I compare myself to you, and I’m sorry
How can we overcome our tendency to silently compete with one another in ministry?
One evening at the Fall 2019 JEMA Refresh Retreat, a fellow participant introduced a few of us to the game “Spot It!” (By the way, these retreats are great, so go if you ever have the chance.) Once I understood the rules, my posture changed, and I leaned as close to the table as I could, deciding to win. It wasn’t long before other participants were giving me a hard time (in good fun) about my competitiveness.
I know that I am more competitive than most people. I have also had enough conversations with fellow missionaries to see that competition and comparison are common struggles. They are more universal than we would like to admit and they are awkward to discuss.
Competition in personal ministry
Language is one area where we tend to compare and compete. I am not proud to say that the following inner dialogue regularly happens when I am in a Japanese-language situation with another foreigner. They open their mouth and I . . .
A. Feel relief or pride when I realize my language ability is better.
B. Feel insecure or embarrassed when I realize their language ability is better.
This is wrong, yet quite common for many of us. No matter where we are language-wise, many of us non-native speakers feel some degree of insecurity about our current ability. This seems to be consistent between missionaries in language school all the way up to veterans with several decades of ministry experience. I am aware of this tendency, yet I struggle to break the cycle.
The same comparative tendencies come up in other areas of ministry. I am quick to share or defend my fruit when describing my ministry. I tell my stories in a way to make sure my contribution doesn’t sound less than others’. I judge people based on their support level. I compare theological backgrounds, ministry models, and sending organizations.
I don’t want to give the picture that I am continually sitting around judging people. I’m not. But these thoughts and comparisons do regularly pop into my mind, and they affect my emotions and authentic relationships with others. I wish they didn’t.
Is the answer appropriate vulnerability? I am not advocating transparency in the form of sharing everything with everyone. Still, I wonder if I can overcome insecurity about language ability by admitting to others my temptation in this area. While it is undoubtedly uncomfortable, does discussing it make a difference?
Competition between our organizations
This dynamic also plays out on an organizational level. Since September 2019, I have been serving as the director of my organization’s missionary team. I want to see revival come to Japan, but the secret truth is that I hope that our people get the credit. I want to partner with other organizations and churches, but I want our people to lead. I want to work in the same region as other groups, but I want our missionaries to have the best placements. I want your Japanese to be great, but I don’t want it to be better than our missionaries’ language skills.
I cognitively believe that we are one body, and when anyone in missions “wins,” we all win. At the same time, I wrestle with feelings of competition, jealousy, comparison, insecurity, and inferiority. This is the antithesis of JEMA’s vision, and I grieve over how often my heart and mind bend in these directions.
Here are examples of how I have struggled with organizational comparison. The questions I asked myself in these situations are in brackets.
- Reading an article online promoting another ministry’s work. (Why aren’t they writing about our work?)
- Noticing the size discrepancy between our organization and others. (Why can’t we recruit more missionaries?)
- Serving at a church alongside missionaries from another group and being tempted to compare our fruit. (Why aren’t we seeing as many of our friends baptized as they are?)
- Wanting to collaborate with other organizations in our prefecture—but desiring our missionaries to get the best placements and credit for making things happen. (What if something cool happens, but we don’t get any credit?)
My friends in the organizations alluded to above are doing excellent work. I am not proud of the thoughts and questions I listed above. Although I didn’t fixate on these questions, I realized that I easily became insecure at the idea of another organization’s success. I don’t want to live this way. I want to hear about something organization X is doing well and celebrate it without the “but we,” “what about,” or “why not us” questions.
Rejoicing with those who rejoice
Following the 3.11 triple disaster, I had the privilege of hearing many stories in Miyagi. The theme of comparison came out in many of those conversations. Romans 12:15—”Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (NIV)—served as a key verse as we navigated those difficult and complicated discussions.
It is relatively easy for us to mourn with those who mourn. But I wish I had known how to rejoice appropriately with people who had a reason to rejoice. I think we often face the same tension when our organizations interact. I can sit down and listen to a missionary’s struggles, a problematic personnel situation, or someone’s pain, and respond appropriately. It impacts me emotionally, but it doesn’t threaten me. Their struggle doesn’t challenge my success (or lack thereof).
But the sad truth is that if you tell me that your church plant is exploding and you don’t know what to do with all the new believers, I may not know what to do. Intellectually I know you’re telling me good news, but my emotions aren’t always in sync with my beliefs. Paul is calling the church to be equally empathetic when responding to someone’s situation, whether in good or challenging times. It’s not about me. I need to grow in this Romans 12:15 mentality.
Who am I trying to please?
In January 2020, I attended a meeting with several Japanese leaders and a few missionaries. We were dreaming, praying, and strategizing over how Japan can practically get to 2% Christian. My Japanese was probably the worst in the room, and I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t speak as clearly as I thought I should.
What am I doing here? Did what I just say even communicate? They must think it’s a joke that I am here. These were a few of the thoughts that bounced around inside my head from time to time. Then at other times, I would oscillate to feeling proud that I was included in the discussion. Very few missionaries are in the room, and I am one of them. I’m pretty awesome. My view of self was dependent on how I assumed others in the room perceived me.
Mike Wilson, a friend and colleague who passed away two years ago, often talked about this temptation. He was quick to remind us that we are all serving an audience of one. It does not matter how I am doing in comparison to anyone else. What matters is how I am doing before God.
Competition and comparison express themselves differently in each of us. I love my organization, but I want my joy to come from the advancement of God’s kingdom in Japan, regardless of who gets the credit. For us to work together on micro and macro levels, we must move beyond the insecurities and pride that cause us to compete. To see Japan transformed by the gospel, we need to minister as one church (both among missionaries and the broader church in Japan). I am sorry that I still struggle with comparison and pray that, more and more, we will learn to “be one” (John 17:21).