If Everyone Else is on Steroids … (RJS)

We just finished a rather long series of posts focused around the examples and issues raised in the new book by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. The final post Tuesday What Makes a Leader? looked specifically at the characteristics of evangelical leaders and role played by the informal process of anointing at work in the culture. Many of these same factors play a role more broadly within our society – the evangelical culture is not unique. The strategies that yield success are the same strategies used by successful politicians, successful civil rights leaders, successful leaders in many other areas of endeavor and influence.

This topic makes a nice connection with a post Pragmatics vs. Faithfulness Scot linked a few weeks ago. In the original column on Huffington Post Tim Suttle raised the question of the pragmatic approach vs. the faithfulness approach.  It also makes a nice connection with the post Sunday Galli Defends the Chaplain and the two follow-up posts, Tod Bolsinger Responds to Galli, and Galli, Bolsinger, and Now Michael Mercer.

I don’t buy the idea that we must choose between church growth or discipleship (pragmatics vs. faithfulness), or between visionary leadership and compassionate mentoring. I do think we often set the wrong goals and priorities and these are motivated by the wrong factors because we’ve asked the wrong questions. I also think that sometimes competition and ambition contribute to the problem – we’ve not only asked the wrong questions, but we have the wrong values. This is true in all areas of life – and all professions. It is certainly true in science, where we have our own set of famous examples. I will elaborate after the jump.

Are pragmatism and faithfulness really opposing principles?

How do we set the right values and goals?

I am a scientist and read and think about both my specific discipline (chemistry) and the field of science, especially academic science, more broadly. This is an interesting community and a competitive environment. Competition in all of its forms can lead to problems in the effort to maintain a competitive edge.

There was an incident recently where a Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel committed academic fraud in his research in social psychology, investigating such things as hypocrisy, racial stereotyping, and the influence of advertisements on self-perception. You can read about it in the NY Times story from early November and in a report in the scientific journal Nature, Report Finds Massive Fraud. This isn’t a lone incident. In fact, a somewhat less clear-cut case was reported earlier in the year when Marc Hauser resigned from Harvard following a finding of scientific misconduct. Nor is psychology the only field affected – there was a spectacular case at Bell Labs in materials science and I could list others. These incidents don’t undermine science per se, the checks and balances exist and are getting better. Science is an empirical undertaking and experiments must be consistent and results reproducible. But they do point to a rather serious problem that must be faced. Perhaps the NY Times story puts this most clearly:

“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

But not only must the story be prettier – it must also be unexpected or in some fashion sensational. Outright fraud like that committed by Stapel or Schön is rare. But the competitive pressure that rewards hype, charisma, and sensationalism is a real problem. Later in the NY Times story:

In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychologists scheduled to be published this year, Leslie John of Harvard Business School and two colleagues found that 70 percent had acknowledged, anonymously, to cutting some corners in reporting data. About a third said they had reported an unexpected finding as predicted from the start, and about 1 percent admitted to falsifying data.

The rewards for cutting corners are significant when one paper in Science or Nature is worth more to a career, to prestige, to access to resources, and to one’s paycheck, than five or six solid and significant papers in lesser journals. There is a strong temptation to hype, to sensationalize and to “smooth” the results or cut corners.

When “everyone else” is on steroids (or at least some of those who are the most successful), to compete you may have to take steroids as well. When the rewards are structured to value sensationalism, when ambition is given the driver’s seat, when the goals are wrong … we will always have problems. Those who are more reserved, more careful, and less willing to hype (or overhype) their work will always be operating at something of a disadvantage. I live in this world, and it is not always easy. It isn’t a question of trading integrity as a scientist for success and recognition, one can certainly have both (and many do) … but the environment presents a real temptation and this plays out along a continuum.

So what does this have to do with faithful leadership? You may feel that this post took a rather strange twist, maybe even an incomprehensible twist. But there was a comment on my post last Tuesday that started me thinking along these lines. Science isn’t the only place where “It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

As a young man who feels called to ministry and would like to be a, at least moderately, influential Christian leader this kind of stuff is depressing. It seems that even if one is sincere one is still required to self promote and use manipulation to gain authority. I don’t know if I’m supposed to suppress my ambition, or let it run wild.

I don’t know how things could possibly change, but it seems our system too often rewards selfish ambition and self-delusion. I know and have seen men quickly rise to positions of authority simply because they had charisma. Some of these men also have other great qualities that do qualify them for ministry, but because they rise so quickly they may never have to learn things like submission and humility. Furthermore, a person like me is left to feel like I must not be anointed since I don’t seem to have the charisma these other men have.

I am not as cynical disillusioned as the comment seems – and  I doubt if the commenter is quite this cynical disillusioned either. The comment was in response to a particular post, and should be read in context. But there are temptations in Christian ministry and in church leadership – as there are in science, business, and every other field. We live in a culture that rewards ambition, self-promotion, charisma, manipulation to achieve a desired result. If the “competition” is on steroids, or even seems to be, there is a temptation to take steroids as well.

Is there a real temptation to “cut corners” to be competitive in ministry?

How do you set goals and guard against temptation?

What advice to you have for a young Christian? Especially for one who feels called to ministry?

How about advice for Christians in other fields?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Wow, good post. The way I have come, over the years, to frame this up is that many not only reluctantly play the game, they feel that is the point. People are fallen.

  • Susan N.

    I’m glad to see that that young man’s comment is being acknowledged. At the time of reading the previous thread, I felt sad with him, though I didn’t read cynicism into his words…more like discouragement.

    I feel about my nursing home Bible study group that it was and is a strong calling. Over the 4 years that I’ve been involved with this, there have been a couple of times that I’ve felt discouraged by various difficulties and questioned my way forward. What helped me to keep going was to pray for guidance, vision, the grace to know how to best express the love of Christ to those particular people…with a very humble and open-handed attitude. “Your will be done, Lord. This isn’t *my* thing — it’s God’s.” I’ve remained flexible enough to change as needed to be accommodating to the people I want to serve. I don’t expect a big reward — the joy is in connecting in fellowship with my elderly friends. Even when many other aspects of my life have been only so-so, or downright icky, the joy I derive from my nursing home fellowship group has been steady.

    I think it’d be harder and harder to “stay loose” when livelihood, status, power/authority were at stake. I do feel that pastors are pressured into being “production-oriented” sometimes by congregants and various movers and shakers in a church who might not necessarily have pure, gospel-driven motives/values. The pastor/leader doesn’t live in a vacuum within the church, let alone in the world.

    RJS, regarding secular power players, I was just discussing the topic of anti-global warming rhetoric with my kids. The problem is, I guess, that some environmental “extremists” have created distrust, so now some are willing to fully embrace the anti-global warming message from their “anointed” experts. When I read the anti-global warming rhetoric, it seems so overly simplistic and short-sighted. Yet, I am not able to refer to one credible source to counter the anti-global warming talking points. (It seems a while back that there was a Ron Spross -?- who posted here on JC with some environmental science data w/a link??

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Regarding the field of ministry I have long been uncomfortable with the “mega-church,” “big event,” “big leader,” and “many books authors” aspects of evangelicalism. I have been a member of one denomination all my life, and I have attended flagship churches and small churches, both urban and suburban. These create the ethos that I think RJS is trying to get at.

    I have participated in “Schools for Conversion” with folks from the New Monasticism, who invite 10-20 folks to their communities to learn on-site for a weekend, and I have a attended big Christian Community Development Association Conferences and training for 80 young CCDA leaders. The SfC experience and the training for 80 were so much more real that I cannot imagine seeking to be one of thousands in any of these venues.

    In an urban ministry class that I took last year, our professor had one refrain that I think applies to all of this. He insisted over and over that “In urban ministry, it is all about relationships.” Venues that do not add to real and meaningful personal relationships are probably not helping us develop any meaningful ministry.

  • If anyone things of ministry as a competition, he has already cut corners.

    My advice to anyone who feels “called to ministry,” is to understand that the ministry is not theirs ~ it belongs to Jesus. The ability to do ministry does not come from themselves ~ it comes from the Holy Spirit. And when we yield it all completely to God, He will do amazing things through it, above all we could ask or imagine, because it will be His power at work in us.

    My advice for Christians in other fields is similar. Our vocation (“calling”) is an assignment from the Lord, and it belongs to the Lord because we belong to the Lord. If He has called us to it, He will provide whatever we need to accomplish it. And when we yield it all completely to God, He will do amazing things through it, above all we could ask or imagine, because it will be His power at work in us.

  • Jerry

    Every generation has its missional impulse. Thirty years ago I remember reading Frank Tillapaugh’s “The Church Unleashed” about empowering the laity. The early Methodists depended on lay led class meetings and preaching events. Why do we treat everything as if we’ve discovered “the secret.” After 24 years of ministry (including the creation of some great lay outreach), nothing replaces the call of the pastor/shepherd/chaplain to care for flock.

  • RJS, excellent questions. Elements of a response: The speaker at a recent gathering of pastors said that what ministers to people is not what we know but who we are, and that we become people whose presence blesses others through failure. So I am looking forward to the Epic Fail Pastors Conference in Mansfield, Ohio, March 22-24, 2012.

  • RJS


    I agree that thinking of ministry as a competition is a problem. I wonder, though, if it can be under the surface sometimes, even if not explicit.

    In my area it is much more explicitly a competition, and some are proud of it – it is thought to be the way a “free market” produces the best result. I don’t think so … for the kinds of reasons in my discussion of science in the original post.

  • saladyears

    For Susan (#2),

    Point your kids to this resource:


    It confronts every issue regarding the science of climate change, using the actual science, namely peer-reviewed published research. It even has an app you can download for your iDevice, if you have one, that lets you look up arguments and data from the palm of your hand.

  • RJS


    I agree that cynical isn’t quite the right word. I changed it in the post.

  • I contend with this in my pastoral role. Instead of “pragmatic” I prefer the word “teleological;” there is some end or set of ends toward which we are called. In order to be faithful to my calling, I am on a journey – and taking my people on a journey. Making this journey matters. Reaching our destination matters. Bringing the people along matters. I am accountable for all these things that matter. I want to be found faithfully pursuing these ends.

  • RJS, in the arena of “professional” ministry, competition is often under the surface. I have often heard of church pastors comparing notes with each other on how many they are “running,” that is, how many coming to their church. Comparison on giving, comparison on building programs. IOW, they often compare and evaluate their ministries by the numbers. For a few years in the mid-to-late 90s, I was in a “seeker-friendly” church with a senior pastor who was a WillowCreekSaddleBack wannabe (I mean no criticism to Willow Creek or Saddleback). He explicitly valued charisma over faithfulness and had no interest in any community involvement which did not expressly promote his church. Looking back, I think he had a lot of father issues from his childhood and sought his identity in the ministry, and understood success in terms of numbers. VERY competitive personality. OTOH, the pastor who replaced him, however, brought a lot of healing to the congregation and led it into a much more missional orientation — and the church has grown considerably in numbers, as well.

    Just before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to see my pastor from the church I was part of from about ’85-94. He was not the competitive type and was not hyped on numbers, but very pastoral, and the fruit of his ministry endures. Likewise, my current pastor, since about 2001; not competitive, not oriented toward the numbers, but outward focused and a lot of pastoral wisdom.

  • Jason Lee

    This fascinating post articulates some things no doubt many of us have felt.

    I wonder if the focus on winning big (often measured in size of church members/budget) is a direct result of norms in the US business culture colonizing US ministerial life (especially among free-wheeling evangelicals).

  • DRT

    Isn’t this more an indictment of the lead super pastor model than anything? Organizations will typically start to resemble the leader (who does not need to be the Pastor). I agree that goals are a key.

    To take something good from the business world instead of just all this bad stuff, how about using the appropriate tools to do the job. Strategic direction setting and goal setting is tough stuff. I was impressed to see the use of SWOT in the For/Against Calvinism book Scot reviewed. Tools like that help provide balance in the approach.

  • Tom F.

    I can resonate with this. I would post another sad story about an example in my life where I have seen this sad dynamic in play, but I just posted one of those in another entry on this same blog. I’m tired of being negative.

    Instead, I’ll just say that I’m grateful to belong to a church right now where this dynamic is not the driving force, where our pastors have the space to both consider “pragmatics” and “faithfulness” issues in a way that honors both. Neither is seen as the end-all “solution” to whatever anxiety evangelicals as a whole have cooked up about the future of the church. I feel for those whose churches are stuck in more rigid situations; I have been there myself.

  • Susan N.

    saladyears (#8) – Thank you for sharing the link. The site seems very detailed and easy to navigate. This is helpful to me.

  • AHH

    Susan @2,
    Another good resource, from an explicitly Christian perspective, is the John Ray Initiative in the UK:

    While I’m here …
    My initial impulse was to agree with Jason Lee @12 that the problem of church leaders in competition reflects the absorption of church culture by American business culture. And I’m sure there’s some truth to that.
    But then I think of Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.
    I think there is something in fallen human nature and human culture that wants size and wealth and numbers to be the measure of success.

  • I’d just say, Thank you, rjs, but Patheos requires that I sensationalize my post and make it a bit longer. 🙂

    Yes, I’ve seen competition. Pastors who feel inadequate when associates preach better than they, who then undermine and lie about the associates. Academic insights acknowledged at first, but then published w/out attribution because the one with the insight didn’t have the degree.

    Accountability, confession, and people who ensure that we listen are the best guards I’ve found against getting “puffed up” as Paul described the problem of the Corinthians. The difficulties are obvious – most of us have been burned, sometimes badly, by people in whom we trusted, so it’s hard to stay as open as we need to stay. Our confidence really has to be in the Lord.

    In other fields, pay attention where people start groveling or rushing to feed at the trough. Avoid it, and seek God about what’s happening. You may not get ahead, but you may be warned you’ll lose your life if you try.

  • Jason Lee


    Re. “I think of Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.
    I think there is something in fallen human nature and human culture that wants size and wealth and numbers to be the measure of success.”

    This is no doubt true, but it may be that certain cultural configurations encourage exaggerated manifestations of this fallen impulse. Some would argue that its because the American market developed in a setting where there was little other institutional development (as compared to Europe), and so the American market developed deficient in other balances to hold its extreme tendencies in check.

  • Great post. Much food for thought here. We need leaders who exemplify what we find in scripture. That is key. If we can find them, if we have them, then their lives and ministry will speak volumes and will expose that which is lesser.

    Of course being in the way of Jesus, it won’t look good to many who are looking for something else.

  • AHH

    Jason @18,

    I don’t disagree that there are likely aspects of American culture that accentuate the human tendency to measure success (in church, business, whatever) by size and numbers and wealth.

    I guess a way to test this would be to ask whether the church in other parts of the world (with different cultures) suffers from this malady to the same degree. Anecdotally, for example I gather that the church in Korea is prone to many of these problems, exalting churches based on numbers. Of course then one could ask if this means the problem is independent of culture, or if it means American culture has infected the church in these other parts of the world.