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Escaping Envy: How to Stop a Taboo Ministry-Killer

Over the past four years, I’ve worked in ministry professionally.  And they’ve been some of the most transformative years of my life.  I’ve met some amazing people, and I don’t think I could possibly be learning or growing more, as a person or as a leader, than where I am right now.  For that, I am incredibly grateful.

Working in ministry has also been humbling.  It’s hard work, and can be discouraging.  Ministers face the same temptations and are just as flawed as people in any other profession.  And so along the way, I’ve observed and kept notes on some of the most important topics that (in my view) threaten to poison our hearts and keep us from true health and joy.  This series is written with ministry in mind but certainly applies outside of religious contexts.  It’s not a comprehensive list but mostly things that I’ve noticed get very little attention or airtime.

I want to write about them now, and I hope they help in some way.  I will try to post once a week.  The first post of the series is below…I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Envy, Competition, and Comparison

When was the last time you heard someone talk about envy or competition in ministry?  For me, it’s been a while.  It’s pretty taboo.  But as much as we may be hesitant to admit it, those of us in professional ministry struggle constantly with comparing ourselves to one another, or even to ourselves.  Do we measure up?

Maybe it’s the size of one’s church or congregation or the influence and popularity that somebody else has.  Maybe it’s a person’s wealth or comfort, looks, or apparent happiness.  Envy seems to stem from a desire to have something that somebody else has that you believe you want for yourself.  And deep inside our hearts, I believe we long for something more healthy and fulfilling than this.  So where do we go from there?

I believe at the core of competition, there exists insecurity that we are not good enough as we are.  And what accompanies this, surprisingly or not, is often a lack of awareness about who we are!

Perhaps one of the best examples of this comes from the movie, Chariots of Fire, about two British Olympic runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.  Abrahams is strong-willed, intense, and has lived most of his life trying to prove himself through competitive running.  Liddell is also intense and principled and finds himself torn between his love of running and his call to be a missionary in China.

One of the key distinctions illustrated in the movie is the reason that each man runs.  When asked if Abrahams loves to run, he responds, “I’m more of an addict.  It’s a compulsion, a weapon.”  After he loses a race for the first time in his life, he says, “I don’t run to take beatings.  I run to win.  If I can’t win, I won’t run.”  After commiserating with his girlfriend, he concludes that the only thing that can keep him going is to train so that he can eventually beat Liddell.

Liddell, on the other hand, describes running as living out a central dimension of how God created him as a person, as he says famously in the movie: “I believe that God made me fast.  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.  To give [running] up would be to hold Him in contempt.”

Contrary to what some might think, I don’t believe the movie really has much to do with Abrahams being Jewish and Liddell being Christian.  In fact, though I’m a Christian, in some ways I can relate to Abrahams more than Liddell, since part of Abrahams’ motivation is fueled by his reality as a minority, as he admits at one point.  I think the heart of the movie has to do with how we see ourselves and others and the anxiety or peace that results from that. 

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Adrian Pei works as Director of Creative Arts and Resources at Epic Movement, the Asian American ministry of Cru. He earned degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Seminary, and is passionate about writing and developing culturally-aware leadership. You can find him on his blog at www.adrianpei.com, or on Twitter at @adrianpei.