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Sun Jun 16, 2013
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When comparison replaces contentment
The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.
Throughout this post, I will refer to the experience of Covenant Community Church (CCC). CCC is not a real church but a composite of churches I have worked with in 43 years of ministry. Although the church is fictitious, the mistakes are not. I have either made these mistakes myself, been in ministries where they have occurred, or coached leaders who have experienced them personally in their ministry assignments.
In the leadership realm, comparing yourself or your ministry to others is a huge issue. I have been to more leadership meetings than I care to remember. When pastors from the same denomination or leaders from the same organization have their periodic meetings, the “comparing games” begin in earnest. We compare results, size, salaries, cars, houses, responsibilities, fruitfulness, breakthroughs, victories, major achievements, and favorite vacation spots. Sometimes we go around the room and give reports, which just seems to feed the “comparing circus.” Other than being harmful, dangerous, and unbiblical, comparing ourselves to others is normal. Normal, that is, for our fallen and prideful old nature, which, I am sorry to report, is in very good health these days among many leaders.
Although Jim had no church background, he was fascinated as a teenager by the stories he heard from his high school friends of the huge difference Jesus had made in their lives. This led him on a spiritual search. His friends invited him to church and Young Life meetings. Jim asked a ton of questions, began reading a Bible given to him by one of his new friends at church, and over a period of four months came to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ: that Jesus had died in his place for his sin, rose from the dead, and would one day return.
It was becoming clear to Jim that being a Christian had everything to do with what Jesus had done for him on the cross and nothing to do with his own morality or good works. One evening while at home, he quietly got down on his knees and prayed, confessing his sin and asking Jesus to be his Savior.
He has been content to wait for “God’s timing.” At least, that’s what he thought.
Jim grew quickly as he experienced community, continued to read his Bible, and eagerly began to share his love for Jesus with friends at school. Then he was off to Cal Berkeley and, later, seminary. Right out of seminary he and Esther (friends since their Young Life days) married, and Jim joined the staff at CCC. He first served as youth pastor, and then associate pastor, and lastly as executive pastor, having oversight of the rest of the paid and volunteer staff.
Jim has been the executive pastor at CCC for five years. They have been fruitful years, even though the lead pastor, Norm, can be a hard guy to work with at times, and hard to please. But generally things have been pretty good. Jim is responsible for seeing that all systems and processes are working well, primarily by shepherding the staff. Norm and Jim are joined at the hip in the day-to-day operations of CCC.
Jim does a little counseling and preaches once in a while when Norm is out of town or on vacation, although it seems that Norm and his family are taking less and less time off lately. Jim enjoys his responsibilities and feels like he is seeing Jesus do wonderful things in the lives of the people he works with. He has aspirations of someday being called to be a lead pastor in his denomination. For the most part he has been content to wait for “God’s timing.” At least, he thought he was content—until recently.
Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition
It all started the evening he felt led to share with his wife that he was starting to lose motivation in ministry, but he wasn’t sure why. For the last several months he has found it difficult to listen to Norm preach. It has been easier than ever before to be critical. He often finds himself thinking, I could do better than that. When will I ever be given the chance to be a lead pastor and primary communicator, as opposed to just preaching five or six times a year?
It all came to a head on a Monday morning as he was reading in the book of James during his morning time with Jesus. He was hit hard by the Holy Spirit when he read James 3:14–16:
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. . . . For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
Over the next several days, he did some heavy thinking and introspection in light of this passage and his recent feelings. He had to admit to himself that he was angry, jealous, and frustrated.
An inability to rejoice
Jim began reviewing his past. He came to realize that comparing, competing, and coveting had been a problem (and a temptation) for as long as he could remember. Even back in high school, he got his senses of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-identity by comparing himself with others. How did he look? How was he doing? How did others view him regarding his grades, his clothes, his athletic prowess, and his popularity with the girls?
In his role as associate pastor, comparing was becoming a big problem for him. Every time he went to district leadership meetings, the issue resurfaced. Most leadership meetings he attended depressed him and sent him into a funk for several days after. Comparing and competing was the soup du jour. At times Jim was even asked by old seminary buddies when he was going to lead his own church.
Rather than rejoicing in the blessings of God on other leaders (especially Norm), Jim found himself getting increasingly discouraged and depressed because he perceived he wasn’t doing as well as he should be doing and he was not advancing in church leadership. As he reflected on his past as well as more recent experiences, he identified feelings of jealousy, envy, and even anger toward Norm and others on the pastoral team. He was a mess!
What could he do to recapture the joy in his relationship with Jesus?
In a recent staff meeting, Norm went around the room asking for verbal reports on what was happening in various ministry areas. This had become a regular thing for Norm to do in meetings. This particular meeting was especially difficult for Jim. He was having a hard time rejoicing in what others were experiencing. He was mentally comparing to find out where he was in the food chain of fruitfulness. He was bouncing back and forth between envy and pride as different people shared.
He kept asking himself why it was so hard to be thankful for the fruit and victories others were having. Why did he have to ask himself if he was doing better or worse than somebody else on the team?
He had allowed comparison to replace contentment.
Jim now started to see this as a major problem that, if allowed to continue, would cause significant issues in his personal walk and with his family as well as at CCC. What could he do to recapture the joy in his relationship with Jesus and be content with what God was currently doing through him? Should he confess his sin to Norm and others on the pastoral team? Should he share it with some of the key leaders? Was it that big a deal? He decided that it was, and he acted immediately in response to the Holy Spirit’s promptings, and Esther’s encouragement.
Giving it all up in repentance
By God’s grace Jim decided to take responsibility for his lack of contentment and for playing the comparison games. He confessed, repented, and shared his insight with most everyone. He is not out of the woods yet, but he is keenly aware of the danger that lurks in his attitude and view of himself and is developing a deeper sense of the sovereignty of God and a greater understanding of the biblical concept of contentment. He is learning anew what it means to trust in God’s care and concern for him and in what the Lord is allowing to be accomplished at CCC. He is learning how to wait for God’s timing in his ministry.
This post is adapted material from Dave’s newest book, Mistakes Leaders Make, set to release on September 30. If you would like Dave to speak at your church on leadership, please email him: email@example.com