Before seminary, I served nearly five years as a youth pastor. On a semi-regular basis I would receive mail—typically oversized postcards—from men my age offering their services to my youth group. These speakers would be willing, for a fee, to speak at our retreats and summer camps.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but these flyers just didn’t seem like a fitting way for these men to inform others of their ministry. Such self-promotion seemed out of place for servants of a Master who often turned down opportunities for self-promotion for the sake of the mission (e.g., Matt. 9:30; 12:16; Mark 1:43–44; Luke 4:35).
Today, the venue for ministerial self-promotion isn’t a glossy postcard but a carefully curated Twitter account. But what about the idea of self-promotion itself? Is it ever wise or biblical?
Diligence vs. Platform-Building
In two primary ways, Proverbs speaks directly to the temptation to advertise oneself. First, it extols diligence rather than self-promotion as a pathway to leadership and recognition. We’re told, “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” (Prov. 12:24). God has designed the world in such a way that diligence in one’s tasks will likely lead to some measure of recognition: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Prov. 22:29).
A second way Proverbs deals with our tendency to self-promote is by discouraging the practice altogether: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”(Prov. 25:6–7).
Note the direct contrast: in Proverbs 12:14 and 22:29, there is a natural, unforced path to leadership and recognition. But in Proverbs 25:6–7, the person who thrusts himself into the place of honor is rebuffed, since he’s vulnerable to public disgrace.
The recognition Solomon speaks of is not gained by self-promotion, but by diligence. The person who enjoys the privilege of leadership and standing before kings has worked steadily to hone his craft so his work is worthy of significant distinction.
That’s why Proverbs tell us, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov. 27:2). Even though self-promotion is viewed in many work environments as a non-negotiable key to success, no one really likes it when their colleague is the one indulging the habit.
The same can be said when a pastor toots his own horn. It feels distasteful and wrong.
As shepherds, we may be regularly tempted to judge our usefulness by the number of opportunities we receive from outside our church, and grow discontented that we’re only speaking to our own congregation. We may expect others to recognize our teaching abilities and find it strange—even offensive—when we’re not invited to speak at various conferences. Our discontent, if left unchecked, can lead us to indulge in the unfitting practice of self-promotion and self-invitation.
Spurgeon and Self-Promotion
Charles Spurgeon recognized this tendency among young preachers. He knew they would be distracted by grand thoughts of wide influence and evangelical prestige. Spurgeon speaks straightforwardly to this kind of temptation: “Be fit for your work, and you will never be out of it. Do not run about inviting yourselves to preach here and there; be more concerned about your ability than your opportunity, and more earnest about your walk with God than about either.”
The sequence of Spurgeon’s instruction matches the biblical principles above. Forget about creating opportunities for yourself; rather, hone your craft and set yourself to labor diligently every day in the work the Lord has put before you. The opportunities may come later, as God sees fit. But the root of your pastoral work is a superior task: walk closely with God through daily repentance and faith and a well-ordered personal life that few people see.
So what about gospel productivity? Don’t we have a treasure we should spread far and wide? Yes, but it’s easy, especially for young ministers, to confuse zeal for gospel advance with zeal for our ability to spread it. Small wonder that Paul won’t allow young converts to serve as an elder: they’re too susceptible to pride and self-importance (1 Tim. 3:6).
As for productivity, we often forget another key principle stated by Spurgeon: “We shall be likely to accomplish most when we are in the best spiritual condition.”
Even as we give ourselves to daily, quiet faithfulness, our underlying motive must be service. It’s possible that even in our quiet faithfulness we’re longing for recognition, which is why we become bitter when we don’t get it—and resort to self-promotion.
When the overriding motivation in our work is to exalt Christ by serving others, we will offer ourselves as humble servants when outside opportunities arise. Through prayer, careful consideration of the effect of travel on your family, and seeking input from your elders, you may or may not consider it wise to accept such invitations—but the driving motive won’t be advancing yourself.
Most of the time, we won’t be recognized for our work in ministry. Therefore, there must always be a deeper, more satisfying affection in our hearts that guides and grounds our pastoral labors. We must be satisfied in the glory of Jesus Christ and the joy of others more than our own recognition.
Let us go and labor for the recognition from Jesus on the final day, when, if we’ve labored for his fame and not our own, we’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23).