My ministry was an unqualified success, characterized by rapid growth and many accolades from church leaders. But behind that façade was a brutal truth I was forced to admit: My ministry was feeding off the church, not nourishing it.
Is it time for you to restart? If so, here’s how to prevent a parasitic mentality from seeping into your good intentions.
I’ll never forget that Sunday night when I admitted a hard truth about myself: “I’m a ministry parasite.”
That night, I recognized for the first time that I’d subtly been treating my church-leadership role as a means to build my own ministry. Like a parasite, I’d attached myself to a living organism to meet my personal needs—at the host’s expense. The “host” organism just happened to be the church.
Maybe “parasite” is such a strong word that it’s hard for you to relate. I felt the same way, until I got honest with myself. At the time, church leaders viewed my ministry as a major success, but underneath that veneer was a leech.
Uncovering Our Motivations
In 1999, a church hired me to start a college ministry. At first it was a part-time position, but I was single and could live on a part-time income, so I went into it full-bore. By God’s grace, the ministry grew. In fact, the growth and impact far surpassed my wildest dreams. Amid that euphoria, my focus subtly shifted away from the mission of the wider church onto my own burgeoning influence. I had a parasitic mentality—a user’s mentality.
When I admitted the hard reality of this shift from servant to parasite, I was determined to not simply throw up my hands and quit. I needed to get specific about my parasitic mentality.
1. I viewed my ministry as an end, not a means.
I was more concerned about people coming through the front door than about helping them grow and even transition out of the ministry in healthy ways. My time and energy were focused on numbers.
2. I didn’t trust other ministry leaders.
Bluntly, I undervalued other ministries and overvalued mine. So my leadership development focused on recruiting for my own ministry, not pointing people to serve in other areas that were better suited for them. I treated my ministry like the most important store in the shopping mall.
3. I looked at the ministry’s budget as my bank account.
When I put together my budget, I didn’t consider how it would impact the overall church finances. Instead, because of my ministry’s needs, I felt entitled to a certain amount. I attached myself to the church to get what I “needed” from it. Every year I wanted to spend every bit of that budget, to make sure I wouldn’t lose my entitlement the next year.
4. I was self-focused.
All of us, particularly those in the Millennial generation, can slip into a self-focused attitude toward the church. I mean, we act as though the church exists to build up, develop, and use our gifts and talents. The church is a means to our self-actualization end. We attach ourselves to the church to get what we need from it.
5. I used my God-given spiritual gifts to prop up my identity.
God gives us spiritual gifts for one reason: to feed, build up, and develop others (Ephesians 4:11-16). When we complain that our gifts aren’t being used to our best advantage, the underlying motivation of our stewardship is exposed.
Obviously, I’m describing a “my kingdom” mentality, not a “God’s Kingdom” mentality. The first is primarily concerned about what I can accomplish; the second focuses on what God is accomplishing. Of course, these motivations often weave in and out, overlapping each other. In a healthy church-based ministry, we exist to come alongside the church’s mission, feeding into it, not feeding on it. No one wants to admit a leech mentality, so we subtly camouflage it…
- Youth pastors are often more concerned about transitioning junior highers into the senior high ministry than about transitioning graduated seniors into a healthy college ministry.
- Men’s and women’s ministry leaders are often more concerned about getting people involved in the programs they oversee than about encouraging older men and women to disciple and breathe life into young people.
- Children’s ministry leaders are often more concerned about getting volunteers engaged in their program than about giving parents the “nutrients” they need to do what God has entrusted them to do—disciple their own children.
Of course, we all believe in the vitality of our own ministries, and we need leaders and budget-money to help fuel what we’re doing. But we walk a thin line between self-preservation and self-involvement.
Out of the Darkness, Into the Light
My way out of a parasitic mindset may well invite you into a similar journey. Three practices helped me evaluate the parasite within me and move toward a more nourishing momentum in my ministry:
- I embraced this truth, first uttered by Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Instead of just assuming we support the local church’s wider vision and mission, let’s critically evaluate whether or not we actually are.
- I rejected my consumer mindset and learned how to become a passionate supporter of others. After my Sunday night tipping-point, I pursued relationships with people in my church—intent on giving, rather than consuming. A deep commitment to Jesus’ teachings starts with putting other people’s needs before our own.
- I began to fight for other ministries. What would happen if we considered other leaders’ ministry dreams as valuable as our own—and acted on that belief? What’s the worst that could happen? Our own ministry suffers and dies? Every local church the apostle Paul planted has since died. Maybe every ministry has a seasonal life cycle. Even if our own program withers, the fruits of our labor will have a lasting impact, just as Paul’s work is impacting you and me right now. Jesus’ non-parasitic mentality led him to the cross—and that changed everything.
God’s grace will continuously nudge us toward practically embracing Jesus’ selfless mentality and attitudes as we get honest with our own motivations and recommit to our “first love.”