Should Christians be ambitious?

Emma Ineson was Chaplain at the Lee Abbey Community in Devon, then Principal of Trinity College Bristol. She is now suffragan bishop of Penrith in Carlisle Diocese, and has just published a book Ambition: what Jesus said about power, success and counting stuff exploring the issues around faith, vocation and the question of ambition. She kindly agreed to be interviewed about the book.

IP: You notice that there is some irony that you were writing a book on ambition whilst being considered for appointment as a bishop in the Church of England! What difference did that make to your writing and thinking?

EI: I set out to write the book in response to what I was hearing and seeing in church leaders about the pressure that can often accompany an expectation of church growth. I was noticing that many of the ordinands and church leaders that I know are passionate, committed, and gifted people who don’t sit around with their feet up, but who really want to make a difference for the gospel. And yet I also saw what some of this constant pressure to grow and improve can have on the souls of leaders. I also wanted to write following several years thinking and processing ‘leadership stuff’, and engaging with the debates we seem to have a lot on the church about how and whether secular leadership theory has anything to do with Christian ministry. I was also noticing in myself, as principal of the growing theological college, how I responded to some of the pressures to achieve and see the graphs going in the right direction.

So I set out to address some of these issues head-on, and possibly also to name things that we don’t often talk about openly very much, around comparison, jealousy, talent, careers, promotion, how we count ‘success’ as Christians, and so on. In the midst of it all I was appointed Bishop of Penrith and some of the reactions to that move (people speaking about it as ‘promotion’, the story in the book about my hairdresser asking me if I’d always wanted to be a bishop) set me thinking even more about how we see status, and what Christians are supposed to think about ‘ambition’. So writing the book was quite cathartic in one respect, and has really made me examine what we’re about as Christian leaders, especially in the light of Jesus’ teaching in Beatitudes.

IP: Why do you think the question of ambition is such a pressing one in our culture and in the church at the present time?

EI: I am not sure that it is such a pressing issue in the church. At least I don’t think we easily use the word ‘ambition’ in church circles. It feels a bit ‘sweary’! One of the things I do in the book is to look at the roots of the word ‘ambition’ and the concept of ambition in the Bible, and to see whether it is something that can be redeemed for Christians (spoiler: I think it can).  However, in some senses the church has entered quite an ‘ambitious’ phase—and rightly so. The emphasis is very much on growth (SDF funding, Renewal and Reform etc) and that is good—if it means an increased missionary zeal to see more and more people come to know Christ and follow him more closely.

But I argue that alongside that we need a keen sense of theological reflection on what kind of growth we are aiming for, what to do when expected results aren’t achieved (or at least not visibly) and how to stay focussed on the values of the kingdom of God rather than empire building. These are issues both for the individual leader and for the church. And I didn’t want to write only for church leaders. In many spheres of work—media, arts, education, healthcare, business—there is great pressure to constantly grow and improve. As young Christian leaders are setting out on their careers, I wanted the book to help them to ask questions about what kind of growth they are encouraged to achieve, and how to reflect biblically on their work.

IP: It is interesting that, in contrast to some Christian traditions, you are not wholly negative about the idea of ambition. In what ways do you think Christians should be ambitious?

EI: There are different kinds of ambition, or at least different foci for ambition. ‘What is the telos [end, goal] of your particular ambition?’ is the question I am wanting to ask. Where the Christian tradition has been dismissive, it is largely negative about ambition that exists to fulfil personal aims or further personal status, as in ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition’ (Phil 2.3). Rightly, most Christian thinkers have advocated humility over this kind of ambition. But there is a different kind of ambition that we might instead term zeal or passion for changing the world for Godly ends and with Godly means. In that sense, Christians should be the most ambitious people in the world!

However, we do need to keep our wits about us when we speak about ambition. I wanted to explore the interface between vocation and ambition, and also particularly to examine the often complicated relationship women leaders have with ambition. But I also make the point that the more ambitious you are, the more you need to pay attention to the internal character work, to stay accountable to others, and to make sure your ambition is Godly ambition. 

IP: In your chapter on ‘Counting’, you comment that ‘numbers count because people count’. Do you think that our obsession with measuring things, both in the church and in wider culture, can be redeemed?

EI: Yes, but not easily. I am not trying to say in the book that we should never count anything. In fact I make the point that the Bible is fairly obsessed with numbers and counting, but that (as with ambition) it should be done for the right reasons and with the right aims. In the book I identify four good reasons for counting things and four bad reasons for counting things, and I encourage us to reflect theologically on the reasons for our counting. I also say that there are two particular theological themes that make counting things challenging from a human perspective: eschatology, the belief that we prepare for eternity and have a far horizon as our hope; and grace, the fact that we never get what we deserve. Simple economics therefore don’t fit when we are talking about the things of faith.

But that’s not to say we should stop counting at all. In the church we need to make sure we are counting and measuring (two different things) in line with God’s values and perspectives. What we count and measure exposes clearly what we value. I slightly cheekily paraphrase: ‘Where your graphs are, there your heart will be also’.

IP: I was delighted to see that, in your discussion of the Trinity and leadership, you avoided mentioning the ‘social Trinity’ but instead reflected on leadership from the perspectives of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Do we do enough theological reflection on leadership? Why do we find it so hard?

EI: Yes, thank you. I’ve been around theological college colleagues for long enough to know to steer well clear of social Trinitarianism, and now any talk of ‘perichoresis‘ is likely to bring me out in a cold sweat! However, whatever we do in ministry we surely aim to do in the light of the God we know as Three and yet One. Some years ago I played around with matching Max Weber’s categorisations of types of authority (traditional, rational-legal and charismatic) with the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it seems to work, as long as you don’t try to tie things in too closely.

That’s the trouble with the Trinity—it’s notoriously difficult to comprehend and analyse as an idea. In that chapter I was simply trying to reflect on what we call leadership in the light of some the themes connected with Father (Creator), Son (Redeemer whose ‘success’ came through apparent failure), and Holy Spirit (who enlivens and inspires our visions of eternity). I’ll leave it my readers to say if it works or not! 

IP: You offer some quite trenchant criticism of some of the current approaches of the C of E to mission and growth, including the Senior Leadership (‘Green’) report, Renewal and Reform, and Strategic Development Funding. How important do you think these are in the life of the church? Should they be dispensed with?

EI: I hope it is friendly, constructive criticism. I actually support much of the impetus behind such things as Renewal and Reform and the Strategic Development Fund (SDF), which is largely about helping the church to grow (with all the caveats about counting things above). My own Diocese has just received a large sum of money from the SDF to help grow the church across Cumbria. But the problems come when we try to apply models and structures from the world of business and economics to the things of faith uncritically. Everything must be passed through the crucible of the cross of Jesus. We need theologians to be thinking about these things, as well as managers.

That kind of rigorous theological and biblical thinking has not always been in place when some of the reports and strategies of the past few years have been devised. What I worry about is the effect that misguided pressure and ambition in these spheres can have on ordinary ministers, ordinary churches, ordinary communities who maybe don’t fit the big shiny image of many of the earlier initiatives. I do think the church and particularly the central church institutions are learning as we go along, and there is a lot that is coming out more recently that is more nuanced and reflective, but we need to keep asking the questions. 

IP: You don’t shy away from the personal issues involved in ambition and leadership; alongside some delightful touches of humour, you share your personal experiences and challenges. How has writing this book affected and changed you?

EI: I realise I’ve been quite open about some of my own story and ruminations in the book, but I reckon that modelling appropriate vulnerability is important in leadership. It’s dangerous to pretend that ‘senior’ ( I take issue with that word in the book, but it’s hard to find a better one) leaders are immune from issues connected with ambition, comparison, disappointment, failure, ego, and so on, and so I wanted to be honest about these things in myself.

I have had to learn and re-learn that lesson about living for an audience of One, and not comparing myself (for good or ill) with others unhelpfully. One of the aims of the book is to name some of these often hidden and unspoken challenges that leaders face, so I wanted to include myself in that honesty.

And if people enjoy the humour —great! Life is pretty funny most of the time after all, isn’t it? 

IP: It is! Thanks very much for giving your time to answering these questions.

Ambition: what Jesus said about power, success and counting stuff was published by SPCK in November 2019.


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6 thoughts on “Should Christians be ambitious?”

  1. Michael Griffiths wrote a book ‘Give Up Your Small Ambitions’.

    Generally speaking the problem is that people are not ambitious enough, yet we live in a huge and magnificent world so only large horizons and large-scale thinking are appropriate.

    A crucial difference is between (a) personal ambition for personal glory and (b) godly ambition for godly progress. The 2 are so very different that they ought not to be spoken of in the same breath and preferably ought not to be referred to by the same word.

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  2. ‘Where your graphs are, there your heart will be also’. At a Faith in Business conference at Ridley Hall the other year we were challenged about what we measure and count. Whatever the business Mission Statement says what a company values is shown in what it counts. If it’s measured and counted (managed) it matters if it’s not it s not managed if is valued less.

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  3. Do we have any idea how large the congregations were, that the NT epistle’s are addressed to?

    NT Wright said something recently at Michael Green’s memorial lecture that suggested the NT congregation addressed by Paul in one of his epistles may only have been a couple handfuls large

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    • Some reading I was doing on 1 Corinthians fairly recently suggests that this group was no more than perhaps 40. This is based on the number of people who might be able to meet together in a (fairly large) house of the period. That kind of number puts the factionalism of the Corinthian church in an interesting light.

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    • There’s a pretty long list of people Paul knew in Romans 16 – impressive given that he had not yet visited the church there. There must have been many more individuals he had not met or heard of. That suggests to me a church, probably in several local congregations, of maybe 200.

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