Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Messiah Complex

No, this is not a blog in response to Valentine’s Day. I am not sure I could post that here. Rather, it is a short reflection on “the Messiah Complex” and my own recent struggles with this phenomenon.

In teaching survival skills to new pastors and classes on leadership, I have often referred to the concept of the “Messiah Complex.” In ministry, the Messiah Complex is the silly notion we get into our heads as pastors that we are not simply acting on behalf of Jesus, but that somehow we have become the Messiah ourselves, in the flesh, preaching, teaching, and healing in our churches.

I tell students that this is an easy complex to contract. People tell us all the time how important we are, how needed we are, how spiritual we are. We begin to believe we are called to our positions because we are somehow better, stronger, faster (the bionic pastor… insert your own sound effects if you grew up in the 80’s). People are not satisfied until they have heard from the pastor, been visited by the pastor, had the pastor lay hands on them. As a result, pastors begin to act like they are God, working 80 hour weeks, neglecting their spiritual life (God doesn’t need to have a quiet time… ), neglecting their need for friends and family, acting like lone rangers and supermen/wonder women. We begin to do ministry as if we don’t need God, for God is already present in human form…

Honestly, I have never struggled that much with this complex. Perhaps it is some great humility on my part, or perhaps insecurity. This past week, though, I realized that even I am susceptible to this disease. I have recently announced that this will be my last semester as the dean of students at North Park Theological Seminary. I am planning on going to school full time in the fall to complete my doctoral studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological School in Evanston, just north of Chicago. As I have shared this news, I have received really positive affirmation and feedback from people. While this is all very much appreciated, I realized that I was starting to believe some of the things people were saying!

“They’ll never be able to replace you.” “How can anyone else be the dean of students?” “You were the best dean of students in the whole world!” (okay, no one actually said that… but you get the idea) And I started to wonder if perhaps I was the only one who could do this job. Perhaps I was the only person in the whole world uniquely gifted to be the dean of students at North Park Theological Seminary! Now you see where this kind of thinking can leave you… convincing yourself that you are the savior of your church, your community, your family, or… your seminary.

While the affirmation has been very much appreciated, it has been important for me to remember a few things…

  • North Park Theological Seminary existed long before I did and will continue to exist long after I am gone. Institutions tend to live longer than individuals.
  • God existed long before I did and will continue to exist long after I am gone. God’s work in this world began long before I came along and God provides the resources necessary to accomplish God’s mission… including a new dean of students when needed.
  • No one will do the job like I have. Some people will be extremely grateful for that. We are all limited in our gifts, abilities, and insights. Someone else will be able accomplish things that I have not been able to accomplish.
  • I never did this job alone. My work was always in the context of faculty, students, staff, and administrators who worked to make North Park a community of formation and reflection. We did this work together and that community will continue after I am gone. I would much rather be part of the body of Christ than Christ himself!