Why pastors need collaboration, not competition

There’s competition in every industry. Some get promoted over others. Some work incredibly hard but their gifts go unnoticed. Others do good work and people assume they’re fine but underneath, they feel like they could never be honest about how hard life is in this season. People spend more energy figuring out how they measure up in a work culture instead of doing the actual work.

Competition itself implies there are two sides.

I remember field days at my elementary school in Alaska. The half-frozen spring ground was covered with clumps of dirty gray snow. Jackets were thrown on the ground as the fourth graders tried to beat the fifth graders at tug of war. Rope burns were shrugged off as sweat dripped down our young faces. We were determined to beat those fifth graders. Our pride was on the line.

Whether you’re a fourth grader or an ad manager at a fancy marketing agency or a senator trying out for attorney general, competition runs deep in our DNA.

We want to be the best. We want to be first. The most important.

Maybe if we win, we can chase off the voice that whispers, “you’re not good enough.”

I’ve been thinking lately about how competition plays out in my work culture of United Methodist pastors.

I’ll be the first to confess I struggle with a sense of competition among my colleagues in different seasons. It’s often when I’m insecure about something in my local context that I see what another colleague is doing and I feel jealous or competitive. “If only I could do that too…”

Or we start to compare worship attendance numbers. Or the number of staff we have. Or the latest new thing that went well.

And maybe for everyone else, they share these things with pure joy at what God is doing in their community. They are the saints and healthy leaders with pure hearts. I love these people.

I think the rest of us are competing for what feels like limited resources. Money for special projects, encouragement, recognition, the hope we won’t get moved to another church just quite yet, support. Or maybe we’re simply afraid to step into our authority and lead in our context (for lots of reasons).

(Ministry is really hard to measure at times, so we’re often looking for outside voices to tell us we’re on the right track, because we’re never really sure).

I got to spend time with some great people in my district and our superintendent shared a great story of growth and vitality from another church. We had just named the value of helping our clergy move from competition to collaboration before that. I raised my hand and said, “I just need to name that when you shared that story, instead of celebrating, I get a pit in my stomach that I’m not doing enough. That I just need to do what that church is doing and then it’ll be enough.” A few other heads nodded around the room. “So if we really want to move away from competition, then we have to summon courage and bravery to be the first one to raise our hand and say, I want to truly collaborate instead of compete.”

It’s not just a 5 minute conversation at a meeting or a one day workshop. It’s dying to this old, exhausting, ridiculous way of being in our culture. There’s a better way for us to work together. We are not fourth and fifth graders tugging on the rope anymore.

We went on to name the importance of learning how to truly celebrate the wonderful things that are happening in the Pacific Northwest Conference. Because the stories are bubbling up everywhere. The Spirit is alive and weaving it’s way through every community in ways that we don’t know how to explain yet. Ministry in the None Zone is exciting, confusing, compelling and collaborative.

Collaboration can breathe new life into the old tired ways of competing. Because here’s the thing. As pastors in the None Zone, we cannot afford to be on separate teams. It’s going to take every single one of us deeply listening to God as we pay attention to our communities. And then learning how to share this with each other in a deep spirit of learning, humility, curiosity and collaboration.

Because I need to know what my colleague is learning about ministry in downtown Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, Wenatchee and Whidbey Island. Their learnings hold clues for what’s being uncovered in Marysville.

May we, as clergy, be friends first. May we care about each other’s families, the hard days, the wins, the difficult meetings. We know more than anyone else how hard and wonderful this calling can be. We need each other more than ever.

May we assume the best of each other. Everyone is working hard to figure out ministry in a new world. No one has a game plan of what’s really working because most things from before don’t work well today.

May we learn to truly celebrate each other’s gifts and brilliant ideas and ways of leading. Like really celebrate them. Follow each other’s churches on social media and text a pastor friend when you see something awesome they’re up to in the world.

We are not in competition with each other. We don’t prove our worth by winning in any way, shape or form.

We are each beloved children of God who get to serve on the same team. We’re all those scrappy little fourth graders on a permafrost field in Alaska tugging on the rope together. And it’s not fifth graders on the other side of the rope. It’s apathy, evil, hate, misogny, racism and indifference.

May our love for each other be stronger than our fear of each other.

We do this thing in our staff meetings where we share wins from someone else’s ministry area. It’s awesome. No competition. Pure celebration of where we see new relationships forming, new energy, deeper faithfulness. We’re strengthening our celebration muscle. We’re learning that celebration kills competition.

May it be so.