The Ambition that Kills Us

Several years ago, my pastor reflected on what he believed to be the most pernicious temptation for those in ministry. He did not mention sex scandals, financial impropriety or theological heresy. Rather, his prime concern was one word: ambition. The desire to achieve, to build a movement or grow a church or be revered as a leader with real savvy — all these seductions are particularly vexing because they appear so noble. If a pastor siphons church funds to build a vacation home in Miami or pursues a string of affairs with parishioners, these transgressions are easy to rebuke. So long as the church grows and the stats trend upward, however, the scenario fits our Western model of inevitable spiritual progression and, because of this, resists deeper discernment.

Yet we do have cues indicating how we pastors have surrendered our calling. If a pastor always has to have the first (or final) word…if a pastor always pushes for more, for bigger and faster — and never encourages anyone to slow down… if a pastor never has time for a slow, meaningful conversation…if a pastor never exits preaching-mode…if a pastor induces fear or nervousness or icky-reverence but never kinship… if a pastor never trembles before a text or quotes a line of poetry or offers those immensely spiritual words: “I don’t know.”… if a pastor never says “I love you” in ways that do not manipulate but come tender and flow deep into your soul… if a pastor’s ego fills up every room he enters…

I highlight pastors because our errors seem particularly egregious and especially difficult to call out. However, similar things could be said for those of us who are writers, for entrepreneurs, for plumbers, for teachers, for PTA members, for any of us who are consumed by the greed for accolades, driven by the lust for successful performance. Whenever achievement is our end, then our end will ruin us. And it will wound all those in our path.

A publisher once asked Thomas Merton to write a piece on the “The Secret of Success,” and he refused. “If I had a message to my contemporaries,” Merton wrote, “it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…”

I don’t entirely understand how to parse this. It is not as though failure is a preferred virtue. I suspect, however, that we intuitively know what Merton means. We know, in our age of unbridled ambition, how this way of being in the world rakes our soul bare. We know the pride and the vaunted hubris. We know that it wearies us. We know that we want something better.