According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an idol is “an object of extreme devotion; a representation or symbol of an object of worship; a false god; a likeness of something.” Anything that replaces our devotion to God can become an idol. Yes, even the ministry can become an idol.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones defined ministry idolatry this way: “To love the work of the Lord more than the Lord of the work is ministry idolatry.”
The nature of pastoral ministry can become so consuming that it replaces our daily dependence on the LORD. This spiritual illness is subtle and often difficult to detect. Pastors tend to find joy and satisfaction in the ministry tasks we do and especially in the people we love and serve. This ministry idolatry seeps into our lives slowly at first and then becomes an all-engulfing torrent of ministry demands.
One of the first warning signs of this slow creep towards idolatry is neglect of our personal time alone with God. We cannot neglect the Word of God and expect to remain healthy in ministry. When the “to do” list is long and the phone calls, texts, and emails, are waiting, do you rush to get to them? Or do you put that list aside and focus your attention on the SOURCE of life, hope, and healing, grace, truth, and blessing?
If you are neglecting personal prayer, this is a sure sign that ministry idolatry has begun its slow takeover of your heart’s devotion. Even Jesus recognized the essential nature of personal daily prayer. How many times did HE go off alone to be with the Father in prayer?
Jesus Himself warns us in Revelation 2:3-4, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Our first love should always be our Savior. If we leave the Savior to work for the Savior, we have “abandoned the love” we had at first.
Luke 10 tells the story of the 72 disciples who were sent out by our LORD to do the work of the ministry. They returned rejoicing at the work they were able to accomplish. “Lord, even the demons were subject to us in your name.” (Luke 10: 17)
Jesus reminds them that the work of ministry must never replace the joy we have in HIM. The focus of these disciples and the focus of our lives should always be on what the LORD has done for us and not what we have done for the LORD. It is so easy to lose our focus.
“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
Ministry idolatry results from an unguarded heart. We don’t want to find ourselves serving in the kitchen like Martha, when we could be at the feet of Jesus learning His heart, like Mary.
Ministry idolatry ultimately leads to ministry burnout.
Pastor and author Eric Geiger has five questions to help us discern the drift toward ministry idolatry: (Adapted from his article, Five Questions to Discern Ministry Idolatry.)
- How much of my contentment is connected to the tide of my ministry influence?
- Do my prayers reflect that I am more thankful for the salvation He has provided for me or for the ministry He has given me
- If I had to choose, which would I prefer: a closer walk with Jesus or a “more effective ministry”?
- If my ministry were suddenly taken from me, would I still rejoice?
- Do I seek God only for His blessing and direction, or do I also seek God for HIM?
Pastors, I must confess that I am guilty of ministry idolatry. I have allowed my heart to drift towards the love of the work and away from the love of the LORD. You are not alone. Reach out to us at careforpastors.org and allow us to help you navigate the challenges of pastoral ministry and find your way back to your first love.