Is Ministry a Competition?

By Brian Congdon

Energizing, life-giving strength is available if we walk intimately with Christ. In Christian ministry, polished gifts, abilities, or power-endowed positions are often used as the “evidence” of this Christ-like strength. Are they the standard? Not exactly. As the popular saying goes, the greater the calling, the deeper the foundation required. Is ministry a competition of sorts? Didn’t the Apostle Paul encourage believers to compete by stating, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” (1 Corinthians 9:24) Christians may certainly seek to run in God’s course, but it isn’t a race against other believers. Competitive approaches to Christian ministry block Christ’s exemplary pattern of sacrifice. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

We Christians ought to take pride in our humility rather than our abilities or being in charge of something. Once I was part of a charismatic house group focused on intercessory prayer. The group really stood out in terms of their intercessory skill as they prayed and practiced prophesying over others. This positive atmosphere was refreshing! The prophecies rang true and the Holy Spirit was present. But eventually, an odd character trait revealed itself. The group members would try to outdo one another with powerful prophetic words. One intercessor would speak and share an insight, articulating intricate details almost poetically as they prayed and made decrees. Then another would follow with an even more “poignant” word! The intercessors jockeyed to see who could deliver their prophecy first. Watching this reality unfold over the course of several months, one day I felt “the polite Holy Spirit” drop a “truth bomb” in my personal spirit. He spoke very softly, but said “Ministry is not a competition.” I quickly made the decision to keep it quiet, matter-of-factly sensing it would not go over well in this atmosphere.

Not one to give up easily—the Holy Spirit had different plans. He continued prodding me to say something to the point that I finally, reluctantly agreed. As I gently voiced the phrase in a time of open sharing, Bobby Rose (not her real name) immediately erupted with all the emotional vitriol of an angry tiger. “Well, of course! It’s unto the Lord!!!” she snarled, visibly irritated. Bobby Rose’s face looked like a colored balloon that was about to pop! In place of an inviting pastoral demeanor was a possessive, aggressive creature defending its prize. Now, with a simple flip of the switch, a stern attitude took over, booming: “I’m in charge here!  How dare you question my ministry?” Respectfully, er, um, ma’am… it’s not your ministry. It’s the Lord’s. Christian ministry is the Lord’s work, carried out through invariably cracked vessels. Did you take note of the “cracked” adjective? The cracks are a prerequisite for Kingdom effectiveness. Un-cracked vessels have only enough room for self and have no intention of sharing resource with others. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Another time I participated in a church conference where the main theme was the Kingdom of God. The conference’s speaker was very anointed and taught extensively on Kingdom principles. One session was followed by free-for-all “prophetic mic” announcements on the auditorium floor. Several ‘emerging’ prophets single-file awaited their turn to share comments. After a few mediocre announcements failed to ooh-and-ah the crowd (we all have to learn some way, somehow J), a young woman grabbed the mic and proceeded to lecture the captive audience in a condescending and professorial tone, as though “teaching a lesson” on spiritual maturity. In turn, the conference speaker didn’t skip a beat. He calmly but firmly explained how competing prophets in a congregation are not the Kingdom pattern, rather “how wonderful it is when the prophets non-competitively come to refresh the congregation with the ‘Word of the Lord’!”

A resident of the national capital region (in the USA), I have crossed paths with those who serve in positions of considerable influence and, in some cases, on national platforms. As a faithful attendee of a church in this area, one time I observed a congregant deliver a strange “prophecy.” This lay member was a constitutional lawyer who had actually argued cases before the Supreme Court! In a lawyerly and articulate fashion, he recited some verses from the Old Testament, but offered no interpretation or application of the Scripture recitation. A plurality of pastors and audience abruptly gave an ovation with one pastor nearly catapulting to his feet with excitement. However, the “prophecy” contained no prophecy or spiritual unction! It was merely a showcase of one man’s neatly packaged presentation skills. The pastors of this declining church (many congregants left over the years) may have viewed this super-member as their wunderkind because he had achieved a lofty status in the “court” of public opinion. Perhaps he boosted their perceived public image. On another occasion, these pastors approached me to inquire about a personal matter. At the end of their inquiry, they brought up the unrelated topic of this same lawyer, bragging about how he been mentored by a prominent scholar and taken on constitutional law cases in front of the Supreme Court. Having attended for 4 years and served in leadership for one of them, I found these patronizing attitudes unsettling. Not long after, I voluntarily left the Church of Self-righteousness (not its real name) for less self-righteous pastures. I was asked to consider staying by a fellow member; I politely declined.

Another form of competition happens across the generational divide. Enter the apprentice who was made responsible for a marketing project under a respected pastor with a network of churches. As is best practice when building something new, the apprentice started the idea-gathering phase with key questions. Layout? Content? Message? Colors? This leader’s actual response was “I’m really not sure. When I see it, I’ll know if I like it.” With no blueprints or orientation to offer, the pastor was the captain of the ship—a ship whose rudder was missing! For some reason he wanted to save all building requirements for later. The apprentice’s youthful zeal and desire to serve were in no short supply as the project began full steam ahead. After significant work had been completed, much sweat, energy, and time was expended on the project. And after multiple failed attempts to gather feedback had transpired, the apprentice presented his carefully made deliverables. Like a freight train jumping the tracks, the minister uttered the dreaded words: “this isn’t at all what I had in mind; let’s scrap this direction and go with something totally different.” With a few quick words, he singlehandedly wiped out weeks of work. Though he may have had the right to a veto—the minister also had a responsibility to exercise humility and good judgment. This pastor may have just been learning about marketing, so, giving him the benefit of grace, perhaps he didn’t realize his impact or role in the equation. Still, preferring to maintain subordinancy in his apprentice, he used the power of his position to assert rank. Blindly (and indifferently) discarding all that went into the effort, some might label this a demonstrable misuse of power.

What can these competitive spats teach us? Rather than judging motive, the goal is to illustrate the architecture of a spiritual reality versus a fleshly reality. Though anyone can point out what people do wrong, there is great value to be gleaned from our mistakes. The aim and emphasis here should be on learning to separate out vanity from spirit-life. A better approach as Christians is the following list of points. First off, acknowledge we all belong to the Body of Christ wherein each member is uniquely equipped to function in their life-giving design and calling. Every member is a minister even if not all have the same responsibility level. Secondly, defer to other believers’ expertise and area of ability where it is superior to your own. We all need each other. No one has it all.

Special status, intellectual elitism, or razor-sharp skills—when not anchored in character—can and will do damage. No matter how many healings, power-filled words, water-walking feats of super-heroism, or convincing charisma, no one is above the “law” of character transformation. Godly character validates gifting, never the latter by itself. Giftedness doesn’t equal uniqueness; it is commonplace and normal to all humanity whether saved or not. Paul said he would boast in his sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:16-33), not his intelligence or gifts or position to tell people what to do. Of course, we all make mistakes and commit really stupid blunders. It is part of growing up and developing into a functional human being. Little kids and teenagers are considered under-age (news flash!) because they are not yet responsible adults. We are also commanded by Scripture to forgive others (Matthew 6:15), not judge lest we be judged (Matthew 7:1-2), and not hold anything against a brother (Romans 14:10-12). We must repent quickly and avoid harboring grudges. There should also be an axiom in the church which says “If you SEE something, PRAY something!” In other words, if you see a brother or sister’s error and they are blind or deaf to it, you are responsible to pray for them! We all have areas of blindness and no one is exempt from the need for adjustment and course corrections.

Our lives are but a breath of wind in a cosmic plan of eternal proportion. All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Though every person is created in God’s image and by extension loveable, we are not always as special or unique as we usually want people to believe. The truly special and unique one here, without exception, is God’s son, Jesus Christ. We should constantly give Him all the credit. We are called, though we are often weak, dependent, and made of dust, to play a role on earth in building the City whose foundations are eternal (Hebrews 11:10). When will we start to get over ourselves and turn our eyes to the Savior? I have been deeply fortunate to hold company with some authentic saints who embodied Christ in genuine character. These precious few were willing to pay the very costly price of obedience over the course of many decades. Though they are rare and often hidden, when you encounter the real deal of transformed Christ-like character— they sparkle like diamonds in spirit; a treasure to behold!

Christ is: the very definition of humility. He is the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13–53:3):

This Servant “shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (52:13), an image of majesty and awe. Yet this exaltation does not occur in a manner that human beings would expect. The Servant is not lifted high because of some kind of outer beauty or evident regal stature, for He is “marred, beyond human semblance” (v. 14) and has “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2). No, humiliation is the path for the Suffering Servant’s exaltation.
Tabletalk Magazine, April 2013, Ligonier.org

The depth of legitimate suffering and the believer’s obedient response (this transforms character) are the bona fide determinative factors behind genuine spiritual influence. To put it in laymen’s terms, if you want to have a lot of influence in the Kingdom of God, you have to pay a very high price. Some will lose everything they have. And on the other side of the deep valleys of loneliness and loss, Christ will resurrect and pay back “double for the trouble.” Christ lost every single thing one could lose, even his own body, and in resurrection His reward was the nations (Psalm 2).

Don’t aspire to be like the gilded weather vane on top of a great building. However much it may glitter, however high it may be, it adds nothing to the firmness of the structure. Rather be like an old stone block hidden in the foundations, under the ground where no one can see you. Because of you, the house will not fall.
-St. Jose Maria Escriva

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