Ambition and Church Leadership

I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat perplexed about church leadership. That is, there are lots of different kinds of pastors. Some stand out as the “cool” people in the community. They were the visible movers and shakers ever since junior high. At other times, the pastor can seem like the dorkiest person in the room, and I’m not just talking about generational differences. Others are scholarly and couple (or overshadow) their pastoral ministry with brilliant teaching or writing careers. I’ve seen some very incompetent people suddenly feel “called” to jet off to seminary. Everyone around them shakes their heads.

Being a pastor in America (I don’t know about the rest of the world) seems like this odd paradox of being in an important position of influence and also making next to nothing in terms of wealth. I’ve known many pastors that have honesty worked very hard for their flock but also had to work side jobs (driving school bus, cleaning offices, keeping rentals, etc.) just to keep their family afloat. What is up with all of this? Is being a pastor something do be desired, or does it largely suck? What actually motivates people? I’m confused.

A recent post by CPA offers (I think) some really keen insight into all of this. (emphasis is mine):

So what accounts for the similarity between the “alpha male” ethos of a conference of Southern Baptist pastors and that of a high-powered law firm?

I would say, both are outlets for the ambitious of their community. This is, frankly, the weirdest part of being an adult convert to the evangelical community: realizing that all over the land, many driven, competitive, ambitious kids grow thinking the way to respect and power is to become . . . . a Baptist (or other evangelical) pastor. (But understanding this is useful for understanding, for example, the position of lamas in traditional Tibet, or mullas in the Islamic world.)

For those in the [mostly liberal] mainline world, the idea that religion would be an outlet for ambition, competition, and drive is just bizarre. In the mainline world, those who are driven, ambitious, and competitive go into law, business, or politics. In that world, religion as a career is, almost by definition, the province of the shy, the self-doubters, the bookish, and nerdy. And that is true whether the career cleric is male or female.

In the evangelical church, the pastor is preaching down at his sheep, for whom he is the leader of their social universe. The pastor’s role is as a leader, a commander. And the ambitious boys in that world want to be the pastor, because that is leadership.

In the mainline church, the minister is preaching across, or even up, at parishioners for whom he or she is at best only one voice among many. The minister is an adviser, or a therapist, or counselor, offering words of counsel to the leaders and led of society. And the office attracts those who don’t want to be leaders, but instead stand apart from leadership. The jocks go on to earn big money and make big decisions; the shy and bookish go into the ministry to warn them every Sunday of the dangers of ambition.