by Archie Kenyon
I’ve always been competitive.
In card games with my family, I grew up playing to win. My high school basketball team won a provincial championship. For me university exams were a contest to see who could get the highest mark. I ran two marathons with the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. About a month after getting married, I proposed keeping a tally of our board game wins/losses, to see who was “winning the marriage.” I was only half joking when I asked. My wife was fully serious when she said no.
So needless to say, when I started to take on ministry leadership roles as a student, I had to check my heart. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that ministry was not a competition. The playing field was clear: love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. But old habits don’t die on their own.
What’s your poison?
Perhaps taming the competition beast is not your challenge, but could I suggest you may be falling into the trap of ministry comparison?
You don’t start leading a small group because you want it to be better than someone else’s, but you do find yourself comparing how many people came out to yours and theirs. You don’t wish bad evangelism experiences upon other Christians, but when someone shares an amazing story of a new believer, you find yourself complaining to God that you never get to see any fruit.
Jesus’ disciples were no strangers to ministry comparison, pride, and jealousy. Check out this story in Mark 9:38,
“‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’”
It’s good to know we’re not alone. But rather than simply enjoy misery with company, let’s get to the heart.
Three roots of the comparison-itis
Why do we compare our ministry efforts and our ministry fruit? What is at the root of ministry comparison? It could be a number of things.
1. Finding your identity in performance.
Whether it’s our grade point average or our resume, the world is constantly telling us that our identity is in what we do or what we have accomplished. Or we hear the subtle message that our identity is in our potential.
Maybe as a student it’s too early to put your hope in what you have already done, but it is no better for your soul to put your hope in what you think you one day could accomplish.
Ministry is not immune to this thinking. We can simply transfer our performance mindset from things the world cares about to things the church thinks about. As long as you find your worth in how you perform (even at God-focused activities), there will always be someone else’s performance to compare yours to.
I had always told myself that being Jesus’ child was more important to me than being Jesus’ ambassador, but it was hard to know if those words were true deep down. – Archie Kenyon
2. Finding your reward in what others think of you.
I’m not gonna lie—I really like it when others notice the good work I’m a part of.
I had a couple of years leading at Western University where we were probably the biggest P2C-Students group in Canada. I had no trouble sharing stories at a gathering of staff.
I have also had years where my campuses have shrunk in breadth and depth. I found myself wanting to justify our lean results or blame outside circumstances so people knew it wasn’t my fault. The reality is that people probably still love us even if we aren’t seeing revival, but either way, the judgment of others is fallible, fickle, and fleeting.
Others might not be trying to enslave us, but we offer to be their slaves when we need their approval. Paul knew this risk when he said, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.” (1 Corinthians 4:3) We can listen to others for advice without needing their approval. It is a fine line, but our conscience often knows the difference.
3. Caring about your own kingdom more than God’s.
This was likely the case with Jesus’ disciples.
They were on Jesus’ core team. They were leading the polls (at least in their own minds) for who would sit at Jesus’ right and left hand. Now there were other “workers” on the scene, in their territory no less. John’s response to this “competition” revealed that he cared more about his crew getting the credit than about Jesus’ mission and message expanding.
This could show itself in a few different ways:
You try to convince a new student to join your small group instead of someone else’s.
When you recruit someone to a P2C conference or mission trip, you make it seem like saying yes is the only option that seeks first his kingdom.
You are unable to truly be excited when you hear of another ministry getting bigger than yours.
All of these and more could be signs that you only want God to get the glory if you can get the credit.
Three disease treatment recommendations
What are the antidotes for these internal comparison diseases?
It helps to look at Jesus’ response to the disciples’ ministry comparison game. Back to Mark 9:39-41:
“‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.’”
1. Find your identity in Jesus.
Jesus explains why they need not fear these other workers: “because you belong to the Messiah.” What a thought! And what a foundation.
I had always told myself that being Jesus’ child was more important to me than being Jesus’ ambassador, but it was hard to know if those words were true deep down.
For my first fifteen years of ministry as a student and a staff, the ministries I had been a part of had always grown year-to-year. Then we had a rough year at York University. There was an university strike that killed our momentum.
Many students we poured into stepped back from ministry. Many students who stuck around weren’t aligned with our vision.
Some of it was out of our control, and some of it was because of poor choices on our part. I would never wish for those things to happen, but it was one of best things for my heart to go through.
What I had always said about not following Jesus for what he did for or through me held true. I still slept well at night. I still found joy in knowing Christ. The erosion of my ministry success proved my identity in Jesus.
2. Find your reward in what God thinks of you.
While other humans are inadequate judges of our ministry, God is sees it all. He doesn’t miss a simple cup of water given in his name. And he doesn’t just notice our service, he rewards it! Our Father isn’t judging us by the measure of our results, but by who we’re labouring for. Whose name were these works being done in? Jesus’ name.
Is it Jesus’ name that gives you joy, fills your tank, and motivates your ministry?
With God we’re not the flavour of the month that is forgotten when the next big thing comes along; we’re the apple of his eye, his treasured possession, his chosen people. He will test our work, but as the One who died for us to secure our eternal destiny.
3. Care more about God’s kingdom than your own.
“In my name.” Anyone doing work in Jesus’ name is worthy of celebrating. It doesn’t matter if Archie gets the credit, or Power to Change, or evangelicalism, or whatever team I align with. What matters is Jesus’ fame. And he will get his due whether I contribute to it or not.
A great test for me is how my heart reacts when I hear about another person or group getting praise for building God’s kingdom. If I notice jealousy or bitterness, I ask God to forgive me. And then I get proactive.
I thank God for growing another staff’s group.
I pass on stories of God’s saving power from other campuses.
I pray for that other Christian club, for it to grow bigger than ours.
And you know what happens when I start doing those things—my heart truly experiences Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
A great test for me is how my heart reacts when I hear about another person or group getting praise for building God’s kingdom. If I notice jealousy or bitterness, I ask God to forgive me. And then I get proactive. – Archie Kenyon
It is easy to avoid one error by simply adopting another. In the name of avoiding the comparison trap, some would advise simply not caring about fruit or numbers. But it isn’t wrong to count.
Taking an honest stock of our visible ministry results can help us steward what God has entrusted to us. For example, if your movement sent five students on mission trips this year, you may want to thank God for that and step out in faith, asking him for ten to go next year. God doesn’t owe us anything, but he is a good father who loves it when we ask for his kingdom to come in greater measure.
The true test of being free from the ministry comparison trap isn’t avoiding evaluating our own work, but being able to evaluate it and still rejoice in whatever the fruit is, big or small.
Side note: But Paul advocated for competition, right?
Maybe you are wondering if there any place for a competitive mindset in ministry?
Perhaps. Look at Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul encourages believers to see our lives as a race. But we are competing against our own laziness and fear and the spiritual forces that would hold us back, not against our brothers and sisters who are also trying to finish the race.
Challenge yourself. Do not run aimlessly. Pursue Christ and his kingdom with single minded focus. Cheer, encourage, coach, and spur your fellow athletes on to that heavenly goal.
Paul encourages believers to see our lives as a race. But we are competing against our own laziness and fear and the spiritual forces that would hold us back, not against our brothers and sisters who are also trying to finish the race. – Archie Kenyon
Take some action…
First of all, thank God for the ministry he has given you. Big or small, God is the source and deserves our gratitude.
Second, pray for the ministries you may be most tempted to envy or compare yourself too. Ask God to bless them beyond all they could ask or imagine. The cool thing is, now that you’re praying for them, you too can share in their rewards. (Even if no one but God notices.)
Third, is there anything you can do practically to encourage another ministry? Could you send an encouragement note or make time to help them with something or offer to partner in something that helps them, even more than it helps you?
Last, enjoy the freedom that comes from finding your identity in Christ, your approval from the Father, and your kingdom submitted to his.
Fight against the pull of comparison
Others tried to draw the apostle Paul into the comparison game. See how his freedom in Christ gave him the ability to provide this answer in 2 Corinthians 10:12-17:
“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.
We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.
We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others.
Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. But, ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”
I know with my competitive spirit, my heart will end up boasting in something. Let it be in nothing but my Lord Jesus Christ.