When Serving Becomes Selfish


Candice Surh     |     AUGUST 28, 2018     |     8 MIN READ


There is a stereotype in churches called the “80/20 rule.” This is when 20% of church members are serving in some capacity while 80% are simply attending. I’m proud to say I go to a church where it feels like the 80/20 rule is flipped,  and it’s encouraging to see that many churches have developed a culture of serving. I’ve seen churches explicitly state on their website or during the membership process that service is expected of committed members. 

But because we are still sinners, even our service can be tainted with selfish motivation. We need to be vigilant in checking our heart’s motives for serving. Here are some external behaviors that I have observed both in others and myself that I believe are manifestations of selfish serving.

When there’s a need but not particularly “your gifting”

I see this typically in a small church setting, where there’s need everywhere. But when people are asked to serve, they’ll often refuse saying that it’s not their “gifting.” 

When I was younger, I was asked to sing a solo for a special worship service. I had never been especially musically talented, so I was pretty embarrassed to go up. When the day came, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried until my parents told me I didn't have to do it. 

This is a silly example but even adults can often take this childish mindset when it comes to serving. “I don't want to share my testimony because I'm not good at speaking.” “I don't want to lead that event because I'm not good at planning.” Sometimes, serving means putting aside your preferences in how you would like to serve and simply doing the job that needs to be done.

When you get hurt because someone else was asked to serve

This is the flip side of the previous point. Sometimes the pastor will ask someone to serve in a leadership capacity, and others will get bitter. 

“Why wasn’t I asked? Does the ministry not see me?” 

In an Asian church setting, most people won’t dare ask outloud why they weren’t chosen. Instead, their hurts will manifest subtly. Maybe they’ll slowly pull back on their involvement in the ministry. Maybe they’ll leave the church altogether. 

This doesn’t just happen with young adults. I’ve seen people leave a church because they weren't chosen to be a deacon or elder.

So what can we do? If you want to serve in a particular area, whether in leadership or not, talk to the ministry leader. Taking the initiative to ask if you could serve shows you really care about the ministry. If there's not a need at the time or the lead doesn't see a good fit, don’t take it personally, but trust your leadership and find somewhere else to serve.

When you complain

It’s okay to be disheartened by ministry at times. However, there’s a difference between being honest with our leaders and complaining. 

Complaining is often done in secret without the leaders knowing about it. People will complain to their friends that they have such a huge load or that everyone always expects them to serve.

Complaining can also happen silently in the heart. This is when someone serving tells no one that they are burdened by ministry, but slowly inside of them, bitterness starts to bubble. They feel like if they don’t say yes to serving, no one will. They feel taken for granted. They begin to feel bitterness towards their peers, congregation, and sadly sometimes, their leader. 

Everyone who serves faithfully can feel burned out at times. Burnout can be a unique moment when God teaches us our own limits. But, when you feel those symptoms, it’s important to be honest with yourself and with your ministry lead. Share the burden with them. If they ask you to take on a new task, it’s okay to say no. Know your limits.

When a leader takes his/her staff for granted

It’s really easy for leaders to ask the same, dependable person to get a job done every single time because they know they’ll say yes and they know they’ll do a good job. But we need to be mindful that he or she is a volunteer who has a finite capacity. 

Just as it is important for volunteers to be honest about their limits, but it is just as important for the leader to be sensitive to their staff if one person is taking on too much. Maybe this person keeps saying yes not because they want to, but because they respect their leader and don’t want to disappoint them. Sometimes leaders will notice and feel guilty that a staff member is taking on too much, but they don’t bring it up. 

It’s important that the leader seriously asks the volunteer to ask them how he or she is doing in terms of serving. This gives the staff member the opportunity to express boundaries in how much they can take on and gives the leader the outlet to express appreciation and concern for their staff member.

While this is not an exhaustive list, I think these are some ways internal selfishness in serving can externally show up. At the end of the day, serving our church cannot be motivated by our desire for recognition or people pleasing. If they are, we’ll burn out.

We serve because He first served us

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” (Titus 3:3-8)

Notice how good works are only expected after one has understood the Gospel.

The Gospel is the one and only valid motivation for serving. The Gospel tells us how undeserving we are of Christ, and when we understand how unworthy we are, we can appreciate the depth of His sacrifice for us.

It is out of that appreciation and gratitude that we serve wholeheartedly. It allows us to have grace when we’re hurt serving because we know Christ had grace for us. It allows us to serve without seeking recognition because we want Christ to be recognized. 

Finally, humbling to realize He doesn’t need us or any of our gifts to grow His Kingdom. We are simply called to be obedient wherever He calls us. Sometimes where we want to serve and where He calls us matches, and praise God for that. But when it doesn’t, God is teaching us to trust Him even in the way we serve Him. May we be willing to decrease that He may increase in our church and in our lives. 

Candice Surh is a graduate of Biola University and serves as a member at Living Hope in Brea. She also serves at Irvine Hebron where her father is the pastor.