The Disturbing Temptations of Pastoring in Obscurity

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Leaving the limelight didn’t heal my pride; it only disguised it.

Gregory the Great, so tradition tells us, was a reluctant pope. Well-educated and from a wealthy family, Gregory experienced inner tension between his longing for the contemplative life and his sense of calling toward secular responsibilities. After converting to the monastic life and transforming his house into a monastery—the happiest years of his life—Gregory often was called into service of the church in public ways, including serving as Pope Pelagius II’s legate to Constantinople. When troubles gathered around Rome, Gregory was called from his monastic life to the city to help. Soon afterward, Pope Pelagius died of the plague sweeping through Rome at that time, and Gregory was elected to succeed him. Gregory tried to refuse the office, preferring his monastic life, but once elected, he accepted his duties faithfully and worked hard to serve God in his new position. The best leaders, according to the old proverb, are reluctant leaders.

Of course, as my own story shows, reluctance is not an inherently laudable trait.

My calling into pastoral ministry came when I was in high school, in a small Presbyterian church in the Mississippi River Valley of western Illinois. I hoped to be a music minister of some sort, though I wasn’t sure if churches hired people to do that. Following my internal inclinations and external affirmations toward pastoral ministry, I studied at a Christian college where my eyes were opened to some of the great ministry leaders of that time: Billy Graham, John Stott, Dallas Willard, John Piper, Elisabeth Elliott. Many of them spoke at my college. I prayed, God, use me however you want—even like these great women and men. I didn’t want to be a big deal in peoples’ …

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