There is a real temptation that pastors commonly face but rarely discuss—namely, vainglory. Although the term itself has fallen out of use, the temptation has not. Vainglory is the lust for human glory. It is a disordered desire for things like honor, esteem, praise, recognition, and approval. It is a subtle, hidden form of pride in which one longs for the regard of others. Ancient Christians spoke often of this vice, and they were refreshingly honest about the threat it posed to pastors in particular.
In the late sixth century, Gregory the Great wrote The Book of Pastoral Rule. Throughout the Middle Ages, this book was the standard guide for pastors on “the care of souls.” Strikingly, Gregory begins and ends his book with warnings about vainglory. “There are many,” Gregory writes in the first chapter, “who through the temptation of authority in the holy church aspire to the glory of honor.” Gregory is referring to people who assume pastoral leadership solely out of a desire for glory. This motivation was common in his time because pastors were accorded more respect and advantages than most are today. Yet Gregory’s comments on vainglory are not only directed at those who seek ministry out of overt ambition. They are also cautionary for those who feel sincerely called to ministry. For Gregory, there are certain aspects of ministry that make vainglory an inevitable temptation.
The first is preaching. Good preaching can garner praise from listeners. Gregory notes that good preaching can lead a pastor to an inward delight in attention: “Since it is often the case when a sermon is delivered in accordance with a high standard, the soul of the speaker is inflated by the hidden joys of self-display.”
The second is virtue. The pastor is to be a model of the virtuous life, exhibiting purity, wise speech, silence, service, compassion, contemplation, and humility. Gregory does not downplay the public nature of the pastor’s life, and he stresses the necessity of holy example. Yet, as with preaching, the virtue of the pastor can elicit praise—not only from the congregation but also from oneself.
For Gregory, then, the temptation to vainglory is inherent to ministry itself. The art of speaking and living well contains the spiritual danger of falling in love with honor.
Certain features of modern society also amplify the danger of vainglory in ministry. We live in a society that prizes asserting our identity and uniqueness. We are urged not only to achieve great things but also to advertise our achievements. The causes we support and the stances we take often become badges of honor that we wear to indicate that we are on the “right” side. Moreover, social media gives us an ever-present medium to communicate our thoughts and narrate our works. While the medium can certainly be used with pure intentions and for good purposes, we would be naïve to think it doesn’t have enormous power to stir our longing for praise. While the lust for glory is hardly new, there is much in contemporary society that contributes to its growth, and the church is not immune to these forces.
Pastoral ministry requires a realistic and truthful acknowledgment of vainglory. There is a real temptation, at times, to become preoccupied with gaining or losing honor. This preoccupation can translate into deep self-consciousness and can impede spiritual leadership. As Gregory remarks, the one concerned with honor “seeks the love of laity more than he seeks the Truth.”
Vainglory can destroy inner peace and stability, and it can obscure accurate self-assessment. Commenting on the pastor who is preoccupied with honor, Gregory writes, “Forgetful of who he is, he scatters himself among the voices of others and believes what he hears them say about him rather than what he should discern about himself from within.” Vainglory can also turn ministry into a performance in which one’s eyes are fixed on people rather than a service in which one’s eyes are fixed on God.
The simple remedy to the temptation of vainglory is humility—yet we must be careful that we do not desire our humility to be admired by others, or inwardly congratulate ourselves on having this virtue. As Augustine observed, “Often the contempt of vainglory becomes a source of even more vainglory.”
When it comes to the remedy for vainglory, we can begin by looking at two resources in our Wesleyan-Holiness tradition—one theological and the other practical.
The first is our confidence in the Holy Spirit’s power to transform our desires. We believe that the Holy Spirit can heal our disordered desires by directing them toward God. The love of honor is defeated when it is overcome by the love of God, which is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). In the Psalms, David bears witness to a desire that has been ordered ultimately to God: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). The Holy Spirit can transform our desires in such a way that our ultimate longing is for God. The remedy for vainglory is the prayer of Pentecost: Come, Holy Spirit. It is a personal transformation in which one’s love is ordered by God, to God.
The Holy Spirit can indeed transform our desires, and most often does so through the painful but vital work of accountability.
This theological resource must be partnered with the practical resource of accountability. In early Methodism, the first two questions men and women asked each other in band meetings were: “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” and “What temptations have you met with?” This radical accountability encouraged regular self-examination, not only of one’s behaviors but also of one’s desires. This self-examination and confession ultimately led to growth in grace. Since vainglory is a subtle, hidden problem at the level of our desires, it must be fought with rigorous self-examination in the context of loving accountability. The Holy Spirit can indeed transform our desires, and most often does so through the painful but vital work of accountability.
A healthy pastoral ministry requires that we discuss the temptation of vainglory and utilize the theological and practical resources of our tradition to fight it. We cannot deny the power of this vice. At the same time, we can affirm the power of the Holy Spirit and the gift of accountability. By the inner work of the Holy Spirit and the loving accountability of others, we can be shaped into people whose deepest longing is the presence and glory of God: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after.”