the right people, to have someone open doors, and if one does know the right people than success comes a lot sooner than otherwise. There are always men who seem to demand to be let in, to positions of influence, to places on the dais, or committees, or speaking opportunities. Of course the reality is that any man ordained in the PCA is already a fairly successful and significant person. One has to have finished college, graduate school, taken arduous theological exams, and be hired by some ministry. On the other hand, these men are a dime a dozen, and the PCA is one place where no one thinks that any other Teaching Elder is that important, or more important than others, unless he has earned it.
That is another question, how does one earn importance? Usually the common and mundane answer to that is from successful experience, from building a church or a ministry. Some think it is through academics, another degree, maybe writing a book. Actually for a young man to write a book that anyone believes is important means they really would be exceptional, like Calvin. Books are always being written, and most are forgettable. Some men think the way to importance is in the courts of the Church, to fight battles over governance and the Book of Church Order. This notoriety is usually seasonal, say at General Assembly, and such notoriety makes some more infamous than famous.
Why doesn’t anyone else recognize me as an expert? Our role as preachers give us a certain sense of authority, and we begin to expect our opinions should be taken as profound, yet we keep not being invited to preach at the big churches, at the big conferences, and we keep not being quoted. How many years does it take to get some traction? What is the architecture of significance? Some despise our company because they will never be famous here, so they jump to other Evangelical camps where the cult of celebrity and charisma is common and strong.
I agree, reputation and significance comes faster in other places. Presbyterianism seems to be as fast changing as the movement of glaciers while young men see themselves as agents of change, movement, and creativity. I have watched men grow old griping about how no one pays attention to them and I am saddened for their bitterness and disappointment. I don’t want to be one of them.
What is the good word about all this? Just a few thoughts and it starts with this, if we don’t find our significance in the blood and righteousness of Christ we are looking in the wrong places. If we don’t seek the glory of Jesus more than our own than we are glory thieves, idol worshipers, and ingrates. If we don’t find our identity in being a son of God, seated with Christ in heavenly places, and a joint-heir with Christ we are settling for cheap change.
At the same time if we don’t recognize the natural and innate need of young men to feel like they are making a difference, that they are making an essential contribution, then we are mistreating them. We are wasting precious resource, energy and fruit. If we continue to frustrate them by not being their advocates, champions, mentors, and cheerleaders than we are failing not only to serve them well, but failing the future of the church. Every pastor needs to open doors for young men, to praise them, to give them space and a place to make a contribution. We need to challenge them, but we also need to hear their voices, and ask them to meetings even before somebody elects them to such.
One last word, the best way to feel important in this denomination is to have friends. Presbytery won’t give it to you, General Assembly won’t give it to you, even if you enjoy them. You need friends, who love you, who are loyal, with whom you hang out, go on vacation, and call you up. You need an older man in your life who believes in you, and I confess sometimes we don’t get that from the Ruling Elders who make up our Sessions.
Would it not be wonderful if we all could fill little spaces and be satisfied, if we were being faithful to Jesus in that place? It will take much spiritual work in our hearts before that restlessness is settled, so may the Lord convince you that he loves you, and may he convince you that in the end, that is more than enough!