When “Christian Ambition” Fades

By on August 9, 2017

I was in a room with a bunch of young pastors-in-training, and commented to a friend that I could feel the testosterone in the air even though there were a number of women present.

“That’s not testosterone you’re sensing,” he told me. “It’s ambition.”

As I observed the body language among the group (so many firm two-handed handshakes!), and listened to snatches of conversation, I realized my friend was right. Many of those in the room were anxious to impress the others around them, and demonstrate that they were in God’s flow of things, building lives and ministries and reputations. My perception was that this room didn’t have much space for failure or insecurity

A raft of booksmagazinesseminarsconferences and even degree programs – content offered by business leaders and faith leaders alike – coach Christian leaders how to productively channel their own ambitions. Though the relationship between ambition and ministry is of great importance from the standpoint of spiritual formation and church health (see this and this), my ongoing interest in the shifts that happen at midlife has me considering what happens when the ambitions that fuel building our first-half lives fade and mellow into a drive to create meaning as we move into our second adulthoods.

Not all ambitions fade away, of course. And some who are chronologically mature may be landlocked at a “younger” (not in a good way) stage of spiritual growth.

But overall, I notice a gentling of ambition taking place in myself and among many of my age peers. It’s less about making a name for ourselves, and more about passing on what we’ve learned.

I remember feeling as though I was attending auditions when I began attending a couple of different churches when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I didn’t want to be ignored when I felt I had something to offer to others. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be used to ignite life change in others. I really did want to do these things for the Lord’s sake, because of the way he wired and gifted me. But to be perfectly honest, there was also some Michelle ambition in Christian-y packaging at play. God can use us even as we have weeds-growing-with-wheat selfish ambitions at play in our lives, even as he asks us to cooperate with him by telling the truth about ourselves in order to eradicate them. I’m not sure I could have made the distinction between wheat and weeds back then. The crisis of entering my second adulthood has sharpened my powers of observation in this regard, and I am grateful.

Midlife is meant to help us recognize, repent from and repurpose those weeds. They make great compost.

If you’re near, at or beyond midlife, have you recognized a shift in your drive to build your life and reputation? If so, how has this shift changed the way you live and approach the ministry God has given you to do?  


Photo by Karsten Würth (@inf1783) on Unsplash


Dena Dyer

August 9, 2017 @ 18:36


I definitely have felt this mellowing lately–as my husband has. At 47 and 46, we find ourselves wanting to pour into others and give back in our own community, instead of focusing on promoting our work or our gifts. I’m glad you addressed this.


August 10, 2017 @ 14:07


Thanks, Dena! I’m learning that those ambitions help us build our lives during the first half, but definitely change form and focus as we hit our second adulthoods. 🙂
– Michelle

Jeannie Prinsen

August 11, 2017 @ 20:13


This definitely spoke to me. I could relate to your remarks about not wanting to be overlooked and wanting to be seen as someone with a lot to offer; I had similar feelings. That has changed. Several years ago I was greatly affected by a Christianity Today review of a book by James D Hunter (I don’t recall its title at the moment) that emphasized his belief that “faithful presence” is key — not trying to change the culture, but just embodying faithful presence. Since then I have tried to live out of that calling rather than striving to be noticed and successful. It is difficult, but it is also an easy yoke — if it’s possible for both of those to be true simultaneously.


August 24, 2017 @ 10:47


You got me. With the title that feels like a description of a growing number of my days, you captured my attention. I still have times I don’t want to be “overlooked” and feeling I am in favor of younger, hipper ones in ministry. In that way, little has changed 😉 But those times are giving way to being more thoughtful of purpose and meaning. I’m starting to like this. So glad you talked about this subject. It’s playing out in front of me every day.

Michelle Van Loon

August 24, 2017 @ 17:43


Thanks, Debby!

This is one of those things that highlights the subtle impact our youth-oriented culture has in many congregations. May the Lord continue to guide you to places of greater purpose and meaning. – Michelle

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