Hamster wheelAs I write this in September 2014, it’s not far off thirty years since I became a Christian and church went from being something I had rarely experienced to becoming a very big part of my life. If I could have a pound (or a dollar) for every hour spent in a church building or church meeting (or otherwise doing “church work”) since then, I could probably retire and live the high life until I die.

For pretty much all of that thirty-year period, I have been involved in some form of what is generally referred to as “ministry”. For me, this has mainly consisted of leading worship and playing in a worship band. However, I have also participated in running kids’ outreach, leading home groups, leading Sunday gatherings and preaching. I was also part of a church’s team of leaders/elders for a few years. The last few months have really been the only period during which I have not engaged in some kind of ministry, preferring instead to simply attend church on a Sunday.

Now, before I go on to say what I want to say, let me first clarify something: I do not wish to imply that all ministry is futile or misdirected. Nor do I wish to suggest that the institutional church is without merit, or cast aspersions on the motivations of anyone involved in ministry. I have benefited immensely from my journey through the church, and I know many people who sincerely and tirelessly seek to serve God by serving others in their faith communities. Not to mention many who have found compassion, love and healing through the institutional church. (I say this because some will inevitably assume that I have an axe to grind and am simply airing a bad case of sour grapes against the church. Not so.)

Having had a few months out of active “ministry”, and having at the same time had a good portion of my theological thinking deconstructed and rearranged, I find that my perspective on ministry involvement in church has evolved somewhat.

You see, with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight and the increased clarity that comes from stepping back for a few months, I’ve begun to see some worrying aspects of the “ministry culture” that is found in many charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

We like to pretend that everyone in church is equal, that we are all simply using our various gifts to serve God together in a variety of ways. Indeed, I’ve often heard it said from the pulpit that the person who cleans the toilets is just as important as the pastor or the preacher. In practice, however, the reality is often rather different.

I believe there exists in many churches a hierarchy of ministry in which great status and value is attached to certain people and ministries while others are seen as much less desirable. Atop this hierarchy sits the pastor, followed by other preachers and leaders of the church. Next come worship leaders, who play a very visible role in corporate gatherings of the church. Then we might have leaders of other ministries, such as kids’ work, missions, hospitality, and so forth. Right at the bottom of the pile are the ordinary members who simply attend church but aren’t involved in leading, running or serving in a ministry.

Now, let me be careful to clarify again. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with some form of hierarchy. To an extent, one could say that organisation demands hierarchy. The problem, however, is this: wherever there is hierarchy, we humans tend to attach value and status to the various rungs on the hierarchical ladder. And since we also automatically desire that which we see as valuable, we tend to then strive after those positions or ministries that are perceived as being more valuable than our current position or ministry. This can lead to great dissatisfaction and frustration, and ultimately to burnout. I know, because this is something I have wrestled with.

Unless churches and their leaders are intentionally careful, it’s very easy to end up with a situation where great prestige is attached to those seen as being involved in desirable ministries, while others undertaking more lowly tasks feel relatively undervalued. This can create a culture in which gifted and/or ambitious individuals vie for favour from the ministry or leadership “elite”. In extreme cases, it can create a culture of sycophancy where people suck up to those who are seen as having great status. Needless to say, this can cause all kinds of problems in a church. For example, such a culture is often an obstacle to accountability (leaders’ actions and decisions are not questioned because no one wants to be out of favour with those seen as the elite); meanwhile, others much lower down the power structure can end up feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned, and perhaps even leaving the church. I know because I’ve seen it happen.

Now, I’m not suggesting that leaders deliberately set out to create or maintain this type of damaging culture. But I do think such a culture is often tacitly and unwittingly encouraged. When leaders fail to recognise the natural human inclination to attach value to hierarchical structures and those same leaders publicly place great emphasis on notions like honour, acknowledging God’s “anointing” and so forth, the result is often a self-fuelling culture of ambition driven by the rivalistic desire for status. Of course, we’re not talking about naked ambition, since this ambition will usually be couched in the language of gifting, anointing, destiny and so on. But the reality is often that people are, in fact, chasing recognition and status as they try very hard to climb the ladder of ministry “success”.

Once again, let me be as careful as I can: I’m not saying leaders deliberately set out to create ambition-driven cultures, nor that all hierarchical churches fall into this trap. What I’m saying is that, from the vantage point afforded me by my particular experience, this kind of ultimately toxic culture is very likely to form all on its own unless leaders and/or those in positions of influence are very intentional in their efforts to ensure that it doesn’t.

So how is a church to avoid falling into this trap? I have no quick and easy answers, but I think any leader who is serious about creating and sustaining a healthy church culture needs to at least think about and address the following: publicly giving greater acknowledgement to those in lowly positions than to those in perceived high-status positions; actively working to organise and run services and meetings in a way that takes the focus off the platform and minimises the divide between those ministering and those attending; paying special attention to the language that is used around ministry (including in particular “hot” words and phrases such as anointing, gifting, destiny, favour, God’s hand, etc.); and ensuring that questions about leaders’ decisions and actions can be asked by any member of the church without fear of negative consequences.

For myself, I now realise that much of the frustration I’ve felt at various times in my Christian life has arisen from the unconscious desire to achieve higher status in ministry. I accept that some of this no doubt has its roots in wounds and shortcomings in me that are as yet unhealed. But I’m also convinced that it has been exacerbated by the fact that so many churches either unwittingly allow an unhealthy ministry culture to develop, or openly invest in such a culture. To be in a culture where you are constantly seeking after the very thing that is driving your dissatisfaction (status and recognition) is to be trapped in an ever-turning hamster wheel. Little wonder that burnout often ensues.

I, for one, am glad to be off the hamster wheel for the time being.

[ Image: Erik ]