If someone had asked me a few years ago, “Is ministry an idol to you?” I would have emphatically told them, “Absolutely not. I’m committed; I’m passionate. I have a purpose and a calling, but ministry is not an idol to me.”
However, I found out that my heart had deceived me.
Through a series of circumstances, God showed me that indeed, my heart had exalted ministry to a place where it should have never been. It was a gradual progression, so subtle that I could not detect it.
This idol worship disguised itself as passion, mission, vision, drive, and concern for the least and the lost. But when the ministry where I was serving dissolved, I saw for the first time how “ministry” had become the thing in which I found my identity and, to some degree, my worth.
Whether it is a ministry, a relationship, a position, or a job, all of us are inclined to exalt things—even good things—above Christ. In God’s faithfulness, here are some lessons I learned (and am still learning!) about idolatry in ministry.
I had never struggled with “identity issues” in the past. I knew who I was in Christ, and I knew what He wanted me to do. But once the ministry I was a part of dissolved, I began to question, Who am I?
What I found is that my identity had become more closely tied to what I did rather than to whom I belonged. Ministry activity equaled my identity. Somewhere in my journey I began seeking the approval of my leadership more than God’s approval. I found more satisfaction in my work than in Christ’s work.
But here’s the truth that brought me freedom: Identity is not found in the people I help or the cause to which I am committed. Identity must be found and rooted in the character of Christ and who I am in Christ. The people, the cause, or the organization might change, but Christ never changes. My life being “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) is my ultimate identity, not the things that I accomplish for Him.
Having a high view of self—pride—leads to isolation and idolatry. Pride appeared when I thought things like, I’m the only one who can do this task or help in this capacity. When we think that we are the only humans on the planet that can accomplish something or help someone, we’re on a slippery slope into sin.
King Nebuchadnezzar showed the same type of thinking as he looked out on his kingdom and declared, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). No, Nebuchadnezzar did not build all of Babylon by himself, and neither do we accomplish all our work on our own.
As we serve in ministry, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and those who walk beside us. We are not the only ones God equips for certain tasks. If He chooses, He can provide other people to serve in our area. Jesus does call and equip us to do good works for His glory. But serving Him never includes self-aggrandizement (pride) or self-deprivation (isolation). God is glorified through the contrite, humble heart and through the person that esteems others as better than themselves. As Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Sometimes the best way to conquer this type of pride is to let others into your corner. Let them bear your burden or your load in ministry. Let them use their gifts to serve the Body of Christ with you.
Everything—every possession and every position—must be held with open hands. God has the right to change how you function in your particular ministry, the people on your team, or the organizational structure of your outreaches. For me, this meant letting go of nine years of hard work because God saw that this season and service was complete.
It certainly did not feel “complete” at the time. It felt wrong, and it was painful to see the years of investment vanish. But in God’s wisdom, it was completed. God knew that it was more important for me to learn the lesson of surrender—having open hands—than it was for me to continue serving with the heart attitudes I had in the previous years.
A Better Ending
When the idol of ministry came crashing down, I thought that perhaps my “season of ministry” was over. However, ministry never stopped. Instead, a more fruitful season of ministry began. Today it looks completely different as a wife and mommy than it did in previous years. But I’m finding that “fruitfulness” isn’t measured by activity and involvement; rather it’s measured by obedience to God’s Spirit and faithfulness to Christ.
I would not trade those first years of ministry for the world, but I’m grateful to have had my identity reoriented in Christ, my pride exposed, and my posture changed from being clenched-fist to having open hands. The battle is not over, but my “war wounds” are a valuable reminder to only exalt Jesus—the One who gives us the incredible, undeserved privilege of serving in His name.
By Chiree Patterson