The dangerous game of ministry comparison

God calls us to lead with confidence…

…but too often we compare ourselves with others and compete to be the best. Thoughts to help us thrive as leaders by peering into the murky corners where jealousy, insecurity and fear threaten to spoil who we are created to be.
In any sphere of life – but particularly in youth/children’s work, our ministry is often measured by numbers.

Many years ago, I quickly learned that the seemingly innocent question ‘how’s it going?’, actually meant ‘How many came last night?’ A big number reply was met with a smile; a small one with disappointment. Every so often a well-meaning person would say something like:
“It’s great that everything is going well – I just wondered: have you seen ‘X? – their group is really growing, or they have loads of young people coming. Have you ever thought about contacting them?”

On a good day, my response might be – ‘great, yes, I can learn something from them, I’d love to hear more about what they are doing’. But on those days when I’m not at my best? On those days, that well-meant remark has power to turn what God has called me to, to ashes and dust.
In that split second, my sense of being exactly where God had called me, doing what God had called me to evaporates. All because I perceive someone else was doing it better than me.
I’m not alone though – in bad days I keep company with Saul in 1 Samuel.

Saul’s example.

Saul looked like royalty should: tall, handsome, noble. He became king when he was 30 and reigned for 42 years. Early in his career though, he disobeyed God and the LORD withdrew his favour anointing David as future king. Sometime later, David killed the giant Goliath. The victory parade sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:7)

Saul perceived the people were making more of David’s single victory than all of his. Anger consumed him and he became jealous of David. From that moment on Saul plotted to kill David and stay on the throne. Instead of building up Israel, Saul wasted time chasing David.
Insecurity and jealousy snuffed Saul’s ministry. For every one of us there will be a David. Someone who everyone gets excited about, while we toil away. There will be someone who gets all the glory, while we get overlooked. Someone who tests whether we actually trust and rely on God to shape, direct and form our ministry. Sometimes there’s a lot of Davids………
Teddy Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Comparing ourselves will end our dreams before they start. We’ll be chasing shadows rather than following God. We’ll end up jealous and robbed of joy.

How is our identity rooted?

If our identity in ministry is rooted and grounded in God, then jealousy has no place, but the reality is that sometimes we end up looking to see how well other people are doing. This comparison game steals our joy, halts our momentum, and brings our greatest insecurities to the surface. How do we exchange security as God’s chosen person in his chosen moment for a hollow lie?

The world tells us that ‘bigger is better’. That’s a lie. We get so caught up in numbers. God wants everyone to know him, anything short of that means no one is winning! The world tells us that we need to look to others to tell us we’re doing ok. That’s a lie too. Like most people, I enjoy it when people tell me, that I am doing okay. I enjoy being supported and accepted. The problem comes when validation from others becomes something we must have rather than the icing on the cake.

There is a world of difference between being interested in other people’s ministry to grow and learn, and checking them out to see how we compare. One is healthy growth; the other is the joy stealer. When our opinion of ourselves bounces up and down by how many come, how many ‘likes’ we get, and what others say, we’re on a slippery slope into the arms of the joy stealing comparison monster.

God’s opinion of us does not change. His love is unconditional; his calling is eternal and the depth of his love unfathomable. There is only one road that comparison leads down. Trying to be the best, for the sake of being the best. Even Jesus’ disciples fell for that one;

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:33-37

They knew it was stupid but they kept competing. When Jesus calls them out on it, they are too embarrassed to tell him what they had been talking about.

The warning signs.

So: what are the signs that we’re slipping off track – that the joy stealer is in our midst?

  • Too much use of personal pronoun ‘I’ or ‘My’ as we describe God’s ministry
  • To busy or distracted to personally heard from God: not just for me to make requests of him, but time for Him to speak into my life.
  • Patience with people is thin.
  • Over-reacting to minor offences.
  • Relationship building takes a back seat to getting the task done
  • Sense of self-worth is driven by the latest ‘results’.
  • Can’t celebrate someone else’s success.
  • Making no room for people who are more gifted or competent than you. The sign of a great leader is not that they are the most gifted or competent person. The sign of a great leader is someone who can attract and keep people more gifted and competent than themselves.
  • Needing to have the final word (on everything!). We want to be the expert so we can be secure.

So what do we do? When it comes to quitting the approval of others, progress is best made in three ways: examining our heart reflecting on the love of God, and increasing our accountability.

  1. Examining our heart: in prayer try reflecting on recent interactions with people. Did you intentionally say anything so that others would think well of you? What could you have done differently? Ask God to help you be aware of the temptation to position your behaviour or words for other people’s approval.
  2. Contemplate the love of God. Spend time regularly in the bible, in silence and solitude, receiving the love of God, allowing it to permeate and change you. The more we ground our identity in the love of God, the less we need the approval of people.
  3. Increase your accountability. Proverbs 27:17 ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’. Find a (brave) friend, and give them permission to challenge you – privately and after the event – if they perceive you are serving approval rather than Jesus. Have them pray for and with you.

One last thought: what if we are the one that people are jealous of? What if we’ve got the big numbers – or the ‘whatever’ that makes people think we’re successful: what then?

What if we reclaimed the word “competition?” The word, after all, comes from Latin “competere” (to seek, or to strive, together).

What if we became the encouragers, the builders up, the generous sharers? What would that look like?

A W Tozer wrote this prayer, which seems a fitting way to end:

“Dear Lord, I refuse henceforth to compete with any of Thy servants. They have congregations larger than mine. So be it. I rejoice in their success. They have greater gifts. Very well. That is not in their power nor in mine. I am humbly grateful for their greater gifts and my smaller ones. I only pray that I may use to Thy glory such modest gifts as I possess. I will not compare myself with any, nor try to build up my self-esteem by noting where I may excel one or another in Thy holy work. I herewith make a blanket disavowal of all intrinsic worth. I am but an unprofitable servant. I gladly go to the foot of the class and own myself the least of Thy people. If I err in my self judgment and actually underestimate myself I do not want to know it. I purpose to pray for others and to rejoice in their prosperity as if it were my own. And indeed it is my own if it is Thine own, for what is Thine is mine, and while one plants and another waters it is Thou alone that giveth the increase.”

Liz Dumain

Liz Dumain

Assistant Director of Mission at Birmingham Diocese
After 10 years at Youth for Christ as part of the National Leadership team, Liz joined the Birmingham Diocese as their Assistant Director of Mission. A qualified life & ministry coach, Liz longs to see people experience everything this extraordinary life has to offer. She’s a lover of good coffee, interesting conversation, Jesus, and specialist gin (not necessarily in that order!).
Liz Dumain

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