Envy in the ministry

Last New Year’s Eve, Gary and I went with some friends to the Grand Rapids Symphony.  The featured artist was Dave Bennett, a child prodigy on the clarinet who specializes in the music of Benny Goodman.  Bennett, who is only 23 years old, is an absolutely amazing musician, and we all enjoyed the concert tremendously. 

Walking back to the car, one of our friends said, “Don’t you just feel like a failure when you listen to someone like Dave Bennett?  I mean, what talent do I have?”  Someone else commented, referring to the parable of Jesus, “God must love one talent people.  That’s why God created so many of us!”  It really was too bad that as we celebrated the unique gifts of another, we devalued our own.

It also brought to mind the day before when I played the organ for both services at First UMC in Grand Rapids.  I don’t play the organ much anymore, so preparing doesn’t come easily.  Unfortunately, I bombed the postlude at the first service and felt completely humiliated.  Between services, as I wondered whether I should play something less daunting as a postlude for the second service rather than risk another failure, I gave myself a pep talk.  “Okay, Laurie, so you’re not the world’s best organist, and you never were.  And you are pretty rusty.  But odds are you’ll play it right the second time around.  Plus, you really do have a friendly audience, so why not just go for it?”  Which I did, and things went fine.

We humans have the unfortunate knack of comparing ourselves to others.  Just because others are far better organists, preachers, athletes or artists, does that mean we shouldn’t even pursue our passions?  In addition, why do we tend to position ourselves over and against our so-called “competitors?” 

If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I have a problem with envy and jealousy, even in the ministry.  Well, especially in the ministry.  At the same time as I enjoy learning from outstanding pastors, I find myself continually comparing myself to others who are finer preachers, more adept administrators, more compelling writers, more knowledgeable theologians, more skilled teachers and more compassionate pastoral caregivers than I am.

It was particularly bad when I’d go to conferences as a local church pastor.  It probably doesn’t happen to you, but when I heard inspiring stories about successful churches and pastors, I’d often feel deflated.  All I could think was, “Our budget will never be that large, we’ll never have that much staff, we’ll never grow that big, and we’ll never give that much money to missions.”

Rather than be encouraged, I’d feel depressed and envious, which would sometimes morph into veiled criticism and stereotyping.  “We’ll, I don’t like their style of worship, anyway.  They’re so large, they can’t possibly offer the same personal touch.  Their theology is too shallow.” 

The problem with envy is that it’s all about us.  It’s about our spiritual immaturity and the emptiness in our heart.  It’s about our penchant for creating adversaries out of people who should be our colleagues.  And it’s about our feeling of entitlement. 

  • Why isn’t my salary as large as his?
  • Why is their Easter attendance is always larger than ours? 
  • Why did she get elected to General Conference instead of me?
  • Why did the cabinet appoint me to this little church when I deserve a much larger one?  I’ve paid my dues. 
  • Why is her church attracting more young people than mine? 
  • Why did he get through the Board of Ordained Ministry the first time and I didn’t?  I’m a better pastor.

It’s difficult enough to deal with the embarrassment of making a slew of mistakes in an organ piece.  But for people to know about the darkest places of my heart is excruciatingly painful.  Envy seems like such a childish emotion because it reveals a lack of trust in God’s leading in my life.  It demonstrates the need to build myself up by putting others down.  It highlights my desire to feel valued for what I do rather than who I am.  And it points out my inability to truly believe that God’s grace claims me as God’s precious child, no matter how gifted or flawed I am.  I like what Doug Fields said in a presentation on envy to a recent Youth Specialties conference.  He said that envy shrinks our heart.

Here’s what I am learning about envy.

  • I don’t think I am alone in my envy.  At least Joseph’s brothers and James and John and understand me!
  • Envy leaves less room in my heart to love others and less energy for ministry.
  • The desire to compare myself with others and my need for recognition is a sign of spiritual emptiness.
  • The success of someone else’s ministry does not diminish my worth.
  • When I can recognize and celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of others, it inspires me to work harder and smarter and acquire new skills.
  • Envy loses its grip when I stop dwelling on the gifts I don’t have and honor the gifts of others.
  • We are all in this together.
  • In the midst of my ongoing struggle with envy, I celebrate God’s forgiveness, new life promised through Christ’s resurrection, and the presence of the Holy Spirit on the journey.

On March 2, Bishop Keaton and I attended worship at Leighton UMC to celebrate the burning of the mortgage on their stunning facility.  We were both deeply touched when the current pastor, Dave McBride, asked Ray Townsend, the pastor when the church was built, to be the one to actually burn the mortgage and pray.  Two fine pastors, both beloved by the Leighton Church, not caring who “gets the credit,” but sharing the joy of ministries that are intertwined, mutually respected and offered to the glory of God alone.  Dave and Ray, Thank you for the power of your witness.

Blessings, Laurie

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