Jesus models a lot of things, but ambition seems not to be one. There will be ambition in any organization and of course the church adds fuel to the fire by accommodating ambition with titles, ranks and clothing. But ambition, it seems to me, is infested vocation.
Vocation is something so different from ambition. Vocation is honest. It is a path while ambition is the bulldozer on the front end of a road to power.
As the church faces the inevitable changes which will result in or around 2030 when our donors are dead and their children do not give or attend like their parents, grandparents and great grandparents did; we are already beginning to see the leaders of The Episcopal Church getting more and more strategic about how they build their empires and claim their ambition. Panic has not yet arrived but anxiety about money, pledging, planned gifts and major gifts is beginning to show its ugly sides as churches begin to have to deserve the money they seek to raise. It has begun, this sea change we are facing.
Churches with big endowments or budgets that allow for able and effective financial development experts who are gifted enough and gentle enough to weave spirituality and praxis together will be ok for another couple of decades, but we will, by 2030, see most rural churches closed and sold off as the bulk of their active congregants die off in the next 15 years. And of course, churches with missions that Jesus would recognize and over which Jesus would even high-five us – those churches too will last a while as The Episcopal Church molts into something new and organic, pulling their chair out from beneath power.
Like prisoners in the bread line, some clergy will be hunting for and trying to get, the jobs which give them resources which match and fund their ambition. We see it all the time. But there are a few people, I notice, whose life is not marked with ambition as much as it is marked with vocation. I see it everywhere and it is beautiful. Vocation is a winding pathway, free of the bulldozers of climbing, posturing, self-promotion and manipulation. Vocation is what happens when a man or woman sense a call from God which seems clear, or clear-ish and whose gifts inform it. Vocation is different from ambition in that one can sense the humility in an instant – it subverts resumes, exposes manipulation and topples stump-speeches.
And ambition strikes anyone whose spiritual practice is not producing self-awareness because ambition, like other sins, feels right in the moment, even beautiful.
David Whyte, my favorite poet has just published one of my favorite books called “Consolations.” Each chapter is a gorgeous meditation on one word. In the chapter on ambition he says “Ambition, left to itself, like Rupert Murdoch, always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us out beyond ourselves, breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place.”
Vocation is the midwife of generosity. Ambition is perpetual adolescence. We must choose for ourselves and we must notice in others what is at play. This is the cornerstone of mindfulness and the only authenticity which will move The Episcopal Church on our planet into authentic vocation, will inspire donor investment, and will move us from The J. Edgar Hoover school of church leadership most recently experienced in national ecclesial leasdership, to one that looks more like, well, Jesus.