Pastoring reminds me of logrolling. Logrolling started in the late 1800s with lumberjacks who learned to walk on floating, rolling logs in order to break up logjams, a pastoral task if ever there was one. It wasn’t long before things got competitive, two guys fast-footing on either end of the same log till one was dumped into the river. I’ve never tried that sport, but I know what it is to feel like I can’t move my feet any faster and I’m about to lose my balance and go under. Competitive logrolling is not for shepherds.
For 22 years I pastored a modest-sized church in a tony northern suburb of Chicago. One day I got wind that Willow Creek Community Church, the mega-est of them all, was going to plant yet another campus, this one just two miles away. I literally got sick to my stomach. My wife urged me to think kingdom thoughts, but it wasn’t working. The megachurch on the other end of the log was about to dump me. I just knew it. Competition is the COVID of pastoral life.
The only competition early church pastors faced was with heretics, not with each other. Nonetheless, a sense of inadequacy goes way back to Timothy. Consider Paul’s admonition to him as remedy for our own toxic competitiveness:
For this reason [your sincere faith] I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Tim. 1:6-7)
Trying to keep up with the Parsons invariably pits us against someone else’s gifts or efforts. Such mimicry doesn’t bear fruit. Remember how Pharaoh’s sorcerers tried to match Moses’ miraculous signs? We can come dangerously close to that.
To regain your balance, remember your call and the fiery gift of God bestowed upon you. That gift, already aglow within you, is the starter flame for any ministry God has for you. It is still as much a free gift as the grace of salvation itself. Instead of competing, rekindle your confidence in God’s calling.
Evidently, timidity (cowardice, lost confidence) tamps down the spark of God’s gift within us. I felt like a 98-pound weakling compared to the visionary pastors or the big, growing churches. (On the other hand, feeling superior to other pastors and churches smothers God’s flame just as surely.)
To fan God’s gift into flame is to draw on these tripartite gifts of the Holy Spirit: power, love, and self-discipline. They are the antivenom for the snakebite of ministry competition.
Power is the Christlike authority to make disciples wherever we’re sent. We do not need to be better than any other pastor or bigger than any other congregation to do what the Lord calls us to do.
Love re-personalizes ministry minimized by metrics. The pursuit of the big win always diminishes relationships; it’s the Bobby Knight problem. Love is the kingdom’s North Star and the Lord’s language.
Self-discipline, or sound judgment, regains the mind of Christ addled when ministry becomes a frantic effort to keep your balance, and reorients us to easily forgotten kingdom values like “the least of these” and “servant of all.”
Freed from the smothering curse of comparison, you can attend to the Spirit-directed relationships, skills, and strategies that will walk your flock along the paths of righteousness. What’s more, there is the relief of finding sure footing in God’s grace. It’s as easy as falling off a log.
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.