Kevin Pfleger is a Boise, Idaho native who loves to travel and enjoys running and playing indoor soccer. He has one wife, three kids, and two dogs. He loves Leading Saints and supports the organization’s mission to elevate Church leadership.
When examining the dynamics of pride and power in Church leadership, I think there are degrees of ambition and power-seeking, from the ignorant and innocent to willful and unrighteous. This article is meant to give us time to consider the intentions of our heart when it comes to our preparations to best serve wherever we are needed in the vineyard.
What Does Priestcraft Look Like Today?
The extreme of this continuum would be priestcraft. In 2 Nephi 26:29, we are given a clear definition of priestcraft,
“that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not for the welfare of Zion.”
I like dissecting this scripture to learn more about what constitutes priestcraft and what does not. The problem, as indicated in this verse, is not that men set themselves up to be a light unto the world, but that they do it to get gain.
We are supposed to hold ourselves up as a light unto the world, even encouraged to do so in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
We are not a light to be held up as a replacement for Christ, but as a gateway to Christ. Like a moth is drawn to a candle’s flame, only to then catch sight of the Son.
The problem of course, as indicated in this same verse of scripture, is that these religious leaders “who set themselves up for a light” are doing so to “get gain and praise of the world.”
I see no major issue with those seeking to serve with the intention to receive heavenly gain, hone and perfect leadership qualities that will make her or him a better leader in the future. It is not wrong to seek the praise of God. God may not sound a celebratory trumpet for you at the end of your calling but may confirm to you in the solace of your reflection and prayers that, regarding your service: “it is enough.”
If serving with the intention to get gain and praise of God is not to be condemned, then what is? The scripture in Nephi says that such gain and praise become unrighteous when we seek them from the world. But what does worldly gain from leadership look like today in a modern congregation? Perhaps a local bishop markets himself or his business, selling his wares from the pulpit. Or a Relief Society president may be a successful real estate agent or financial professional. She kindles goodwill among the women of the ward knowing they may make fine future clients! This would be explicit and literal personal “gain” and financial enrichment.
The “praise of the world” that is to be avoided by leaders in the Church may look like a young men’s leader who sells himself to his boys as a friend, telling them of his past misdeeds to engender misguided admiration or praise from them.
A member of the bishopric may love the attention and all-eyes-on-him while conducting meetings. A bishop may see to it that the members of his ward have great experiences with him but not necessarily with the Spirit. He wants the participants in one of his famous firesides to remember him and what he said, lives for the comments in the hall, “another great talk bishop!” Now we may all fall into one of these traps every once in a while, but when we do, we ought to recognize it and do better.
One final insight from the scripture that indicates priestcraft is that “men preach…themselves.” We ought not preach the gospel according to yours truly, but rather talk and preach of Christ. Don’t draw people to you, lead them to Christ.
Ambition in Church Leadership: A Case Study
I want to share some experiences from my mission in hopes that they may have greater application to ambition and leadership outside the mission field. I want the reader to ponder the questions I ask and try to examine their own behaviors and motivations in their leadership. I ask a lot of questions of my behavior in the experience I share but don’t really make an effort to answer them. This is intentional. I am more interested in inviting contemplation and commentary from others. Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments section below this article. I would love to hear what other church leaders think about the subject.
Seeking to Be the Best Leader
Within only a few months of arriving in the mission field in Phoenix, Arizona, I met with one of the assistants to the president one-on-one. He was someone I looked up to, a hard-working, successful missionary. During our short meeting, he told me that I would one day be where he is, that I would be an Assistant to the President (AP).
To many missionaries, a calling to serve with and assist the mission president directly represents the pinnacle of mission leadership and is a great honor. I was thrilled by this seemingly prophetic pronouncement and I worked hard towards that end.
I was an obedient, hard-working missionary. I learned and grew as a missionary and as a leader. I became a District Manager, then a Zone Leader. I enjoyed these leadership opportunities and saw them as steppingstones to a potential future call as an AP.
When I was only a few transfers away from leaving the mission field I fully expected to receive the call from the mission president extending a call to serve with him as an assistant. It was determined that the calling would be made during the mission-wide Christmas party. After a gift exchange, food and Disney movie, our mission president gathered everyone to announce the newly called AP.
I was worried and anxious. I hadn’t been notified by the mission president that I would be called. But maybe this is how it’s done, I mused. When he announced who the new AP would be, I was devastated, it wasn’t me. But I was also thrilled because the newly called assistant was a good friend of mine and companion from the Missionary Training Center. I knew he would make an excellent AP. But honestly, I was emotionally gutted. I had been working towards a goal my whole mission and it seemed that goal would not be met.
I was upset I wasn’t called but also felt deep shame that I felt this way. Why couldn’t I simply be happy for my friend and trust in the judgment of my mission president, knowing the call came from the Lord? I think this story provides a great example of the problems and pitfalls of ambition in the church and seeking after callings.
Time Well Spent
In terms of pride and ambition, I wondered about the assistant to the president that had told me I would one day be called to serve in the same calling. Being young, barely 20 years old, I doubt I ever would have sought after such a calling without this well-intentioned missionary seeking to motivate and inspire me.
Was this prior assistant to the president those many months before wrong to share with me his feeling that I would be an AP in some future day? Was he wrong to say anything? Was he wrong to share the impression I would serve as an AP considering the calling was not his to make and wouldn’t be made until many months after he had left the mission field? Or was his comment a fantastic presumption to make because it made me work really hard and seek to be worthy of such a calling? And was I wrong to fixate on that goal and seek to achieve it? Or was I prideful to ever seek this calling, regardless of my mission leader’s impression?
At the end of it all, I think we can all agree that whether I served as an assistant to the president, really doesn’t matter. It didn’t determine my success as a missionary or define me as future leader in the church. But I think these things have important application to leadership in the church. Is it wrong to seek callings in the church? Is it wrong to show ambition and seek for leadership?
Looking Beyond the Mark?
I once served in the bishopric of a student ward. Because of the transience at this time of my life, I only served for six months before I left the ward for summer employment. I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed seeing the administrative workings of a ward and enjoyed the machinations of the Spirit as the bishopric counseled together, extended callings and discussed the needs of the ward members.
Perhaps because the calling was so short-lived, I have secretly hoped for such a calling again. Inwardly, I have told myself that this ambition is not wrong, after all, doesn’t a calling to serve in such a capacity show that God has some measure of satisfaction in who you are and the life you lead? Doesn’t it show that God thinks you can do some good in the world and welcomes your input and capabilities in lifting those around you? That’s what I tell myself, but is that simply pride? Each time I am in a ward where the bishopric is reorganized, I feel a little let down that I was not included to serve in the bishopric. What is wrong with me Lord, that makes me an unsuitable candidate? What about myself needs to be changed to be a better candidate for such a calling? And perhaps that I ask these questions at all disqualifies me for service. Too much pride, too much ambition, too much looking beyond the mark.
Understanding our Motivations
The consequences of pride and ambition in leadership depend on the underlying motivation for those feelings. Consider these two scenarios – a young man feels that he should prepare himself for church leadership. If he is honest with himself, he does not want to be a bishop, but feels God would like him to serve. He keeps the commandments, he serves faithfully in his callings, he even reads leadership books and biographies of the prophet and apostles in an effort to learn from them and emulate their lives. He becomes bishop. Has his ambition and preparation helped prepare him for service? Did these same actions somehow tarnish his service?
Another young man feels he should prepare himself for church leadership. If he is honest with himself, he wants to serve and feels he would be good at it. He has been waiting for a calling such as this. He is smart, ambitious, and hardworking. He feels the Lord needs someone like him to labor in the vineyard. He serves faithfully in other callings but anxiously awaits the call to serve in a more prominent position in the church. He becomes bishop. Has his ambition and preparation qualified him for service? Have these same actions somehow tarnished his service?
In the second scenario, are this young man’s ambition and desire to serve inappropriate? If you ask five women or men, you will get five different answers. I think opinions will vary. The issue for some will be that he wants to serve. He welcomes the call to serve, not shies away from it. Is this lack of modesty a problem? Is it an issue that he knows his self-perceived worth as a leader?
I am one who enjoys speaking in church. I enjoy teaching lessons or sharing a message at a fireside. I love the calling I have now but would welcome additional responsibility and opportunities to lead. I am unsure if this could fall under ambition, pride or priestcraft.
Willing to Serve Where Needed
Let this be our prayer: Dear God, keep me from pride and vain ambition. Help me to “be content with the things which [thou] hath allotted unto me.” When thou needest help and calls for a laborer in thy vineyard, help me to be still, to be silent and not cry out in the pride of my heart, “Is it I?”