Serving in Secret in an Era of Self-Promotion

We live in an era when it is easier than ever to self-promote, due in large part to immediate forms of communication like Facebook and Twitter. Without even realizing it, some people have gotten into the habit of advertising almost everything that they do, including their good works. What is a Christian to do? On the one hand, we want to witness to the world that we are “practicing what we preach,” namely, carrying out Jesus’ commands to serve the needy and defend the vulnerable. After all, if we do not tell people about how we are living out our faith, how will they know? And what about encouraging other people (by our example) to go and serve in their own capacity?

On the other hand, we know that Jesus has instructed us to serve in secret: But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). It seems that Jesus is warning us not only against advertising our good works to others, but even against remembering these works ourselves. We are called to serve to the best of our ability, but to do so with ultimate humility. Is there a middle ground here?

Here are some thoughts from my parish priest on the topic:

“I almost laughed out loud recently when reading through the comments section on an item on the internet. The writer criticized the Catholic Church for “not preaching what they practice.” Yes, you read that correctly, “not preaching what they practice!” Here is the real funny part – it was in response to the ways that the Catholic Church serves those in need! The writer was criticizing the Church for not speaking up more about all of the things we do for the poor, needy and suffering. The result being that because we don’t brag too much and blow our own trumpet at all of the things we do, then we must not be doing much. Wow! Guilty as charged. It is not that we don’t serve those in need, we just do not go around telling everything that we do. In truth, the Catholic Church is guilty of this failure. In fact, we are not just guilty, we are grossly negligent and pitifully poor at proclaiming all the “good things” we do. The reason being of course is not that we don’t have a very good PR firm, but that pride, hubris and such bragging is wrong and sinful. Secondly, it is not about us, it is about God working through us. The Church is not a social welfare agency. We are not merely a bunch of “do good” humanitarians or socially conscious philanthropists. We are disciples of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our works of charity are part of our love and worship of the true God. We serve our sisters and brothers in need, not just because they need our assistance, but out of our love for them and our love of God. We believe that we cannot truly love God without loving and caring for our neighbor.”

I must say that I agree with my parish priest on this topic. I also believe that there is a difference between bragging about the good works that we do, and sharing our experiences appropriately for the purpose of encouraging others to live lives of service themselves. For example, I think that there is great value in talking to our children about the service that we do, and using these conversations as teaching moments about gratitude, humility, and generosity. We may also feel that it is appropriate to invite others to serve alongside us in a particular ministry, and this would involve sharing our own experiences for the purpose of informing and inspiring others. I also think that a parish can and should share with its parishioners about the works of mercy (both corporal and spiritual) that it participates in. Our parish publishes all of this information, and I think that everyone appreciates this transparency. As our parish priest said, “While we have our Social Services Ministries here at [our parish], all of our parish ministries and organizations share in the mission of serving those in need…Our whole parish is dedicated to sharing the love of God.” In other words, serving God and His people is not merely the task of the Social Ministries department at our church, but rather it is a calling for all of us as baptized Catholics!

What are your thoughts on this subject?

May God bless you and your family this week. Mary, Queen of Saints, pray for us!


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  • Sarah Johnson

    I struggle with this one as well. On one hand, I am a natural extrovert who wants to talk about everything I do, good deed or not. And the prideful part of me wants others to see the good thing that I’ve done and be recognized for the (very small!) sacrifices I make. Clearly, i should simply do the good thing or make the sacrifice for its own sake, not for recognition, which is what i hear In the bible passages above. Recently I think more and more about the fact that my instinctual definition of success (praise from peers) is totally wrong and I need to recalibrate to what God alone wants of me…

    But, our challenge is that we are increasingly in an information-overloaded, secularist, non-spiritual society. We need hopeful stories and inspirations to help to counter the cultural war on what it is to be human and be part of a community. And technology is increasingly separating and isolating us. So while I would hope someone’s goodness and example would shine through and still be heard and seen, I think it gets harder the more impersonal and infrequent our face to face interactions become. Again maybe the motivation is the key – no prideful boasting, but a timely mention to a mutual friend that you brought someone a meal who was struggling, or a promotion of a charitable effort without necessarily stating your level of commitment or involvement… Maybe the key is encouraging others without tooting your own horn too much?

  • Juris Mater

    Kat, great question… Recently a regular parish priest of ours, during a homily, referenced his years of service in Peru, only because some experiences he had were relevant to the gospel. It was unforgettable. It’s very powerful to know someone for a while, then to later learn the secret deeds of service they’ve done. But as you say here, Kat and Sarah, relationships don’t always allow for that anymore, because they’re becoming increasingly based on in-your-face tweets/sound bites than ongoing, personal contact.

  • I agree that this is a hard line to draw. But I do think the proper question is about whether what you are writing/saying is aimed to promote yourself, or to promote the Church or a ministry w/in the Church. There is nothing wrong with braggina about the Church! And I often think Catholic ministries do a poor job of showing others the great work their organization is doing.

    And i will say that I do really appreciate how much social media, and the internet, has helped small ministries get their message out to the public. It is a cheap and very efficient way to communicate. So when a friend posts that they need help with donations and assembly of Thanksgiving baskets at our Parish, I don’t think wow, that’s self promotion, but rather, how great that they can post this message and within minutes have 7 people respond that they are free that evening and able to donate or assemble. I think the Catholic Church can and should be better at this — promoting the works of the Church, and encouraging others to join (via social media and the internet), but obviously individuals need to be very careful that their efforts are done to promote the work of the Church, not themselves. As individuals we should aim to serve and sacrifice in secret, but we are free to shout it from the rooftops when a ministry is doing amazing things.

  • Kat0427

    I agree with everyone that it can be so encouraging to hear others share about the service that they are doing – sometimes it is simply a matter of a person sharing about a ministry that I had never considered I could participate in, or an idea for a service project that can include my children. We can also be inspired by missionaries, who are literally God’s hands and feet throughout the world! We may not be able to go off to Africa ourselves, but we can pray for and financially support those who are doing this great work.
    I guess that the gray area for me comes with areas where the Church, and people within the Church, serve people in vulnerable situations. For example, the Gabriel Project and Project Rachel, which work with women in crisis pregnancies and women after abortion, respectively. I think that you’re right, Kellie, that social media could be used to get the word out to more people that these services are available; however, something about using this outlet doesn’t feel quite right to me because of the sensitivity of the situation. It makes me fume, though, when pro-choice activists accuse the Church of being pro-life but not providing assistance to women in crisis pregnancies! If they only knew!

  • Lydia

    I absolutely agree with this. We shouldn’t be boasting but we should let people know what we do in order to show the world we are not these evil Catholics, but also to get people involved.

    I asked our pastor awhile back for info we could put up on our parish website, which I am the webmaster. “How many people have we fed with the St. Vincent de Paul Society?” “How many people have we helped with X apostolate?” “How many have participated in Bible Study?” “How many people got help with X?” He couldn’t tell me. They just don’t keep numbers, which I find amazing. I would be keeping records of how many people we fed so we can track from year to year the number of people we helped and to see what we can do better.

    I think it is important for Catholics to see what is going on in their community and how they can help. If they don’t know the programs are out there to join they feel rudderless and their talents are wasted.