In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin famously wrote, “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” He is right. This is especially true when it comes to the heart of a pastor. Pastors are not exempt from having a sinful nature. Pastors wrestle daily with a heart of idolatry. I know this first hand and have much experience. I have been in the ministry now for almost sixteen years. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Much of the “bad and ugly” I have witnessed within my own heart. Yes, pastors are real people who have real struggles. Yes, pastors are in as much need of the grace of God as the members of their own churches.
For years, I manufactured idols within my own heart. Of course, these idols had blinded me from my true condition. It wasn’t until I endured a very painful pruning season in my life that I began to wake up to this reality. I wrote extensively about this in my book Gospel Confusion: Confessions of a Pastor.
God, by his grace, began to rip these idols from my heart. I do not believe that any one of these idols are original with me. I believe that to some extent, that they reside in the hearts of all pastors. However, It takes the grace of God to be able to see, confess and repent. I pray that as I outline below what some of my idols were/are you will also see, confess and repent as well. If you are not a pastor, I’m sure that you can relate on some level. Please take the time to pray for your pastors. We need it. I will touch on five very common idols in the heart of pastors. This list does not even begin to scratch the surface.
How in the world can the ministry be an idol for a pastor? I know that sounds strange and you might be confused why this is an idol. After resigning from my position as Lead Pastor in 2008, I endured a very painful five year period. I had left to plant a church and the church plant failed. My first inclination was to go back to a full time position in a church. I tried and sent a multitude of resumes over an extended period of time. I was rejected every time. I hated myself because of this rejection. I did not understand the delay of resuming a ministry position. I struggled with my self-worth and purpose in life because of this void. I did not know why I kept being rejected and no doors would open. This sent me into an utter depression. I now know why the Lord kept shutting those doors. I wasn’t ready because ministry was an idol. I loved the idea of serving God more than loving the God I was called to serve. I began to realize that I wanted ministry more than I wanted God. God wasn’t enough for me. So, God kept me on the sidelines for 5 years until, by His grace, I realized that He was enough. Yes, ministry is an idol for many pastors. Be satisfied in God alone and not in your position or title!
2. Church Growth
The church in America has changed the Great Commission from “Go therefore and make disciples” (Kingdom Growth) to “come here and make us grow ” (Church Growth). Many pastors struggle with the idolatry of church growth. Many ride a weekly emotional roller coaster as they study the attendance and offering numbers. The numbers themselves are not evil and can be a good thermometer of the life of a church. However, the obsession of these numbers are evil. Of course, we all want our churches to grow. Of course, we want more people coming to Christ! However, the motive behind chasing these numbers is often for our own glory. This is a hard question to ask oneself. For me, I wanted my church to grow so that I could be applauded and patted on the back. I dreamed of seeing our church in Outreach Magazine’s “Fastest Growing Churches list”. I never would have admitted this at the time, but it’s true. I wanted to glory in what I had done for God. When I couldn’t have the pat on the back and the “atta boy” that my heart craved…I became even more depressed.
3. Self Image
Pastors are held to a high standard, and rightfully so. They should be examples and live a life above reproach. This is a biblical principle given to us in the Word of God. However, pastors are sinners too and fall short of God’s standard. Oftentimes, pastors hide their weaknesses and vulnerabilities from others. They hide it from their own church members, friends and family. This is the idol of self-image. The idol of self-image worships a reputation above all and at all costs. The idolatry of self-image makes us hide our problems. This heart-manufactured idol prevents us from showing transparency or vulnerability. It prevents us to show people that we also need help and counseling. It makes us put on a mask of hypocrisy for fear of losing a job or position. This is a huge disservice to your church, family and friends. What better way to be an example than to show your desperate need of grace? What better way to show the power of the gospel than to show that you are also a sinner in need of a Savior? Stop hiding and seek the help you need. Your image is not worth the cost to your family, church or the cause of Christ. Don’t pretend like you “have it altogether”. Saturate yourself in who you are in Christ and the good news of the gospel.
4. Power & Control
Pastors don’t stay a long time in churches anymore. I believe that a lot of this is due to burn-out and fatigue. Pastors wear themselves out, because they idolize the authority they’ve been given. Many pastors feel they have to be involved in literally everything. Many feel they can’t say “no”. In fact, they don’t say no, because they don’t want to say no. Many love the feeling of being in control and refuse to delegate any sort of responsibility. God has not called pastors to do everything. As pastors we are to “equip” (Ephesians 4:11-12) the people to do the work of ministry. Ed Stetzer, wisely wrote, “When we as pastors do for people what God has called them to do, everyone gets hurt and the mission is hindered..” Stop thinking you are God’s gift to your church. Use your God-given authority to release people to be who God has called them to be. This might hurt your idolization of power, but it’s for your own good.
This might be a touchy subject for some. Many pastors struggle with the idol of innovation. Let me explain before you leave a nasty comment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with innovation. We serve a creative and innovative God. We need to proactively find ways to engage a lost world. There are fantastic ways to be innovative and glorify God. However, there are ways that can be abused. I longed to be an innovative pastor. I wanted people to come to church and be wowed at what I did in my sermon. Yes, you just read that correctly. Many times I spent more hours on the creative aspects of my sermon (object lessons, videos, illustrations) than I did on the actual studying of the text. I wanted people to see how relevant, real, relaxed, and funny I could be. I wanted to be edgy and not to “churchy” things. So I idolized this part of ministry. Instead of using innovation for God’s glory…I used it for my own. I went to conferences, seminars, read books, etc. I was so consumed in making people think that Jesus, church and myself were much cooler than they had thought we were. I had placed a low value on God’s word and a high value on my “innovation”. This is idolatry. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation…not my stories, innovation, videos, object lessons or ideas. Please continue to innovate, but not at the expense of the gospel.
The only cure for your idolatry is the gospel. In the gospel we find the true satisfaction that our hearts longs for. This is why we must continually preach the gospel to ourselves, because, pastors are idolaters too.