The Idolatry Of Mission

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.

My Case Study

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.

Diagnosing Idolatry of Mission

In retrospect, here are a few of the obvious signs I was off course.

  • The weight of the ministry world. I internalized the issues, problems and opportunities to the point that they were always on my mind and nagging my sense of responsibility. I couldn’t set things aside. I felt the toll of this physically and emotionally at times.
  • Significant overwork. I didn’t want to say no to any request, and I was involved in way too many things. I didn’t always delegate or share the load well because I either didn’t trust others to do it “right” or because no one truly could do it but me. I hadn’t set up sustainability.
  • High on activity. Feeling indispensable was my drug of choice. I loved the rush of being in the thick of things and being in steady demand. I felt alive in the moment of literally flying in all directions.
  • Limited outside world. I was making this one thing my main thing and didn’t have a well-rounded world outside of it. I spent evenings, weekends and holidays getting ahead or catching up. I was always thinking and working on next steps. I had few hobbies. (As an aside, my husband deserves sainthood.)
  • Soul weariness. I had lost touch with God. I wasn’t regularly talking with or hearing from the very One I was supposedly serving. I didn’t retreat well or often enough, and I couldn’t calm my soul.

What This Idolatry Evidences

Again looking back, here are some of the things I think I was directly or indirectly communicating with my waywardness.

  • Doubt for God. I essentially acted as if God himself couldn’t accomplish his plan without me. My actions told a story that I thought I was the only instrument in his hands to do particular Kingdom work. I didn’t see how things could advance without my involvement.
  • Underestimation of others. My behavior evidenced too much stock in my own approach or ability as the best way to do things. I said things like, “If I don’t do it, who will?” I was simultaneously territorial of what was mine while I sought to influence things beyond my scope of direct responsibility.
  • Violation of core principles. Ironically enough, though my organization strives to help others grow in leading ministry, I took pride in hoarding information or tasks. Instead of modeling the developmental behaviors desired, I would sometimes default to a sole proprietorship approach to things. I didn’t consistently align to principle.
  • An identity crisis. I carried myself as if my job was who I was and how I valued myself. It was a point of pride. I had forgotten the truth of who made me, chose me and gave me worth. I lived as if I didn’t understand that ministry roles come and go, while identity in him and calling are enduring and portable.
  • Misplaced priorities. I behaved as if good status with God was dependent on my works. In the effort to serve in his name, I was more focused on the work than him. I was busy being needed and compulsively working instead of investing in my connection to him.

Steps Toward Removing The Idol

The following are probably the most important steps I took toward finding freedom from this idolatry.

  • Confession. I realized my struggle and worked to combat it in what I called Round 1 above. Then I really surrendered the battle in Round 2. My eyes are now open that this may be a lifelong pursuit, so I aim to stay ready to ask for forgiveness and correction if (when) I falter.
  • Accountability. I shared my lesson with others, even as I am sharing it here. I have found that if others know the testimony of how God has called me out of this behavior, I am more accountable to work to stay in freedom from it.
  • Foundations. After Round 1, I spent two years diving deep in spiritual formation studies to lay in place some foundations I never had as well as shore up others. I learned deep truths I wasn’t exposed to even after growing up in the church, and I learned new ways to stay connected to God.
  • Boundaries. I practiced saying “no” carefully and appropriately, helping that muscle become stronger. I began to keep my own written timecard of hours worked. I established the commitment I want to always maintain for prioritizing my family as my first and most unique ministry responsibility.
  • Practices. I took responsibility for my soul as the wellspring of life and started to actively and at times aggressively guard it. Now understanding more how I am wired, I learned to ensure I preserve the space and keep a pace healthy for me despite the demands in all spheres of life. I have experimented with new ways that work for me to stay in touch with God’s work on my soul, including this newer discipline of reflective writing.

Final Comments On It All

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?

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