Craig C. Hill | Eerdmans Author Interview Series


If you spend your life keeping score, you’re
certainly going to be egocentric, you’ll probably be unhappy. Hi, I’m Rachel Bomberger from Eerdmans Publishing. I’m here today with Craig Hill, who’s author
of Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus. Welcome, Craig. Thank you. Now this is a book that you’ve been thinking
of writing for a very long time, isn’t it? Yeah, I’ve in theological education most of
my adult life, and I’ve worked with pastors at different stages of their career, and so
this issue would come up from time to time. And then as I taught New Testament, I kept
noticing how frequently the issue arose in the New Testament. So, yeah, it’s been coming along for a long
time. It’s a natural, there’s a natural tension
for pastors especially, but anyone who’s working in leadership, where they feel this need to
have a drive, to have ambition for the kingdom. That often translates into a personal ambition. What does this look like on the inside for
a pastor? Well, one of the things the book tries to
make clear is that this is absolutely common—for everyone. I mean, there’s the whole first major chapter
of the book is on biology, the biology of status among social animals, of which we are
the number one example, the most social animal. So, it tries to demystify that and show that
it’s normal. But pastors are particularly in a bind on
this, because we’re meant to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we’re meant to be servants. What does it look like to be an ambitious
servant, or a status-conscious servant? And so while pastors have to be ambitious,
have to have drive and motivation— ambition can be defined in all sorts of ways—but
we have to have energy and drive and motivation, to admit that you’re ambitious and that you’re
driven is deeply problematic, because it’s such an ambiguous category. So, I think pastors in particular are caught
on this one. And the problem is that therefore it tends
to be repressed, and isn’t dealt with honestly, and therefore it pops up sometimes in very
unhealthy ways. So there’s often a lot of competition among
pastors. If you ever go to a large pastors conference
you know in a hurry who the big shots are. You know who has the biggest church, the fastest-growing
church, the hottest-selling book. And nevertheless we pretend this isn’t really
happening, when it is. The New Testament has quite a lot to say on
this whole question of status. Yeah, it does. And it sort of goes against what you say is
only natural in humanity. What is the message of the New Testament,
and how deeply does it run throughout? Well, very deeply. The interesting thing about the New Testament
is that, if we say this is normal, this is endemic to human beings and human communities,
that includes the church, and that includes the church of the first century. The first century church was quite remarkable,
very distinctive in that you had brought together high born, low born, literate, illiterate,
Greeks, Romans, Jews, masters, slaves — brought together into a community, and told do very
strange things, like call each other brother and sister, regard each other as better than
yourself, Paul says for instance in Philippians. This is not normal in the Greco-Roman world. And so every Christian community to some extent
or other naturally struggled against this, and again and again you find New Testament
authors working with these issues, often Christologically. A lot of what comes up in the New Testament
about Jesus comes up precisely for that reason. I mentioned Philippians 2, of course: “Have
this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” All of that is preceded by a section on humility
and concord and leaning to get along. The servant Christology in the Gospel of Mark
shows up when the disciples are arguing with each other about who’s greatest. So you get this, this pattern again and again
in the New Testament, where there’s division and discord around issues of status, the hierarchies
and status structures of the world are brought into the church. And what is used to counter it is, above all,
the example of Jesus as someone who is a servant, the greatest of all who was the servant of
all. So this is not a new issue for the church. Oh gosh, no. And we can take comfort in that, I think. Oh, yeah, absolutely. What would you say to a pastor who is sort
of struggling with these issues, with this, with this pressure from, from perhaps his
own church, to excel, to bring him into a place of status, and them with him? Yeah, these things all get muddled together,
don’t they, because excelling doesn’t necessarily bring status. Certain kinds of excellence do, certain kinds
don’t. Often we reward behavior that isn’t necessarily
godly and good behavior within the church. The church is very good at aping the world
— you know, it’s own star system, status structures. Part of what the book is trying to tell pastors
is that, well, to be really blunt, service isn’t fair. It’s not fair. If you spend your life keeping score, you’re
certainly going to be egocentric. You’ll probably be unhappy. The thing that tends to make people happy
is exactly the opposite. It’s being set free to serve. It’s being self-forgetful. It’s losing yourself in something bigger than
yourself. So, part of what I would tell pastors, and
again, anyone, the book really, the center is for pastors, but the book is for everyone,
part of what I would say is, on one level, it’s a matter of, well, there’s a chapter
in the section on ambition that deals with vocation and career. What so often happens to pastors is they get
into ministry, and they’re driven by a sense of call and vocation, in five years, ten years,
they shift over to a kind of careerist perspective, where they become aware of the ladder, and
how you climb it, and what really counts, and what’s really valued, what gets attention. And they shift over to that way of thinking. It’s a recipe for dissatisfaction in the long
run, and certainly getting your eye off the real focus of ministry. So part of it is reconceptualizing what you’re
doing, getting back to a sense of vocation and calling and service that probably got
you in there in the first place. The other is — so there’s a kind of conscious level. There’s an unconscious level where you put
yourself in the kind of communities and in the kind of Christian relationships where
the kind of right sort of behavior is reinforced, and not the wrong sort. Right. So that’s really where the book ends, is talking
about “How do we do this? We do this together.” We do this by creating communities in which
the widow’s might is the thing honored, for instance, not necessarily the things that
our culture around us would honor. How would you describe the way of Jesus in
this regard? Well, one of the most important passages in
the New Testament on this subject, so it’s the cover of the book, of course, is the foot-washing
story in John. And the thing that always struck me about
that story, that’s most remarkable about it, I mention this in the book, is the use of
the verb “to know.” “Jesus, knowing that he had come from the
father . . .” “Jesus, knowing that he would go to the Father, etc., takes a towel.” Jesus is the only person in the room who knows
who he is, and therefore the only one free to serve, not to be defined by the service. And so I think that’s key to it. Often, say, the hardest thing is not doing
what Jesus commanded. The hardest thing is believing what he believes
so that what he commands actually makes sense. It’s having a sense of the reality of the
reign of God so that it is the pearl of great price, you know, it is that thing for which
everything else is secondary. To the extent that we can believe that, we’re
set free to serve in the world. To the extent that we don’t, we’re defined
by our service in a way that’s unhealthy and that we probably resent. That’s probably true. What would the world look like if every pastor,
every Christian leader, every Christian non-leader was freed from this desire for status? Well, let me back up one step from that and
say that in a way, I don’t think you’re ever set free from — I mean, natural urges are
deeply ambiguous, but the answer is not repression. I mean this. I say in the book, it’s sort of like there’s
a road with a ditch on either side, and the ditch on one side is indulgence. “It’s natural, I’m just going to indulge it.” That probably will hurt you. It certainly will hurt others if you do that
with natural impulses. The ditch on the other side is repression. “I’m going to just quash this thing. I’m gonna, I’m gonna, you know, like ” — what
is it, “Hit a mole?” “Bat a mole?” “Whack a mole?” Thank you very much. “Whack a mole.” Tell my kids they’re a little older. “I’m gonna knock this thing down, and I’m
gonna quash it.” The problem, maybe you’ll succeed at that,
probably you won’t. Probably it will pop up somewhere else, in
disguise, and be even worse. So there has to be a healthy way of dealing
with it in the center. What if everyone did this? It would be glorious. The people I know who most model this, without
naming names — but I do know a few people, a few people to me just do this brilliantly
— are incredibly attractive people. I mean, they just shine the light of Christ
in the world, and they win people that you think nobody could win because of their character. And that’s what Jesus was like. Jesus drew all these people to him, and I
think it’s a marvelous gift if you can do that. But you have to believe something different
about the world, about what gives value, about who you are, who tells you who you are. I think it says, somewhere in the book I mention,
“Who signs your report card?” Who is that significant other whose opinion
of you you solicit and believe? To the extent that God takes that role in
your life, you are set free in this world. But it takes real faith. Everything around you is telling you the opposite. Every message around you is telling you it’s
how you look, what car you drive, how you dress, what title you hold. What church you’re the pastor of. Right? That’s who defines you, what defines you. And not to believe that is a real step of
faith. Now, before we close, I can’t help but mention
the preface to your book, which is entitled “An Ironic Thing Happened on the Way to Publication.” What happened to you that made you really,
really need your own book? Right, right. Yeah, when I wrote the book, I was a professor
at Duke Divinity School, which was great, I loved it. It was a great location, a great opportunity. We were very comfortable. Nice house, easy drive to work. Everything going for it. So I wasn’t looking to, to go anywhere. We expected to retire there and stay in Durham,
North Carolina. Finished the book, and then just weeks afterward
had a call from a recruiter talking to me about the deanship at Perkins School of Theology
at Southern Methodist University. And, “Oh, Ok.” Initially reluctant. But they began to talk about what they wanted,
what they were looking for. And the more we talked, the more it seemed
like, “Well, maybe this is a call, maybe this is something I’m meant to do.” And ultimately they convinced me of that. But, of course, that . . . creates an interesting
problem in terms of talking about a book about ambition, and so forth. Indeed it would. So I wanted to acknowledge that up front,
and say that, so, in a sense the book is written as much or more for me initially than for
anyone else. And to remind me, continually, that I need
to serve God but not deceive myself while I’m doing it. About the nature and the complexity of my
own motives, and so forth. And I think the, the more, particularly in the church
you are recognized, the more prominent your position is, in a way the more dangerous it
is for you. It’s very easy to pretend you’re better than
you really are, and you’re holier and more righteous than you really are. And this is why God gives us spouses and children,
I think, to keep reminding us that that’s not really true. Or, well, in my case, maybe faculties. But, yeah, it’s exciting, it’s a wonderful
challenge. But, actually, one of the things about that,
too, was I had, a few times in the book had mentioned seminary deans, and I didn’t want
to delete those, expunge those from the record. So that’s part of why I wrote that preface. I didn’t want anyone to think that when I
talked about deans, I was talking about myself, because that really was the furthest thing
from my mind when I wrote the book originally. Well, congratulations on the appointment. Thank you. Congratulations on the new book. And thank you for it, it’s full of a lot of
wisdom. Oh, well thanks. It was a long time in coming. Well, not so much in life, but just reflecting
on the New Testament over many years, and seeing those patterns that were there. And I hope, I hope a lot of people find it
helpful. I’m certain they will. Well, thank you.

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