Ever since the divide of the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity in the 11th century, two of the greatest fears of once-united Christendom have been realized: fragmentation and division. Even in the 16th century, when Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Catholic Church’s abuses sparked the Protestant Reformation, leaders hoped there would be only a few major expressions of the body of Christ. Never in their wildest dreams did the reformers envision all the denominations and various branches and networks of Christianity that have evolved since then. The end results have provided an opportunity for a spirit of lawlessness, independence, and empire-building among some in- secure (albeit gifted) leaders.
It is not my purpose to judge whether all these expressions are of God or not. However, the following list will reveal some signs when the motivation to build a church, ministry, or network is akin to the human race’s attempt to build its own empire, epitomized by the Tower of Babel— which God judged and scattered across the whole earth (Genesis 11:1-18).
In 1 Kings 11:11 and 12:16, God divided the kingdom of Israel because of religious apostasy, which is the same reason the Roman Catholic Church was corrected and fragmented (too much concentration of power in the hands of humans, who deviated from the true way of Jesus and the apostles). God will judge His church and hold back revival from certain churches, ministries, and regions when their key spiritual leaders are attempting to build themselves empires instead of God’s Kingdom. Such leaders may talk the talk, but their actions often speak louder than their so-called “Kingdom- first” words.
The following are 17 signs you are an empire builder instead of a Kingdom builder:
1. You rejoice when other key leaders in your region are struggling
Although all leaders with their mouths say they are sad when another church, pastor, or leader in their area is struggling, I have observed that some leaders seem to privately gloat or compare themselves with other failing leaders in their area. Whether the failing church or leader is right or wrong, it never pleases God when we internally rejoice or gloat when the body of Christ is not advancing in our region.
2. You are territorial and only work with those under your “covering”
Some leaders and denominations I know will only do out- reaches with churches and leaders with whom they have a ministerial and financial allegiance. If we are going to reach our communities, we have to be willing to cross denominations and networks and work with the leaders who are sincerely committed to advancing the Kingdom.
3. You only support events that can give you a platform
I have seen leaders actually pull out of a citywide or community event because their names were not advertised on the program, or because someone they are rivals with was part of the program. This shows that their concern was not advancing the Kingdom, but advancing their own name and empire-building goals.
4. You tend to exaggerate your own importance and influence with outsiders
Empire builders treat their ministries like a sporting event. They are constantly throwing around numbers and statistics while comparing their numbers to the numbers of other ministers. They say things like, “We are growing in record numbers,” “This was the most significant event in our city,” or, “We have the largest network in our city.” Or, worse yet, they claim something like, “Our ministry is the reason why the crime rate went down in our community (or region).” Furthermore, they tend to exaggerate their influence, importance, and results in their region or community.
In contrast, Kingdom builders brag about what God is doing through His church in His city. They also attempt to applaud the success of others whose feet they wash, instead of prop- ping themselves up for photo shoots and publicity. I have observed that several so-called revivals in our country in recent years have been more or less attributable to good advertising and marketing, rather than a real move of God.
5. You are jealous of successful key leaders in your region
I know I am with an empire builder when I am with a person who is always attempting to dig up dirt on other leaders, criticizing key leaders in their community, or giving “faint praise” when asked about other key leaders in their region.
6. You speak about Kingdom unity as a smokescreen to hide your own selfish agenda
Some of the most self-centered empire builders I have known in the past four decades have spoken the most in public about the need for unity in the body of Christ. They use this kind of talk to get “sheep pastors and ministers” to forsake their own agendas and follow them to aid them in building their empires! They know the entire lingo and have the biblical passages down, but unfortunately their actions do not correspond with their words and preaching.
7. Your name and picture must be highlighted in every event you participate in
I have heard leaders speak about God raising up a movement of “nameless” and “faceless” people. Yet, in all their conferences, literature, and advertising, their picture and name are highlighted more than anyone or anything else in the program. I attended one conference in which there was a life-size picture of the leader in the lobby, with the event and program advertised in small print under his picture!
8. You try to steal the loyalties of people connected to other ministries
One of the key signs that someone is an empire builder is when they go after key leaders in other leaders’ churches or networks. I myself have had leaders in our Christ Covenant Coalition approached by another leader in our city, asking them to join his network as a representative, even though these leaders have been part of my leadership for over 10 years. When leaders do this, they make themselves look bad—both to the loyal leaders they approach and to the other key leaders in the city who eventually find out about the modus operandi of this empire builder.
9. You love those who follow you and disregard all others
Empire builders have an “either you are with me or against me” mentality and approach to life. Empire builders will not be friends with a person if they are also connected to the ministry of a rival. One of my regional leaders was told several years ago that he was no longer welcome to preach in a particular church because he was keeping the company of a certain other leader (me). Since empire builders are untrustworthy and use their pseudo friendships as a platform to perpetuate their own empires, they project that same spirit and mentality on other leaders in their region. Thus, they cut off people loyal to other networks and ministries because they suspect others are as untrustworthy as they are!
10. You have a “top down” leadership approach, and thus struggle to attract strong, successful leaders
Empire builders surround themselves with “yes men” and discourage strong, resourceful leaders from working or partnering with them because it does not fit their “top down” leadership style. Unlike mature leaders who take a “bottom up” approach, in which they try to lead through consensus with participation of various levels of people taking responsibility in ministry (so that all have ownership in the process), empire builders surround themselves with leaders of ministries they deem less significant. They want leaders who will follow their dictates without meaningful, strategic dialogue.
11. You are driven by self, not led by the Spirit
Your intense need for affirmation because of your insecurities drives your need for success, not the glory of God and the work of advancing the Kingdom. Thus, there is rarely inner peace or rest because you are striving, constantly trying to create a platform and expand your ministry on your own efforts, instead of being led by the Lord and letting Him bring you opportunities and open doors.
12. You are an opportunist when other ministries are struggling
Empire builders make believe they are concerned when other churches or ministries are struggling, but they attempt to maneuver themselves so they can capitalize on the struggles of other ministries and either seize their property or, more likely, their choicest leaders and key people.
13. Your main goal in life is to build some kind of monument to your success
Empire builders are obsessed with building bigger and better buildings and acquiring more and more property—even if they have to take on huge debt. The lower their self-esteem, the bigger they have to build to compensate for their internal lack. Unfortunately, they are often risking the future of their ministry with all this spending. They rarely, if ever, think about how their successor is going to fill all these buildings and pay off the mortgage. Remember, there is never any real success without a successor!
14. When possible, you will sabotage the influence and ministry of other leaders you deem a threat to your influence
Recently, I reunited with a key leader in another country after almost 12 years of disconnect. I tried numerous times to stay connected, but could never understand why there seemed to be some kind of obstruction in our relationship. After speaking for three hours, it finally dawned on us that another leader who was jealous of my influence in this country sabotaged our relationship because he wanted to supplant me as the spiritual covering for this key leader. I have also witnessed first-hand one leader use innuendo and lies about another key leader behind their back, in an attempt to stop their influence from spreading to other regions. In instances like these, we need to speak up and defend the honor of those not present in the room.
15. You tend to copy those you are jealous of in your region
It is said that when someone copies your ideas, it is the highest form of flattery. Empire builders will attempt to replicate and outdo many of the things other key leaders in their region are doing. They may call it something different, but in the end it is essentially the same model, but with the attitude of making it bigger and better than anything else in their region. It is like Dunkin’ (Donuts) or McDonald’s trying to reinvent them- selves to keep up with Starbucks. It is born out of personal competition and not a pure love for Christ and His Kingdom.
16. You are a narcissist in relating to your desires in life
Ultimately, empire builders are lovers of themselves. Thus, they will sacrifice the dreams and lives of others so their own dreams can be fulfilled. They will throw everyone and anyone under the bus to advance their goals or save their own skin! Their incredible commitment to the ministry is really only a commitment to advance their own ideals and dreams, which is narcissistic in nature. This is unlike the model of Christ, who laid down His own life for the sheep. Ezekiel 34 speaks about the judgment God will bring on shepherds who use and abuse the sheep for their own pleasure.
17. You tell people that your church or network is the main key in your city for true revival and transformation
When giving reports about your ministry, you exaggerate the results of your work and utilize self-serving testimonies that back up your claim of spiritual dominance in your region. Many pastors I know have told me of prophecies that have come forth, alluding to the fact that it is their church that is going to start a revival for the nation or their community, or that revival is going to start in their region and go to the world because their region is the gate to the rest of the country. I am tired of hearing these prophecies and so-called words from the Lord.
Unfortunately, some prophets are motivated to give these flattering words so they can get invited back to preach; they know that most inexperienced leaders fall prey to prophetic flattery. That being said, empire builders use these words, visions, and experiences to back up their claims that their particular church or ministry is “the church” in their region God is going to use so they can garner the loyalties of unsuspecting and naive sheep, and even pastors.
In my experience, most churches with that attitude are judged by God and actually begin to decline until the leaders repent of pride. Although it is possible that revival can come through one church to the whole world (Think the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.), it is the exception to the rule. Community, city, and national transformations usually take place when God visits a region or nation, and multitudes of churches receive “times of refreshing” simultaneously. This results in the formation of in- formal apostolic networks, which partner together to continue to perpetuate the advance of the Kingdom of God.
It is sad when God’s people engage in personal empire building and career advancement over ministry and service to His children. Such fleshly habits fuel the toxic leadership we see often in the modern church.
Before I move on to discuss leadership problems in Part II, though, I want to offer a word of warning to pastors about the “problem children” they will have to learn to deal with in ministry. I call them the kinds of people nobody can help.