Humility: A Foundational Pastoral Virtue
“. . .there are many who through the temptation of authority in the holy Church aspire to the glory of honor. They want to be seen as teachers and they lust to be superior to others. . .. They are all the more unable to minister worthily to the office of pastoral care because they have come to the position of teaching humility solely by the means of vanity. . . . They seize rather than attain a position of spiritual authority.” St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, 590 AD)
In today’s leadership culture, pastors are often coached about principles for helping them to be more efficient and effective in their ministry work. However, the recent podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is only the latest stark reminder of what can happen when “effectiveness” and force of personality are prioritized to the neglect of cultivating a deep transformative relationship with Christ. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that the pastorate attracts an inordinate number of individuals with narcissistic personality tendencies (similar to political and business sectors; see Ruffing et. al below). However, scripture and the early church focused on the internal character of ministry leaders, prioritizing virtues such as humility, meekness, love, and compassion, in addition to leading a well-ordered life and ministry. Our word “humility” comes from the Latin, humus, meaning earth or dirt; humility is to have a realistic regard of ourselves as mere creatures in relation to God and others. Jesus characterized himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29) and prioritized humility and meekness in his followers: “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are the meek” (Matt. 5:3, 5). The Apostle Paul likewise called disciples to “be completely humble and gentle” (Eph. 4:2). Virtues such as humility are not talked about much these days in favor of more highly prized pragmatic leadership skills. However, because virtues such as humility are foundational to the inner character of the pastor, they will help keep inordinate expressions of leadership in check. In scripture and throughout Church history, such virtues were central to qualify as a pastoral leader. Here are five thoughts for pastors to consider about humility Dallas Willard’s presentation, “Three Steps to Humility,” (see Youtube below):
- Be Realistic About Yourself. Willard states that humble people realize that only with the help of God can they make their life work. If you are humble, says Willard, you realize you are in God’s hands. Have you acknowledged that you can do nothing worthwhile without the help of God?
- Never Pretend. Willard observes that pretending takes great energy; over time it will weigh you down. Humble people learn simply to be themselves, not who others want them to be. Nor do they project a false image of who they aspire to be. Humble people are authentic—who they are on the inside is who they are on the outside. This is a definition of integrity. Are there places in your life where you are projecting an image about yourself that is not true?
- Never Presume. In general, humble people do not presume to be treated in a certain way. Learn “to be who you are where you are,” counsels Willard. Humble people let go of assumptions and expectations about how they should be treated; they do not grasp for recognition. Beware the desire for status (see Mk. 9:33-37). Do you secretly desire to be treated in special ways? How do you think of yourself and your position?
- Never Push. Willard states that we should “stand for what is right, stand for who you are, stand for God, but let Him do the pushing.” Humble people tend to be patient and wait for God’s timing, not forcing their own agenda. Are you following God or are you out in front of God? Can you discern the difference between when God is leading you to implement change and your own compulsion to implement change?
- Submit Yourself to God. Willard believes that If you follow the steps above, “you will find it possible to submit yourself under the mighty hand of God and He will exalt you.” (Lk. 14:11; 1 Peter 5:6). To be humble is not to be passive. Rather, it means “there isn’t anything you wouldn’t undertake if you thought it was right and good because you are under the hand of God.” Have you yielded your ambitions to God?
To learn more about humility and other virtues, plus narcissism, see the following resources:
Kerr, J.R. “Pastoral Narcissism: The shadow side of ambition,” in Christianity Today, accessed January 11, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/fall/pastoralnarcissism.html?share=hY9iVH%2fE5A%2fdVudkVYULBel3d2Bbj1Y5&utm_medium=widgetsocial
Kreeft, Peter. Back to Virtue. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.
Ruffing, Elizabeth G., Paine David R., Devor, Nancy G. & Sandage, Steven J. “Humility and Narcissism in Clergy: A Relational Spirituality Framework,” Pastoral Psychology 67, 525–545 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-018-0830-4
Willard, Dallas, “Three Steps to Humility,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofBEtJruhvY
Spiritual Domain Contributor: : David Higle, PhD, Director of Clergy Care, Education & Clergy Development The Wesleyan Church
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle