Climbing the Ladder

Editor’s Note:
This piece was originally posted at Elizabeth’s blog,

Someone from my church recently asked me what my career aspirations where after this job. I was a taken aback by the questioning and then began to answer with statements like, “I know I am in the place where I am to be for now. I will be the pastor of this church for as long as my leadership is beneficial both to me and the congregation.”

The funny thing about these questions was that it was assumed that I would want to be the head of a larger denominational organization at some point in the future or that I would want to go to a bigger church. Assumed.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Corporate ideas of success have truly invaded the mindset of the church and those who work therein. Success for pastors = bigger church/organization, more influential church, more prestige, higher pay.

When I go to religious conferences where I’m mingling with people I don’t know, a common conversation starter is: “How many members do you have? What is your average worship attendance? What do you think your next career move will look like?”

I’ve always gotten a little itch when such questioning begins.  By participating in answering such questions it assumes that I am ok with the climbing-the-ladder game.  It is as if I’m giving my approval to the bigger church = more success mentality.

Once when I told a new “friend” that the worshipping attendance of the church I serve is under 100 folks, the look on his face said it all. His jaw dropped. His eyebrows raised. And, most notably a smirk formed in his smile. I knew at this point, I was no longer worth his time in conversation. I must not be doing something right if I had not already “arrived” at a church of larger membership.

To change all of this nonsense, what if we began to ask questions of acquaintances and friends such as: where in your life do you find joy? What activities fill your home with laughter and happiness? What do you most hope to contribute to the world at the end of your life?  

I think if we oriented ourselves and our questions of others in this way, we might be more accepting of our internal stirrings, even if they didn’t follow the traditional mold of “climbing the ladder.” We’d just be so happy to recognize joy in others that we’d want more of it in our life as well.

Conversations at pastor’s conferences might be less about “What is the size of your church?” and more about “how are things with you?”

I believe that healthy church communities are grounded by emotionally, spiritually and physically healthy pastors. Healthy pastors are made when they are given the freedom to move and breathe and find their being in God. Pastors stay in the ministry longer when their joy comes not only in their work, not only others’ opinions about them, but when it flows out of their authentic being which is usually not found when one is obsessed with climbing the ladder.

Join me in putting down the ladder . . . at least for today.

9 replies
  1. Erica Schemper
    Erica Schemper says:

    In the thick of kick off week preparations for the staffed model, on the largish size church where I am, I am so tempted by a slightly smaller or even much smaller congregation. I know it comes with its own version of busy (I grew up in the parsonage of one of those sorts of churches). But that busy is really tempting when you’re facing down a season of kick off meetings for every possible ministry area, volumes of handouts and booklets to produce and distribute to make sure everyone’s got all the programming information in 3 different forms so they remember it, more and more evening meetings so that more and more and more programatic planning can happen, etc.
    Sometimes I think I will be called to downsize as a career goal. Because when people ask me what my career goal is in ministry, the real root answer for me is, “To do this work for another 35 years.” In other words, not to burn out!

  2. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    Thank you for this essay! I find great joy in my role of part-time pastor for a small congregation.
    My first ministry role was as a youth pastor, and I am particularly discouraged by the attitude in so many churches that serving as youth pastor is merely a stepping stone to being a “real” minister. Youth ministry is as real as it gets.
    Thanks be to God for the variety of ministries within the church and for the variety of ministers called to serve.

  3. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    I’m with Joanna (and the author). Certainly I cannot say “I will never go to a larger church/move up the ‘ladder.'” And it sure would be nice if I were making more money after ten years of ministry experience, seven of it as an ordained pastor. (Would the dynamic you describe be lessened if we had more of an across-the-board pay scale, like churches in Canada?)
    But I am really loving small church, part-time ministry and feel fortunate to be able to pursue it.
    I sometimes miss the resources of a large church but I do not miss the crushing administrivia and the endless programmatic details.
    And Elizabeth… we oughta get together! I’m just down the road in Falls Church.

  4. Emily
    Emily says:

    Like Erica, my goal is to be able to do this work that I love for another 35 years.
    Love your questions Elizabeth. Thanks for the article!

  5. elizabeth
    elizabeth says:

    Thanks, friends for your feedback on this. MaryAnn, we should get together!
    The notion I was trying to put out there was less about being in a church of small or large membership (though my current church is smaller; I am full-time and I am busy because I am always on call as the only pastor), and more about feeling content in whatever place of life we find ourselves. Bigger is not always better!

  6. says:

    This is a great article and I hate the competitiveness of these conferences, too. However, there is something in me that gets pushed down in this conversation: my ambition.
    I came out of a tradition where humility, especially in young women, was the ultimate value. I was schooled to suppress anything that even smelled of pride.
    I am now a priest in the Anglican church where we all learn very quickly that a priest is to immediately say, “I never want to be a bishop.” It’s humility. Heaven forbid we even consider being an archdeacon or bishop without first being asked, nay, begged to take on more authority. Any other reaction is considered arrogant.
    I have just moved from a small rural parish to a large urban parish, from being a rector to being a youth and children’s associate. I’ve gone one rung up and one rung down, some may say, certainly not me.
    In my former diocese, there was pressure on me to not be too happy about going to a larger church. But you know what? I am! I love having resources, financial and human. I love having diversity in my community. I love knowing I can take my youth group to the opera without having to organize an overnight trip. I love not having to beg or justify a cost of living raise. And I would hope for this for many churches.
    And you know, maybe, one day, I will be a bishop. Of a BIG diocese. I’m not afraid of that. And I am tired of being expected to make myself small so others who do not have confidence in their gifts can feel adequate.
    So, to sum up. Ambition is good. Competing with each other and oneupmanship, not so good.

  7. Beth
    Beth says:

    While this essay rings true to me, the above comments also ring true. I had to close a church (anti-success, you might say!) and since I had two young children at the time, people assumed that I wasn’t hurt by the closing because now I could be a mom. You know, as if I wasn’t before! I grieved the loss of the church but also was hurt by people’s assumptions that it didn’t mean that much to me; that my job is not as important because I’m a mom, that the failure did not hurt me as much, perhaps because I’m a woman and a mother.
    I love the work I do and I would never describe myself as climbing the ladder, but there’s nothing wrong with loving our jobs, with wanting to be the best we can be at them, with fighting for a “better” call if sexism/racism/other isms get in the way us going a place where we truly feel called.

  8. Katie Z.
    Katie Z. says:

    I am the only pastor at a small congregation. And I would be happy staying here for my whole career if the itinerant system would let me. To me, there is more value in putting down roots and growing in faith rather than necessarily in numbers or salary.


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