By Dane Neufeld

The professional role of the pastor, like a number of other vocations, is formally defined by certain moral standards, one of which is that the pastor should be unselfish and look to the needs of his people. This will come as no surprise to anyone – a pastor is called according to the ministry of Jesus himself, who gave up his life for the world.

This is unlike many other jobs, which require an employee to perform a certain set of functions which are perhaps beyond the personal interests of the employee, but need not be done in any particularly selfless or sacrificial sense. However, anyone hoping for career advancement will see performing tasks which may be otherwise unrelated to their interests — banking, mining, construction, selling products — as deeply intertwined with their own aspirations.

Whether or not one’s job is defined by a moral commitment to being unselfish, career advancement seems to be a universal aspiration, including among pastors. This is why is it very difficult for pastors to be unselfish in their roles, which are already defined unselfishly, because it is possible for a pastor to pursue her own personal interests by performing well in an unselfish role.


I learned this early in my adult life when I worked for an NGO in a disaster zone in southeast Asia. Initially, it seemed to me that people who travel half way across the world to help other people who are in distress, must somehow be extraordinarily unselfish and giving. On the contrary, I met many normal selfish people, pursing all kinds of interests that were unrelated to altruism, interests that manifested themselves in cutthroat office politics, bitter rivalry between agencies, and rather indulgent after hours recreational lives. Still, most people who were there managed to do some meaningful things for people in need.

In the end, I had to confront this in myself: yes, I wanted to help others, but I also wanted an adventure, I wanted to appear in a certain way to people back home, I wanted stories to tell, all while getting paid in the process. As Pascal observed, under the rubrics of pride: “We would never travel by sea if it meant never talking about it.” (Pensées, 77) Of course, someone’s generosity created my position, and sometimes I performed it generously, sometimes not. But it seemed obvious then, and it does now, that working for a humanitarian organization does not, in itself, make one an unselfish person. Like pastoral ministry, it actually risks concealing a more subliminal and spiritual self-interest.

My friends and I used to make fun of glossy-faced pastors who enthusiastically shook our hands after services, with one eye already scanning over our shoulders looking for someone else to talk to. But I understand now the nature of this temptation. The relative success of a church is intimately bound up with the self-perception of a pastor, such that corporate, individual and spiritual interests become difficult to separate. Perhaps there is a sort of invisible divine hand at work that allows a pastor to work diligently for the benefit of a church, while serving his own benefit as well. At some level this is desirable, to find satisfaction and joy in one’s work. But as always there is razor’s edge at the heart of our desire, and only the pastor can know whom she is serving.

What Iris Murdoch, taking her cues from Freud, cautioned about concerning certain artistic endeavors, could be applied to pastors and churches as well: “art is the fantasy life of the artist stimulating the fantasy life of the client, with the factitious ‘work of art’ lying ‘overlooked’ between them as a sort of disguised bribe” (Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 20). Murdoch accepts that there are worse things than finding solace or pleasure in that which is a little less than the truth, but overcoming egoism, in whatever context, requires a certain form of attention: “There are innumerable points at which we have to detach ourselves, to change our orientation, to redirect our desire and refresh and purify our energy, to keep on looking in the right direction: to attend upon grace that comes through faith (ibid., 25).”

Many of today’s churches are heavily invested in the image-curation and constant self-definition that is required to become distinguished within a crowd. This might be fine if it helps to clarify a church’s direction and purpose, but it can also become narcissistic and self-congratulatory. The pastor and congregation can engage in a cycle of continual and willful self-delusion, each participating and supporting the agreed upon fantasies that inspire and hold together whatever qualities they need to uphold a certain self image. Thus we have churches who market themselves as being intelligent, nuanced, intellectually honest, artistic, cultured, welcoming, vibrant – all of which may be true or not, all of which may be good or not, but all of which may very well overstate the particular virtues of any one church.

St. Paul acknowledged that “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry… selfish ambition, but others from good will” (Phil 1:15). Remarkably, he concluded “But what does it matter?… that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; in that I rejoice”  (Phil 1:18). St. Paul certainly does not recommend bad motives, but he rejoices that the ministry of the gospel can carry on regardless, even in the mortal and selfish hands of its ministers. To be sure, all pastors are sinful and selfish people, but Paul does say it is possible to carry out our ministry with goodwill and love for Christ, even if it is not inevitable that this will be so.

After six years of ordained ministry I am beginning to see that this does require a certain amount of attention. There are a thousand compromises we are tempted to make in order to appease this person, to impress another and to attract those who have not yet come. We are tempted to overlook those who do not figure in our larger plans, and to dote on those who are critical to them. It is difficult to not allow vanity to cloud our judgment and influence our decisions. We can grow sullen when church attendance slips and gleeful when it rises, but not necessarily in accordance with the welfare of the gospel, but with our own precarious fate as people in need of affirmation. The ordained ministry presents us with outsized ambitions and exposes us to incredible insecurities, what Michael Ramsay called the trivial humiliations of ministry. The struggle to remain faithful amidst these pressures is considerable.

That we will be selfish in our ministry is probable, that we can be selfless is possible and worthy of our aspiration. The formal requirements of the role itself require some sacrifice, but there is a deeper form of love and service to which we are called over time. Indeed, most pastors will have examples to whom we aspire, those who have gone before us and shown us what it is means to love and serve with the heart of Christ. St. Paul himself was able to say: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:8).” To be able to say these words with simplicity and truth would seem like a miracle, which is the very thing we need.

Many people in the pews will spend their professional lives in competitive and ambitious environments that can be exhilarating but also exhausting and oppressive. As pastors, continually asking God to empty ourselves of these desires, to guard our hearts and actions from selfish ambition, is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our people.

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the rector of All Saints Fort McMurray

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the incumbent of St. James, Calgary.

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