40+ And The Church / When Christian Ambition Fades To Gray

40+ And The Church / When Christian Ambition Fades To Gray September 18, 2013

I was in a room with a bunch of young pastors-in-training, and commented to a friend that I could feel the testosterone in the air even though there were a number of women present.

“That’s not testosterone you’re sensing,” he told me. “It’s ambition.”

As I observed the body language among the group (so many firm two-handed handshakes!), and listened to snatches of conversation, I realized my friend was right. Many of those in the room were anxious to impress the others around them, and demonstrate that they were in God’s flow of things, building lives and ministries and reputations. My perception was that this room didn’t have much space for failure or insecurity

A raft of books, magazines, seminars, conferences and even degree programs – content offered by business leaders and faith leaders alike – coach Christian leaders how to productively channel their own ambitions. Though the relationship between ambition and ministry is of great importance from the standpoint of spiritual formation and church health (see this and this), my ongoing interest in the shifts that happen at midlife has me considering what happens when the ambitions that fuel building our first-half lives fade and mellow into a drive to create meaning as we move into our second adulthoods.

Not all ambitions fade away, of course. And some who are chronologically mature may be landlocked at a “younger” (not in a good way) stage of spiritual growth.

But overall, I notice a gentling of ambition taking place in myself and among many of my age peers. It’s less about making a name for ourselves, and more about passing on what we’ve learned.

I remember feeling as though I was attending auditions when I began attending a couple of different churches when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I didn’t want to be ignored when I felt I had something to offer to others. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be used to ignite life change in others. I really did want to do these things for the Lord’s sake, because of the way he wired and gifted me. But to be perfectly honest, there was also some Michelle ambition in Christian-y packaging at play. God can use us even as we have weeds-growing-with-wheat selfish ambitions at play in our lives, even as he asks us to cooperate with him by telling the truth about ourselves in order to eradicate them. I’m not sure I could have made the distinction between wheat and weeds back then. The crisis of entering my second adulthood has sharpened my powers of observation in this regard, and I am grateful.

Midlife is meant to help us recognize, repent from and repurpose those weeds. They make great compost.

If you’re near, at or beyond midlife, have you recognized a shift in your drive to build your life and reputation? If so, how has this shift changed the way you live and approach the ministry God has given you to do?  

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  • Tim

    Not much space for failure or insecurity, and I dare say not much space for humility either. How do I know? Because I have lived with a lot Tim ambition in Christian-y packaging too, Michelle.
    A lot of people would look at my life and say my life and reputation are quite well established, that I’ve accomplished much. I look at it and consider what it means for what God wants to accomplish, because if it’s only about my own accomplishments then I’m going to echo Paul and call that rubbish.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      It’s a lot easier to recognize rubbish at this stage of my life than it was a couple of decades ago!

  • Kim

    In a seminary course this past spring, I was certain I heard antlers crashing. I was one of two female students in an upper-level course filled with burgeoning academic specialists and several Ph.D. candidates. Students’ questions and responses often sounded like thesis declarations and included multiple allusions to readings outside of course requirements. Ambition was palpable.

    At first I was put-off by the obvious brown-nosing, then I found it entertaining. I remember the feeling of wanting to make my mark and believing some program or publication would launch me. But that was decades ago, and I don’t have the same force driving me.

    Yes, I want to write and test well in my studies, but I also want to know the person next to me in class. I want to know how I can pray for him or her; how my wisdom gathered through the years might be useful.

    So, yes, along with everything else in my body, I’ve shifted.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Well said, Kim. And I know this to be true of you. You do care, you pray, and you’re a stable and generous listener. You’re wise – wise enough to stay clear of those bucks showing off their brand new antlers. 🙂

  • Pat68

    Absolutely! At 49, having been very active in serving the Church and working (and seminary along the way), I am now in a much more relaxed mode of life. My father passed last year and I moved in with my mother about six months after leaving a church where I had been for 12 years. My priorities have shifted and I’m just not real interested in climbing the ladder. Oh, there are still things I want to do, but not with the same intensity. I really just want to work, get paid and enjoy life, possibly because while all those previous years I was doing what I wanted and enjoyed it, I think I realize how much I missed out on.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I wonder if the intensity of the first half gets redeemed a bit by the priority-shift of the second half. That relaxed mode you’re in is a gift, isn’t it? There’s space to focus on God and those he’s placed in your life – which is ministry of the most important kind.

  • Very well said, Michelle. When did ministry become about ambition or “success” rather than about shepherding people in love and service? Intellect and skill have somehow displaced heart and faith. Institutions and classrooms are well equipped to inform our minds, but the deeper matters of spiritual leadership are formed, it seems to me, in relationships. That’s more difficult, and it doesn’t necessarily satisfy our ambitions. I completely resonate with your observations of this from the perspective of the second half of life. I’m not sure if I could have understood it sooner. I guess that’s why the Church operates best when it engages the full complement of the giftings and perspectives of all of its members.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Judy, I know you are pondering some of the same things I am on these matters. The Church does operate best when it engages and cherishes all its members. And we know many congregations aren’t doing such a hot job of this right now. So how to help awaken leaders to their call to shepherd instead of succeed…? The million shekel question…!

  • brianleport

    Wise words, thank you!