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One day I came home early. I had piles of work on my desk in the church office but had promised myself and my wife, Cheri, I would spend some “quality time” with my 6-year-old son, Kyle. Quality time for Kyle sometimes meant watching cartoons with him, and today that was just what I needed—some vegetative TV watching.

I plopped myself next to him on the couch. And then I noticed that I was really tired. But not just physically; I was tired of ministry and the kind of life it seemed to require of me. I was preaching, teaching and creating programs about living the Christian life and getting to heaven, but I was living in what seemed like a kind of hell on Earth.

I had grown up a pastor’s kid, and time spent at church or in ministry activities often edged out time at home. I was now modeling to my family what I had been shown as the right way to serve the church and God. Consequently, Cheri and I were having arguments about how I was spending my time. Too many nights out each week, long hours and preoccupation with ministry were not what she had signed up for when saying, “I do.”

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was pursuing a twisted idea of success, not in the secular forms I regularly preached against but in the sanctified activism and workaholism often seen in professional ministry. A growing church—defined mostly by higher attendance at church services, more and more programs, and bigger budgets and buildings—was the mark of a successful ministry in the clergy circles I ran with.

More often than not, at denominational conferences the conversation would soon turn to church attendance figures or building programs. A subtle form of ambition seemed just below the surface of our desire to grow our ministries. Although uneasy with the practice, I often found myself comparing my age and the size of my congregation with my father’s at the same age. At 30, my father had 1,000 at worship. I had 500. I lose—both at ministry and family.

So on that day, while vegging out with little Kyle at my side, a jolting question broke the drone of the TV. Without even looking at me, he asked, “Dad, are you home yet?”

Facing the Facts

I didn’t quite know how to answer his question. It reminded me of my wife’s complaints of how absent or distant I had been to her. His question shined a searchlight on what I had excused as my spiritual duty.

The life I was living had become deformed and driven. I was standing at the center of an orbit that was spinning out of control and about to split in a million directions, fueled by just as many good intentions.

Part of my journey involved facing my own brokenness and rebellion in my family and in the church. At that time, Cheri was working through family secrets and dysfunctions with the help of a 12-step group. We both took a test in the first chapter of the book we were reading. To my surprise, my family of origin, a family of upstanding evangelical professional workers, was just as dysfunctional as Cheri’s!

I found that there were many professional and lay ministers in the same situation. We are “performers” who please the “consumers” and miss the fact that most of the sheep need more than our religious goods and services and the dream of our organizational success.

Once I had come to see that my everyday life was in need of transformation and that my spiritual life was not the same as my religious activities, I encountered some woundedness that lay below the surface of my life. These below-the-surface issues needed to be addressed if my life was to be transformed rather than just dressed up in another form of the double life called spiritual formation.

Working Toward Freedom

As I began to face these issues in my life, marriage and family, as well as my family of origin, I found the same issues in my church’s systems, especially in my leaders and in some of the congregation. There were those who looked good and yet had the subtle issues that I also had.

Performance at its worst is concerned with “what it looks like” and not what is going on in people’s hearts. It attempts to shape worship or church in general to “attract” people to God and the gospel. It does just the opposite. It betrays a self-centered and ego-driven worship of ourselves.

I began to make the connection to ungodly ambition when I noticed how pastors, me included, compare attendance figures as a measure of our ministry success. This ambition influences many church ministry plans and is fueled not by reliance on God but by making something happen through our own power. Rushing from one service to the other, timing the sermon to within 30 seconds of a production deadline and carefully crafting each word on experiencing the “peace of Jesus” is more than good preparation, it is trying too hard for God, not resting in His power.

Our church has had plenty of members with obvious problems such as sex, alcohol or drug addictions. But they didn’t seem as bad as the habitual gossips, control freaks or those with nasty tempers—the subtle problems, often masked in false holiness, which keep churches in dysfunction.

And workaholism didn’t even count as a problem, especially if it was the pastor’s problem. My ambition, which fueled so much of my frenzied activity, remained hidden to me until I began to question the direction of my life.

I discovered that my identity reflected a wound that was both unrecognized and unhealed. Through counseling and spiritual direction, I came to see that my true identity is not found in the performance masks I put on but in Christ and His grace.

Adapted from Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs by Keith Meyer, copyright 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed in any form. For more information on Whole Life Transformation, visit the publisher’s website.

author of Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs