Work can become a god, and fixation on something other than God himself is idolatry. Even if it is ministry.
This topic comes after recently writing from conviction on the phenomenon in Christiandom when ministry workers burn out in the name of Jesus. A former colleague who read that post asked me to reflect on the sense of feeling indispensable, which can be a similar trap to burnout.
By being indispensable in ministry we are talking about a sense of believing or making yourself so essential to the cause that things could not function without you. After carefully considering it, I think that indispensability is a variation of workaholism – a kind of idolatry – and a common stop on the road to burnout.
Whether he was aware back then or not, my colleague and I worked together in what I would now admit was possibly the height of my worshipping work. Allow me to unpack. And if you do, buckle up; this one’s a bit long.
For a while I lived a reality where I saw the fruits of significant personal investment in ministry activities and I was distracted by them. I celebrated my perceived indispensability and I compulsively worked. In my case, the roots of the issues were tangled around affection of something more than for God. The idolatry vacillated somewhere between hunger for praise, the high of adrenaline, a sense of belonging and self worth, and good intent. But even good intent can erect a false god.
Round 1. My first dose of fix for wrong focus came after a situation where I thought I underperformed in front of leadership. After a streak of feeling so mission critical, then finding myself in a moment of cluelessness and irrelevancy, I panicked. Ultimately, conviction set in over why I cared so much more what my leaders thought than I cared what God thought. The soul-searching helped me identify a need to fill some content, leadership and mainly spiritual gaps. By divine intervention while on a trip, Peruvian Google led me to find a program of study for my niche needs. The spiritual formation component of the program helped reground my focus and heal my soul.
Round 2. In the past two-plus years, another personalized antidote God has given me to combat the idolatry of professional ministry is children. Nothing calls competence, confidence, priorities and purpose in all areas of life into question quite like becoming a parent. After fighting God on a few lessons during early motherhood, I finally answered his call to surrender and create margin. Surrender was about letting go my sense of self-importance professionally and my personal plan for ministry career advancement. Margin was about making sure I was building extra space in life for the unexpected; a year after the lesson, the unexpected was a second child.
In retrospect, here are a few of the obvious signs I was off course.
Again looking back, here are some of the things I think I was directly or indirectly communicating with my waywardness.
The following are probably the most important steps I took toward finding freedom from this idolatry.
There are undoubtedly seasons in ministry where there are high and singular demands on individuals. It may be a moment of significant organizational growth, a niche skill set that is needed for a time, or the requirement of strong leadership to work through a challenge. Heavy lifting or unique contribution in a finite season is not something I would automatically assume leads to missional idolatry. It is when we settle in to that intensity or dependency on us as normal and allow it to change our focus or wear thin our soul that I think the opportunity for a false god might emerge. Or when we overwork in ministry for reason of some fear and therefore make mission for the sake of security the idol.
Any addiction is an attempt to forget something or to fill a void. The addiction to good works or ministry service is no different. Awareness is an opportunity to prayerfully identify what hole in the soul is being filled with the wrong thing. And many addictions, by definition, are chronic. Those of us subject to them should remain vigilant of a relapse at any point in time; be careful if we think we’re standing firm, lest we fall. And we should be careful to not fill the original void with just something else, outside of ministry.
Service to family is also a ministry that can lead to idolatry, just as can ministry in a workplace. The God-ordained personal mission of loving, caring and providing for family members can lead to the same place of misplaced motivation and wrong relationship with him. As early as I am in motherhood, I have already sensed this. For example, I could switch the idolatry of workplace mission for idolatry of family, if I am not careful. I have in mind to write more on this topic at a future point.
Protection of the soul is a personal responsibility; it is the path to right relationship with God and appropriate focus in ministry. No one else can or will do it for you. God made us each to be our own stewards of that place from which all of life comes forth. And he showed us techniques and patterns for doing it even as God himself rested after creation and Jesus himself waited for the right season and then at times stepped away from ministry focus. To do something different than those examples is to try to live contrary to the standard of the Maker of the universe and his incarnation in it; and we will inevitably fail if we try. And after all, what does it matter if we help gain ministry ground but lose our soul in the process?