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The shadow impulse

The shadow impulse

A key part of leadership is not just doing the work of ministry but also multiplying the work of ministry. Lots of factors can hinder this, from a lack of available and reliable people to our own lack of skills and competence. But perhaps the biggest single factor is what I call the shadow impulse.

Many of us have within us a driving impulse to get involved in ministry in our churches and out in the world that goes something like, “I want to see people loved and cared for, helped, converted, grown and trained to follow Jesus with everything they’ve got through being taught and ministered to”. This is a good thing.

But what sometimes happens is a shadow impulse creeps in, eats away, and replaces the original impulse. The shadow impulse goes something like this: “I want to see people loved and cared for, helped, converted, grown and trained to follow Jesus with everything they’ve got through being taught and ministered to by me”.

It’s so sneakily subtle. You might not have even noticed the difference the first time you read it. When those two little monosyllabic words are added, the normal ministry impulse transforms into something absolutely insidious. While it may seem innocuous enough, in reality it eats away at people’s hearts and chokes churches and ministries by hindering multiplication. When I’m passionate about people being helped and grown because of my ministry and conversations and preaching, the shadow impulse restricts my ministry to what only I can do.

From the outside it looks identical to a healthy ministry impulse. No-one would even realize the difference. I’m still passionate about people, the lost, serving, preaching, seeing people helped and cared for, and people growing as disciples who make disciples. All the things I need to be passionate about. Plus I do all the things that you might think I should be doing. I’m working really hard, maybe relentlessly. If I’m not on the paid staff, I might even be working more fervently than the rest of the people involved in the ministry—maybe even harder than the minister!

Not only will it be hard for someone else to spot, but even I might not be able to notice the difference, since all the things I’m passionate about and that I’m involved in are good things.

But if you scratch a bit deeper you’ll find that I’m not just passionate to see them happen. I’m passionate about me being the one to do them and, often unknowingly—although not always—I’m specifically passionate that I do them and that you don’t.

We know we need to multiply ministry and equip each other., and the shadow impulse sucks the oxygen out of multiplying ministry and begins to restrict it to the amount that I can personally handle and control.

Where does it come from?

Now where does this shadow impulse come from? In one sense it doesn’t come from anywhere: the shadow impulse is just an outworking of pride, and pride is already present in everyone’s heart. The question’s not “Is it in me?”—it is. The more important question is: are you aware of it and how loud is it?

The ministry and the shadow impulses are two very similar, though slightly different, songs playing at the same time in your heart. The louder the volume is on one of them then the more you sing along with your life. The more you sing along with your life, the louder the volume continues to grow. How loud is the volume on your shadow impulse?

One of the chief ways that the shadow impulse gets louder is when we accidentally tie who we are with what we do. If the ministry is successful, I am successful. The ministry then becomes an extension of who I am as a person. This is dangerous territory for our own personal spiritual health, but also because it encourages the shadow impulse. Giving away my ministry to others means I’m also eroding my identity and diminishing my own sense of worth—of course I’ll want to keep ministry to myself rather than giving it away and multiplying it.

Early detection

The shadow impulse is hard to detect, as it’s not about what we know but about what we do, but here are a few diagnostic questions:

  • Are you just as happy when people praise someone else for their sermon as you are when they praise you?
  • Are you just as thrilled when you hear about someone becoming a Christian or taking a big step of faith because of what someone else did as you are when it’s someone you ministered to?
  • Do you tell stories of other people’s ministry successes and achievements just as much as you tell your own?
  • When you have some ministry success and people give the credit accidentally to someone else, do you correct them? Why?
  • Are you trying to release as much ministry to others as you can, or are you trying to keep control of as much as you can?

If some or all of these questions are challenging for you, then the shadow impulse is probably threatening the volume of the ministry impulse.

The antidote to the shadow impulse is the same as that for all manifestations of pride: acknowledgment, humility before God, and prayer for help and strength. Then block your ears to the shadow impulse and take steps to share your ministry with others—get those multiplying mechanisms happening!

Craig Hamilton

Craig became a Christian in junior high school and thinks Jesus is easily the most impressive person he has ever met. He’s passionate about serving alongside and equipping teams, and is the author of Wisdom in Leadership and Made Man.