Why Success Can Breed Failure

We pray for God to bless, and when he does, can we handle it?

My father was a local church pastor for over 50 years. He was a great Bible teacher, and an amazing pastor. He never counted more than 350 people in his congregation, but his legacy extends around the world through men and women who learned to live out the gospel passionately from him. God never gave him ministry influence above the local church level, and maybe that's what should happen to all of us. Here's why.

Those men whose giftedness and success lifts their eyes from the local scene to become pastors to the broader population very often succumb to the pressures of remaining relevant to the masses. Gaining national attention usually means a humble, gifted man has been blessed by God with broader influence. But maintaining a place in the national spotlight too often means adopting PR strategies and personal habits that are inherently flawed.

I suppose it is hard to stay vibrant, and relevant, and sought after over time. When you become one of the few everyone is reading, looking to, and applauding, it must be extremely difficult to live up to the expectations and pressure. You've got to say great things all the time, publish every other month, speak at all the big conferences, and gather people around you who can start doing what you've no time to do now. Things like know your neighbors, love your family, and minister to your local church.

Before I go further, please understand this doesn't apply to all those who have national influence. I know a few of these guys, and the ones I know handle fame and pressure as though it weren't there simply because they give all the glory to God. They can't give a reason for their notoriety except the hand of God. And the good guys don't like the spotlight. They are in it for God, not for themselves.

But there are many more for whom success is spelling out personal and ministerial disaster. Those who follow the Mark Driscoll saga are watching a prime example. 

Here's what I've noticed about some who have made it to the top of the ministry mountain:

1. They believe their perspective on every issue is the right one because of their success: Success has a way of making men think they are smarter than the rest, see things God's way more consistently, and really don't need lots of outside counsel. If people would just do what they say, everything would work out right. After all, look how successful they have been.

2. They believe they can be rude and act arrogantly because of their success: I have personally watched successful men be rude, condescending, and childish. They feel success entitles them to be the center of everyone's attention. They become so used to being waited on, applauded, complimented, and appeased they forget that, at the end of the day, they are nothing more than servants of the King.

3. They believe their weaknesses and downright sinful actions are just the price people should be willing to pay for their ministerial giftedness and powerful influence for Christ: It is always shocking to see a national man be overtaken in serious fault, and then publicly declare that those responsible for bringing his sin public have actually damaged the ministry of Christ. These guys actually believe great success makes daily holiness and Christ-likeness immaterial. They need to remember God wants our hearts, our holiness, and our humility much more than he needs our fame. He can make the rocks cry out his praise if need be.

4. They believe all who oppose or correct them are really opposing God: Success can make men think they're special, more in partnership with God than the rest of us. This leads them to believe they are indispensable to the kingdom mission. Those who attempt to derail their ministries are labeled rebellious at best, and agents of Satan at worse. And they are aided in this by those mentioned in #5.

5. They surround themselves with passionate loyalists who believe their leader is always right: Time after time, when a big name minister is found to be in grave sin those close to him have to admit they didn't see it, or if they did, they made a choice to save the ministry because it was so successful. The nationally acclaimed ministers I know who do things right purposely surround themselves with those who speak truth to power, and they are protected against pride and selfishness as a result.

6. They adopt PR strategists and strategies designed to keep them in the public view: It is all too common for successful pastors to adopt new priorities and patterns of life that promote their national influence while separating them from local church life. They flow into the world of self-promotion for good reasons only to find, in the end, they've lost their footing. 

7. They become expert actors able to feign humility and contrition when it is to their advantage: At times some realize the power of humility. They have learned to be contrite when needed, act humbly and gracious when confronted, and some even are capable of genuine repentance. But they usually draw the line at stepping down from their successful ministry. After all, God is using them mightily.

8. They believe their success makes them worthy of extravagance in many areas of life: Success can make a man think he is above the rules. Stories of extravagant homes, cars, vacations, and other financial dealings are becoming more abundant in the ministry world. Success is more and more defined by what you have rather than who has you. But then again, they are so valuable, so important to the mission of the church. It used to be they said Christ Jesus deserved the best. Now it seems some of them think they do too.

9. They wield their personal charm and charisma to get out of trouble: When others start to see the leaks in their lives they are treated to personal conversations, and leave believing they just weren't seeing things clearly. 

Years ago I was called to help a church deal with an immoral pastor. As I worked with church leaders to sort out and solve the issues involved, it became clear most of them saw warning signs, and sinful behavior in the man. But when they asked him about what they saw, his charm, friendly conversation, feigned humility, and personal charisma spun the whole thing around and they left the room convinced they were wrong to pursue anything. 

10. Their local churches suffer doubly: first from being neglected in favor of the broader national audience, and secondly, when they have to endure the humiliation of having followed a leader who is now crashing to the ground. I wrote this blog post because I love the local church, with its diverse family of believers of all ages and stages. Big, small, or in-between in terms of numbers, each church is a unique outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each church is a "Fort Heaven", here to represent Christ, and bring his truth and love to the neighborhood. 

When men lift their eyes to the horizons of national prominence and influence, it often means less energy, less passion, less intimacy directed at those God has called them to lead and love. Local churches can suffer when their pastor preaches past them thinking about his next book, or the video venues in other states, or the greater national audience on the airwaves.

But greater still is the humiliation of those who love and follow a man who later succumbs to the poisonous bait of pride, and falls from his high perch to crash and burn. Just ask those at Mars Hill Seattle who have had to admit their champion was never what he claimed to be. Their humiliation starts with questioning their own perceptions, and too often ends with a distrust of God himself.  

If you read the story of David and Bathsheba you'll recognize in David's actions many of what I've written to this point. It could be summed up this way:

Success often inflates our sense of self to the place where we maximize our importance and minimize our sin in order to optimize our fame. We think we're out to influence the world for Christ, but if we're not very, very careful the mission can morph. We can  so easily make ministry for Jesus the vehicle for personal glory.

Fame is intoxicating. Power is habit-forming. Applause can be addicting. We all can become dependent on the adrenaline rush of compliments, and invitations to bigger and greater platforms. But that is not the way of Christ. We are to follow him, not run ahead as though we were in the lead. 

May we all bloom where we're planted, knowing God may grant us greater influence at some point, in some way. Or he may be pleased to use thousands like my father to do his will, out of the limelight. Either way, the battle belongs to the Lord, and so do we.