On Competition and the Church

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I ran a race on Saturday morning, the Fairfax CASA Run for the Children. Our church has gotten connected to this organization, which provides volunteers to support abused and neglected children making their way through the court system. It was a beautiful day for a run, and we had 8 folks from Tiny Church participating in the 8K run and 3K run/walk.

I love road races for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is that it gives me perspective on my competitive nature. I’ve always been competitive, which is strange since I’m not much of an athlete and never have been. So my competitiveness would come out in other ways: trying for first chair in the junior high choir, taking part in speech/drama events, and competing with the Academic Decathlon team.

A drive to improve and achieve can be an awesome thing. It can also be harmful to one’s self and one’s relationships. (Sometimes it’s neither great nor harmful, it just shuts down the fun. Just ask Robert about The Canasta Incident.)

But road races are a great check on competitiveness. Half a mile into any race and you get how ridiculous it is to compare yourself to other people. Yes, there’s a certain kick of motivation you get when you turn on the gas to pass someone. But how meaningful is that? For all you know, they’re nursing an injury, or just started running a couple months before. (Then there was the woman who passed me in my first half marathon wearing a T-shirt that said, “I just finished chemo three days ago.” Fierce!!)

I spent most of Saturday morning ten paces behind a guy who looked to be at least 75 years old. OK, that was a little depressing. Until I realized he’s a living reminder that I can keep doing this for the next 30 years, maybe not breaking any speed records, but keeping fit and having fun.

The drive has to come from inside yourself, and be directed internally.

You’d think the church would be a good model for cooperation and mutual support, especially among clergy colleagues. We are educated in a theology of call in which it’s all about “fit” and the work of the Holy Spirit. But it’s complicated. Search committees still look for certain traits, whether overtly or subconsciously. The deck is still stacked against women and people of color. Sometimes youth is an asset; other times the congregation wants “experience.” In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have cleared the way for LGBT people to be ordained, but it’s a tougher sell in many congregations.

And as church membership rolls continue to shrink and full-time positions decrease, there will be more and more contention for fewer and fewer slots. If you’re one of those folks whose livelihood is on the line, it’s natural to read those glossy Meet Our New Pastor brochures and think, “Why did they choose that person and not me?” We take vows to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry, but jealousy rears its snarky, catty head. All the time.

This stuff was on my mind as I spent time with The Well last week. We have “tall steeple” pastors and pastors of small churches. We have folks who’ve been open to a new call for a long time, and others who frequently get contacted by churches even though they’re happy where they are.

But just like the road race, it’s silly to think comparatively. There are too many factors at play. Several of our members are geographically limited because of their spouses’ jobs or other factors. Others have had the benefit of stay-at-home spouses who manage home life so the pastor can pursue a career more intensively. And then there’s the fact that many of us simply don’t want the kind of positions that others might clamor for. (God might surprise me, but I am having too much fun doing writing and part-time parish work to imagine going back to a full-time pastoral position.)

All that said, members of the Well have been in contention for the same ministry positions. This has happened at least five times in our six years together.

So far, we’ve weathered these situations well. We’re not perfect at this, and it would be hubris to say that we’re immune from the hurt or resentment that can come from being passed over, or the “survivor guilt” of being the one chosen. But we have learned some things along the way. Again, I offer our experience for the benefit of other colleague groups.

Transparency. Our norm is that if we find out another member is interviewing for the same position we are, we talk to that person. It’s tricky because we don’t always know, but we do our best. (Third parties who are in the know can help this along.) We picked this up from another group’s experience. One year they met and had a member of the group come down at dinner time wearing a suit and heading off to an interview. The next day another person came down, similarly dressed… and off to an interview at the same church.

Grounding. Within the safe space our group, we see our role as to build one another up when a tough call is wearing the person down, AND to keep the person’s ego in check when he or she starts to believe her own press. And outside of the group, we have that person’s back 100%.

Increased Accountability. We’ve started talking about how we can hold one another accountable to good self-care and boundaries. We have a check-in time at the beginning of every week, but it’s easy to gloss over the hard stuff. A member of the group suggested an intentional question to ask each person: Is there anything else going on that you need to tell us?

Discernment among Friends. When I was discerning whether to stand for vice moderator, I talked with members of The Well. All were helpful in making sure I was thinking well about the situation. And one person put it plain: Give me three reasons why you want to do this… and be honest. I am grateful to her.

What do you think? What is your experience?

~

photo credit: mino2006 via photopin cc

5 thoughts on “On Competition and the Church

  1. Jo Ann Staebler

    I wish there were a group for those looking and looking and looking for a first ordained call. It’s pretty lonely out here.

    Reply
  2. Bob Braxton

    confession: for more than quarter century I felt honored as “beautiful wife of pastor” and uneasy (jealous, envious?) of spouse of other pastor(s) and staff persons over time coming on board (sometimes going on to other posts). Competition? as firstborn, I “always” felt “pressure to be perfect” – still working on that one. Thinking Bible story clashes: Martha / Mary, Cain / Abel, Esau / Jacob (Israel), Cephas / Saul / Paul – probably many others I am overlooking. In my childhood home, competition was a very serious (and sad) matter – many games of Canasta, Monopoly, Rook, Finance and Fortune, (spank-tail) Hearts, poker (milk bottle stoppers as poker chips) and many, many tears. The purpose of our father was to give us realistic eyes should we ever be invited to serious competition out in the “real world” involving betting / money. I guess that is just about all of like, work and otherwise (or not so wise).

    Reply
  3. virginia hollis

    i remember how difficult it was to find the first call. i was told by our Nat’l org to create my own. that is not easy. But w/ the help of other Candidates, i did just that. later i rec’d a call as a Solo Pastor. now that i am happily retired i can help build up the church by supporting others as i worship on the sidelines. the times do change and the ministry does change but it is never easy.

    Reply

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