Matt Erickson on the Disturbing Temptations of Pastoring in Obscurity

Gregory the Great, so tradition tells us, was a reluctant pope. Well-educated and from a wealthy family, Gregory experienced inner tension between his longing for the contemplative life and his sense of calling toward secular responsibilities. After converting to the monastic life and transforming his house into a monastery—the happiest years of his life—Gregory often was called into service of the church in public ways, including serving as Pope Pelagius II’s legate to Constantinople. When troubles gathered around Rome, Gregory was called from his monastic life to the city to help. Soon afterward, Pope Pelagius died of the plague sweeping through Rome at that time, and Gregory was elected to succeed him. Gregory tried to refuse the office, preferring his monastic life, but once elected, he accepted his duties faithfully and worked hard to serve God in his new position. The best leaders, according to the old proverb, are reluctant leaders.

Of course, as my own story shows, reluctance is not an inherently laudable trait.

My calling into pastoral ministry came when I was in high school, in a small Presbyterian church in the Mississippi River Valley of western Illinois. I hoped to be a music minister of some sort, though I wasn’t sure if churches hired people to do that. Following my internal inclinations and external affirmations toward pastoral ministry, I studied at a Christian college where my eyes were opened to some of the great ministry leaders of that time: Billy Graham, John Stott, Dallas Willard, John Piper, Elisabeth Elliott. Many of them spoke at my college. I prayed, God, use me however you want—even like these great women and men. I didn’t want to be a big deal in peoples’ eyes, but I did want to be a big deal in God’s hands for his kingdom.

Eventually, I transitioned from music ministry to college ministry, and I was hired to my first full-time pastoral position at a megachurch in the suburbs of Milwaukee. It was an amazing experience, but I slowly became enamored by celebrity ministry culture. I wanted to accomplish great things, speak at Christian conferences, and write life-changing books—all for the glory of God, of course. The temptations Henri Nouwen wrote about in In the Name of Jesus surrounded me daily: the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be popular by doing something remarkable, and the temptation to be powerful in leadership by leading rather than being led.

After a while, however, I started to sour on celebrity ministry culture. I emceed an event in our area with a big-name author, and I was excited to meet him. Backstage, however, he revealed an arrogant attitude toward those serving at the event, which left me confused. After a few more encounters with celebrity ministers who were less than pleasant to be around, I became cynical about North American evangelical church culture, including the publishing industry and the speaking circuits. If this was what high-profile ministry brought out of people, I wanted no part of it. I started looking for an escape route. The prayer I had prayed in college changed to God, use me however you want—but get me out of here as fast as you can.

From Celebrity to Obscurity

God answered my prayer, and I was sent out to plant a church at the edge of the suburbs, where rural and suburban life collided. It was a chance to step out of the spotlight and become obscure. I could not wait.

My family moved into an unincorporated area on the edge of town, and I did my best to serve God faithfully as a second-chair leader, wearing more hats than I could handle as the church became established. I was in a small-but-growing area, in a small-but-growing church. It was one of my favorite seasons of ministry. My wife and three boys loved the pace of life, and the community-oriented ministry seemed natural and powerful as we all served beside many wonderful people in those early days of the church. Stepping away from the temptation of celebrity and into a ministry of obscurity was a gift to my soul. My own pursuit of recognition was checked in this new ministry context, as was my cynicism.

Yet something lingered inside of me. Whenever I flipped through the latest Christian book catalogs or attended a ministry conference, I said things like, “I’m glad I’m not in that merry-go-round of ministry anymore,” and “Real ministry doesn’t happen on big stages, but in the unknown trenches of small settings.” I heard in my voice an odd mixture of pride in my obscurity and jealousy of others’ celebrity.

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Source: Christianity Today