Can Ambition Ever Be a Virtue?

I’ve been thinking about ambition a great deal lately. Partly, that’s my own personal introspection. And, partly, there have been a few interesting articles on the subject lately.

Bishop Schnase wrote on Ambition in Ministry in the recent Circuit Rider. And Out of Ur has published another article linked to Leadership Journal entitled The Ambition Engine. And fellow blogger John Meunier has posted on the subject as well here: Obedience Over Ambition.

The first two are mostly expressing the same basic idea that ambition can be both good or bad depending on the motivations and circumstances behind it while John clearly wishes to express a different view.

I find myself leaning in John’s direction.

I understand what Bishop Schnase in particular is trying to articulate. As pastors, we are all motivated by something. It may be noble or it may be selfish. But, if we do anything worthwhile, we must be motivated by something powerful enough to move us into action.

Unmotivated pastors simply coast on others achievements, add little new to the mix, and hope for a peaceful ride until retirement when they can continue to do more of nothing. We have too many of these pastors already. We don’t need more.

Motivated pastors, on the contrary, are focused, energetic, and hard-working. They have a vision and a passion, and they strive to accomplish things that may or may not work out. But at least they tried. To try and fail is not a great sin. The effort in itself was worth something. And often we hit what we aim at. We need more of these motivated pastors. They are too rare a breed.

However, I hesitate to call that motivation “ambition.” Ambition in the Bible is almost always motivated by selfish desires. It is always interested in what advances my personal interests, what makes me look good, what makes me happy. It is not focused on what God wants or on what is best for others. Ambition is nearly always about me. And that’s the source of its problem.

So, can ambition ever be a virtue? I have a hard time seeing it. Think about it for a moment. Can a person ever really be ambitious and humble at the same time? From my perspective, the answer is “no.” Ambition and humility are opposites. There is no real harmony between them.

What then do we call this nobler motivation that fuels our actions as pastors and Christian leaders? I think the word we may be looking for is aspiration, not ambition.

I aspire to do what God calls me to do. I am ambitious to do what makes me look good and feel good. I aspire to be faithful and obedient. I am ambitious to be successful and acclaimed. I aspire to be holy and loving. I am ambitious to be thought of as holy and loving.

These are two very different things. And the only difference between them is the source of our motivation. Is it a noble, even godly motivation? Or is it a selfish motivation? If it’s noble, I aspire toward it. If it’s selfish, I am ambitious. To say otherwise is to confuse our language, I think.

So, while I understand where Bishop Schnase is going, I am afraid I have to disagree. Ambition is not a proper virtue for pastors. Ambition may yield bigger churches, but it will do so at the cost of integrity and character at some point. After all, if I am ambitious, all I care about is the bottom line.

Less ambition, more aspiration. Holy striving, godly zealousness. That’s my take, at least. What’s yours?

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2 responses to “Can Ambition Ever Be a Virtue?

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