Pastor, beware of subtle self-promotion
There is far more at stake with the issue of self-promotion than whether you should use postcards or social media to tell people about your ministry. A heart bent on self-promotion will keep a person from believing in Jesus for salvation.
Before I went to seminary, I served for nearly five years as a youth pastor. On a semi-regular basis I would receive mail—typically oversized postcards—from men my age who were offering their services to my youth group. They were self-appointed Christian speakers who would be willing, for a fee, to speak at our retreats and summer camps.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but these 8.5-by-11 flyers just didn’t seem like a fitting way for young men to inform others of their ministry. This kind of self-promotion seemed out of place for servants of a Master who often turned down opportunities of self-promotion for the sake of the mission (see Matt. 9:30; 12:16; Mark 1:43-44; Luke 4:35).
These days, the venue for ministerial self-promotion isn’t a glossy postcard but a carefully-curated Twitter account. But we need to return to this issue of self-promotion because so many pastors and ministers appear to be walking lock-step with a trend the Bible so clearly discourages.
Pastoral Ministry and Self-Promotion
The Proverbs, for example, speak directly to the temptation to promote self in two primary ways. First, the Proverbs extol diligence rather than self-promotion as a pathway to leadership and recognition. We are told that, “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” (Prov. 12:24). God has designed the world in such a way that diligence in one’s tasks will lead, most of the time, to some measure of recognition. “Do you see a man skillful in his work?” Solomon asks. “He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Prov. 22:29).
But the second way the Proverbs deal with our tendency to promote ourselves is by discouraging the practice altogether. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov. 25:6-7). Note here the direct contrast with what we just saw in the previous verses. In Proverbs 12:14 and 22:29 there was a natural, unforced path to leadership and recognition. But in Proverbs 25:6-7, the person who thrusts himself into the place of honor is rebuffed because he might find himself vulnerable to public disgrace.
But the recognition of which Solomon speaks is not gained by self-promotion, but by diligence. The person who now enjoys the privilege of leadership and standing before kings has worked steadily to hone his craft to a point where his work is worthy of significant distinction.
That is why the Proverbs tell us, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov. 27:2). Even though self-promotion is viewed in many work environments as a non-negotiable key to success, the truth is that no one really likes it when their colleague is the one indulging the habit. The same can be said when a pastor is found tooting his own horn.
As shepherds, we may be regularly tempted to judge our usefulness on the number of opportunities we receive from outside our local church and grow discontent that we are only speaking to our own congregation each week. We may begin to expect others to recognize our teaching abilities and find it strange—even offensive—when we are not invited to speak at various conferences. Our discontent, if left unchecked, will eventually lead us to indulge in the unfitting practice of self-promotion and self-invitation.
Spurgeon and self-promotion
Charles Spurgeon recognized this tendency among young preachers. He knew that young men in pastoral ministry would be distracted by grand thoughts of wide-influence and evangelical prestige from the calling to walk closely with Christ and shepherd those nearest to them. Spurgeon speaks straightforwardly to this kind of temptation in Lectures to My Students:
Be fit for your work, and you will never be out of it. Do not run about inviting yourselves to preach here and there; be more concerned about your ability than your opportunity, and more earnest about your walk with God than about either.
The sequence of Spurgeon’s instruction matches the biblical principles we’ve already observed. Forget about creating opportunities for yourself; rather, hone your craft and set yourself to labor diligently every day in the work the Lord has put before you. The opportunities will come later, as God sees fit. But at the root of your pastoral work will be a superior task: to walk closely with God through repentance, faith, and a well-ordered personal life that very few people see.
You may stumble at these statements. What about gospel-productivity? Don’t we have a treasure that we should spread far and wide? Yes, we should. But it is easy, especially for young ministers, to confuse zeal for the spread of the gospel with zeal for our ability to spread the gospel. It is no wonder that Paul does allow young converts to assume the role of elder: they are far too susceptible to the wiles of pride and a sense of self-importance (1 Tim. 3:6).
With regard to productivity, we often forget this key principle, stated by Spurgeon early in Lectures: “. . . we shall be likely to accomplish most when we are in the best spiritual condition.” In other words, concern yourself first with your walk with Jesus, and the productivity will come.
Remember: You are a servant
But even as we give ourselves to this kind of daily, quiet faithfulness, our underlying motive must be one of service. There is the possibility that even in our quiet faithfulness we are longing for the recognition of others, which is why we become bitter when we don’t get it (and finally resort to self-promotion).
But when the compelling motivation in all our work is to glorify Christ through serving others for their spiritual and temporal benefit, then when opportunities arise for leadership and wider influence, we will offer ourselves as servants to be used not as gifts to be adored, and we will be better able to see how we should—or if we should—put ourselves forward for some kind of work.
When opportunities arise, through prayer, the blessing of your elders, and the careful consideration of the strain it may place on your family, you may determine that it is a wise stewardship of your gifts to accept such an invitation. Or you may not. Either way, the driving motivation won’t be the advancement of your pastoral career, but the good of others, especially your own flock and your own family.
The general tenor of our life will be one of valuing diligence over self-promotion and trusting God to create for us opportunities for leadership and greater influence rather than trying to make those things happen on our own.
Don’t seek ultimate satisfaction in ministry
There will be many times, however, when we are not recognized for our work. For this reason, there must always be a deeper, more satisfying affection in our hearts that guides and grounds our pastoral labors. We must be satisfied in the glory of Jesus Christ and the joy of others more than our own advancement and recognition. Indeed, we cannot come to true faith in Jesus unless we are willing to give up our love-affair with the praise of men (John 5:44).
So, there is far more at stake with the issue of self-promotion than whether you should use postcards or social media to tell people about your ministry. A heart bent on self-promotion will keep a person from believing in Jesus for salvation. And although the perpetually self-promoting pastor may gain a measure of short-lived recognition on this earth, the King of the universe will someday instruct him to take the place of eternal dishonor (Prov. 25:6-7).
But if you are willing to humble yourself and give up your longing for people’s accolades, you will someday “hear another praise you and not your own mouth” (Prov 27:2). But this time it won’t be a stranger; it will be Jesus when he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23).
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.