Managing ministry’s main menace—ego
A patient whined to his doctor of excruciating pain all over his body. He immediately winced when he did what the doctor asked and patted his head, grimaced when touching his ankle, and finally cried, “Ouch!” when tapping his shoulder. “Your pain problem is neither in your head, your ankle, nor your shoulder,” the doctor revealed. “You have a dislocated finger, and every thing that dislocated finger touches causes pain.”
Too often, you and I become that well-intentioned but dislocated finger, inflicting pain on everything that we touch—our families, churches, ministries, and even our new members. Our egos represent that finger, originally created by God but dislocated by sin.
God’s masterful creation
Like alcoholism, ego-holism is the addiction—an addiction to self, defined as “thinking too highly of ourselves, and/or thinking too little of our God, and then acting excessively upon those impulses.”1 The mother of all addictions, ego-holism preceded planet Earth and humankind, actually having its beginning, of all places, in heaven.
All addictions arise from one’s reaction to one’s sense of self, which dictionaries define as “ego.” Lucifer became the first being who reacted unfavorably to his sense of self, and his boast was met with an unfavorable end: “ ‘I’ll climb to the top of the clouds. I’ll take over as King of the Universe!’ But you didn’t make it, did you? Instead of climbing up, you came down” (Isa. 14:14–17, The Message).
Unemployed and homeless, Lucifer-turned-Satan then polluted Adam and Eve; and now, you and I always feel incomplete. And, indeed, this is the way that God would have it. Ellen White states, “The same divine mind that is working upon the things of nature is speaking to the hearts of men and creating an inexpressible craving for something they have not. The things of the world cannot satisfy their longing. The Spirit of God is pleading with them to seek for those things that alone can give peace and rest—the grace of Christ, the joy of holiness.
“You who in heart long for some-thing better than this world can give, recognize this longing as the voice of God to your soul.”2 Tim LaHaye affirms, “Most miserable or depressed people are not conscious of the fact that their misery emanates from the God-vacuum within them.”3
God created our first parents perfect and then equipped them with a natural inclination for partnering with Him, the Source of perfection. After the Fall, He made them sense their incompleteness without Him.
As a recovering egoholic, I have experienced repeatedly that God never fills our voids of incompleteness without first gaining our permission or cooperation to do so. He then partners with us to fill the voids in our lives—but only in direct proportion to our faith in Him. Sometimes we supply too much of ourselves (big ego-holism). Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh declared, “Self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.”4 At other times, we dispense too little of ourselves (little ego-holism).
Ego-holism surfaces when we attempt to fill our voids without God. Most unkind, self-destructive, unwise, or sinful behavior arises from a desperate desire to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. To some degree, we are all broken people trying to make ourselves whole, to bolster our self-esteem, not hate ourselves—even when the ways that we try are deleterious to ourselves.
Once we own our incompleteness or inadequacy, we should team with God for completeness. Ellen White affirms, “The Lord can do nothing toward the recovery of man until, convinced of his own weakness, and stripped of all self-sufficiency, he yields himself to the control of God. Then he can receive the gift that God is waiting to bestow. From the soul that feels his need, nothing is withheld. He has unrestricted access to Him in whom all fullness dwells.”5
My dramatic fall
Like the prodigal son, I, a 14-year-old prodigy in public speaking and writing, begged my parents to let me “take my God-gifts to a larger, more appreciative arena.” Reluctantly, they allowed me to pursue public school my sophomore year in high school; later, I accepted a scholarship to Virginia’s Hampton Institute—even as my family relocated to Oakwood College—eventually breaking the first and second of a threefold cord (Christian home, Christian school, and church. See Eccl. 4:12).
Self-estranged, my big and little egos went through many stages in college. I became the newspaper man-aging editor, president of the English Club and, ultimately, the president of the student body. I pledged myself to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and later twice became its highest-ranking collegiate officer on the East Coast. I parlayed God’s gifts into coveted trophies unavailable through Adventist schools: a 1975 Essence magazine modeling debut, two Massachusetts state oratorical championships, and entry-level account executive employment at one of the world’s largest public relations agencies (twice).
Meanwhile, a lack of discipline caused my academic grades to take a dramatic nosedive. My grades were not the only things that fell. I pinpointed my near-fatal flaw: my non-faith-based education and employment were all egocentric. Instead of seeking Christ first and all other things being added, I centered primarily on developing, improving, and esteeming self. Prematurely leaving the godly environment of both home and faith-based schools affected my intellectual growth and stunted my spiritual growth. It started me on an almost-imperceptible descent into ego-holism—my addiction to self. It might have been different for me if I had paid attention to the following:
1. Own your problem. Second Samuel 12 chronicles Nathan’s object lesson of a rich man besting a poor one, a story that angered King David. Nathan’s confronting the king on his Bathsheba affair/pregnancy and the subsequent murder of her husband Uriah illustrates what I have termed the TOP strategy: Nathan targeted David’s problem, declaring, “You are the man!” (verse 7, NKJV). David owned his problem, confessing, “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 13, NKJV). God pardoned David, canceling David’s self-mandated execution yet pronouncing death to David and Bathsheba’s unborn son. The first step toward restoration from ego-holism is to own it as your problem.
2. Manage your problem. Our inclinations and tendencies may be altered by God; but if not, your preference does not have to become your practice. When God explained to Paul His refusal to remove the thorn in his flesh, the apostle then understood and even endorsed the pain, declaring, “I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7–10, NKJV).
Big or little ego-holisms may not be cured or eliminated; but they can be managed through our partnership with God. Like mowing your lawn or cutting your hair, a once-and-for-all effort will not address recurring growth. Only the regular maintenance through teaming with God can be effective. When we give our will to Christ to manage our God-permitted thorns, we graduate from pursuing our careers to fulfilling God’s calling.
3. Own your calling. As when God commanded the Israelites, “You have traveled around these mountains long enough. Turn north” (Deut. 2:3, ERV), God waited for me to cease my career wanderings to now own my calling. Michael Novak’s Business as a Calling cites four characteristics of a calling:
a. “A calling is unique to each individual”—I was only now beginning to realize what God was calling me to.
b. “A calling requires certain preconditions,” including desire and talent—Irealized that early nurturing (speaking in public since the age of three (thank you Cradle Roll, Kindergarten, and Primary Sabbath School teachers!) and later training (over three decades as a marketer and publicist) had unwittingly paved the way for my call.
c. “A true calling reveals its presence by the enjoyment and sense of renewed energies its practice yields.” Dare devil legend Karl Wallenda’s mantra, “Being on a tightrope is living; everything else is waiting,” captures and capsulizes what has now guided my ministry through presentations, sermons, key-notes, and writing.
d. Callings “are not easy to discover. Frequently, many false paths are taken before the satisfying path is at last discovered. Experiments, painful setbacks, false hopes, discernment, prayer, and much patience are often required before the light turns on.”6
My setbacks were a setup for a comeback.
God’s incredible restoration
On the outside, I appeared to be successful in my career, yet I was never totally fulfilled, and things were rapidly falling apart. When a business client fired me after only six weeks, I knew that I had hit rock bottom. “Tim, you needed help, and you knew it. And yet, you wouldn’t ask for our help,” explained this client during our exit meeting. “Firing you is one of the best things that can happen to you as a new entrepreneur. Talent is not your problem.” Talent was not my problem in that I had talent; but talent, indeed, was my problem—and is a problem that can creep up even on pastors.
Satan relentlessly targets those who profess God. In Carlyle B. Haynes Speaks to Young Ministers, Haynes declared, “It is easy for men to believe that being in this holy profession and giving themselves and their time to the things of God will somehow immunize them against temptation and sin. You are not, I hope, among those who so believe. No man in any station or profession is in greater peril of moral ruin than the Christian minister. Pitfalls and snares are prepared for him at all times and on every side, even while he is engaged in the holy duties of his high calling. Principalities of evil pursue him as they pursue no other.”7
Ministers and ministry leaders are wired and trained to solve problems. We are institutionally empowered, educationally equipped, and spiritually anointed; but we are not divinely appointed to tackle problems as solo ventures. The lone ranger approach is common for many, yet it is the root cause of our ego problems. We are drained and damaged equally by big and little egos. Only God knows how to combine the exact calibrations of Himself and ourselves for every situation. This is needed because Satan attacks God’s unwitting servants. I should have learned from the rise and fall of Canright.
Dudley M. Canright was one of the most eloquent preachers the Seventh-day Adventist Church has ever produced. His friend, Drury W. Reavis, says, “He had more invitations than he could possibly accept; so he selected the largest and most popular churches.
“One Sunday night, in the largest church of the West Side, he spoke on ‘The Saint’s Inheritance’ to more than 3,000 people, and I took a seat in the gallery directly in front of him, to see every gesture and to hear every tone, form of voice, emphasis, stress, and pitch, and all the rest. But that was as far as I got in my part of the service, for he so quickly and eloquently launched into this, his favorite theme, that I, with the entire congregation, became entirely absorbed in the Biblical facts he was so convincingly presenting. I never thought of anything else until he had finished.
“After the benediction I could not get to him for more than half an hour, because of the many people crowding around him, complimenting and thanking him for his masterly discourse. On all sides I could hear people saying it was the most wonderful sermon they had ever heard.”8
When they were alone, Canright declared to Reavis, “I believe I could become a great man were it not for our unpopular message.”
Reavis retorted, “D. M., the message made you all you are, and the day you leave it, you will retrace your steps back to where it found you.”9
Ellen White also weighed in. “You have wanted to be too much, and make a show and noise in the work, and as the result your sun will surely set in obscurity.”10 What she said came true. Canright wept uncontrollably at her funeral casket.11
Reavis states that Canright “frankly admitted that what I predicted had come to pass, and that he wished the past could be blotted out and that he was back in our work just as he was at the beginning, before any ruinous thoughts of himself had entered his heart.”12 Ego-holism.
Similar to Moses’ 40 years of wilderness preparation to mature him into his calling, God allowed my hard-headed ego 41 wilderness-wandering years in order to mature me and allow me to embrace my true calling. More important now than finding my career, I needed to fulfill my calling. Broke, but now broken, I fasted and prayed, and God began answering me. In His love, He forced me to chronicle my then 33-year ego addiction nosedive. It led to numerous articles, some TV and radio appearances, and a self-published ebook—but most importantly, it led me to an epiphany.
One Friday evening, while praying in my “war room,” God directed me to a dust-collecting book that my dad gave me in 1990: Carlyle B. Haynes’s The Divine Art of Preaching. I read and reread its definition of preaching: “the divinely ordained power of personal testimony.”13 It became clear that no human being could devise the call to preach, and no human being could deny it. “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer. 20:9, NIV).
Highlighting ego-holism was my divinely ordained personal testimony; and, based on Haynes’s definition, I am compelled to preach. Almost immediately, a 63-year millstone dis-solved, and my heretofore-misdirected gifts came home. May we all not only manage the menace of ego-holism but, through our successes and failures, fulfill God’s calling in our lives.
“‘I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?’ Yes, I’m full of myself— after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary” (Rom. 7:14–16, The Message).
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