I have a confession: I don’t like to lose. And it’s likely you don’t like to lose either. Whether I’m playing a board game with my family or nine-square with students at church, I experience more gratification when I experience the thrill of victory than the agony of defeat.
Sometimes competition can drive us to be better. A healthy spirit of wanting to be your best and striving for excellence can propel us to higher levels of quality and productivity. On the other hand, an unhealthy competitive spirit finds its roots in jealousy and impure motives.
My first encounter with ministry competition seems silly now, but it is vividly etched in my brain. Years ago, I taught a Sunday School class of seventh grade girls. Our church was large enough that our rolls necessitated two classes. Each week, I compared the number of girls in my class to the other teacher. She would consistently have at least ten girls each week, and I struggled to have three. Week after week, I would go home defeated and complain to my husband that she was beating me in the numbers game. I wondered if my class secretly wished they were in the other group where the discussion seemed livelier and the girls were more energetic.
No doubt, my competitive motives and jealousy were out of control. Instead of focusing on the ministry that sat in front of me each week, I pouted in silence and questioned the Lord if I had mistaken His gentle calling to shepherd this small flock of young women. I secretly wished for the day I could brag about being the “popular” teacher with a large following, but the harder I focused on “winning” the numbers game, the more I struggled with comparison and pride.
Maybe you don’t struggle with misplaced competition in various areas of your life, but when it comes to ministry, it’s a good idea to reflect on unhealthy habits and focus on ways to use competition for good and how to be a servant leader who understands winning is not about privilege but about responsibility and stewardship.
Unhealthy competition reared its ugly head right in the middle of the Last Supper between the disciples. Luke 22 describes the scene that took place after Jesus shared the Passover. It should have been a time of remembrance and personal reflection, but verse 24 says, “Then a dispute also arose among them about who should be considered the greatest” (CSB). I want to picture Jesus shaking His head and contemplating why these guys were the ones chosen to lead the early church, but in His sovereignty and tenderness, He gave them a lesson on servant leadership. He prayed for Peter’s faith to not fail and gently said in verse 32b, “And you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” So what can we learn from Jesus in this passage on how we deal with competition in ministry? Here are four practical suggestions that have helped me when I need to redirect unhealthy competition.
First, don’t plot against your competition. Instead, pray for them. Do you secretly want a ministry partner to fail, or do you sincerely pray for their success? If someone else is being praised for ministry accomplishments, do you celebrate with them, or do you secretly wish for your own recognition? Jesus was teaching the disciples in this passage that leadership isn’t about authority or winning but serving others. He reminded the disciples our focus shouldn’t be on ourselves, but the welfare of others. Even after the resurrection, Jesus told Peter in John 21 that he will suffer for following Him, not be rewarded with accolades. For a moment, Peter pointed to John and said, “Lord, what about him?” (v. 21). I love Jesus’ answer in verse 22: “what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” You and I can develop this kind of leadership when we cheer for others who also lead in ministry positions.
Second, prioritize the relationship with your competition. If you are praying for them, you should also desire to create a bridge of friendship and not build a wall of jealousy. Unhealthy competition can be thwarted when you truly seek a partnership. Be reminded that even in ministry competition, you are still on the same team with the purpose of advancing the gospel. After Jesus’ ascension, we find the walls of competition broken and a new sense of unity among His followers. As they waited on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, “They all were continually united in prayer” (Acts 1:14a). Not only were they united in prayer, but they were also united in mission. The Lord may give each person a different audience or a different method, but everyone wins when the mission is focused on following Him and leading others to Christ. Phil. 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.”
Third, point the finger at yourself and examine your motives. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All a person’s ways seem right to him, but the LORD weighs motives.” Jesus knew the thoughts of His disciples as they finished their meal, and maybe He even remembered the scene from just a few days prior when Salome, the mother of James and John, asked Jesus to give preference to her sons in the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-24). We, too, must examine our motives in the midst of competition. Is your desire for your name to be famous, or do you have the goal of making Jesus famous? Colossians 3:5a says to “put to death what belongs to your earthly nature,” so consider if there is a need for confession and repentance for misguided competition. We are not expected to just be faithful in our ministry, but to also be fruitful. And sometimes fruitfulness comes when we prune away the roots of jealousy and envy.
Finally, trust the Lord and His promises when dealing with unhealthy competition. Seek integrity in the way you compete, just as 2 Timothy 2:5 says, “Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” If you are constantly striving to win in ministry, are you resting and leaving the results to God? Have you considered that your measure of winning may not be the same as winning in the Lord’s eyes?
It was this realization that gave me a chance to rethink how I viewed my worth and value as a seventh grade Sunday School teacher. As my attitude adjusted, I began focusing on my relationships with the girls who showed up. Instead of looking at the crowded room of my so-called competitor, I looked into the eyes of each girl that came to my group and pointed them to God’s Word each week. While I didn’t see immediate growth of the group’s size, I saw spiritual growth in each girl, including seeing one of them baptized into the faith. I stayed connected to them until they graduated from high school and have watched that small number of girls flourish in their discipleship and walk with the Lord. I discovered winning isn’t always measured by what the world values, but spiritual growth is worth the eternal prize when we cross the finish line of our lives.
Kelly D. King is the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for Lifeway Christian Resources. She is the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide for Leading Women in the Local Church. You can hear Kelly at Lifeway’s You Lead events that are held in several cities around the country or listen to her co-host the Marked Podcast with Elizabeth Hyndman.