I met my friend Becca on our first day of secondary school when we were 11. For the first few years of our friendship, one of the defining characteristics was that there was an unspoken competitiveness between us. Part of my wonders if it was engrained in us as the school we went to only let 96 of the 500 applicants in based on the rankings in an entrance exam and then published your rank for everyone to see (who’s clever idea was that!?). Obviously on the first day, there were lots of 11 year olds going round saying “where did you come?”, “what position did you get?”. Nothing like promoting insecurity on your first day of secondary school…
With Becca and I, first it was with exams – “what did you get in your science test?”,
then it was with friends – “So and so’s going in a room with me on our field trip”,
then possessions and clothes came later – “Mum bought me a Nokia 3210”
and then finally boys “So and so’s been texting me”
Now I’ve left school and am supposed to be a grown up, comparison and competitiveness still rear their ugly heads now – homes, jobs, how brilliant your husband is, opportunities that you get, holidays that friends get to go on, the beautiful pictures on Instagram.
In church, it’s the added comparison of “how is God using you?” and “how effective is your ministry?”. I feel it when I catch up with CU friends from university. “Oh I’m at this church now – (insert huge, influential church here) – it’s doing some amazing things, we feel at home so we’re really getting stuck in and involved, God’s really blessing us”. Or “my husbands decided he wants to be vicar so looks like I’ll be a pastors wife”. Or “I’ve been asked to lead at so and so church, it’s one of the main ones in the city, lots of students and preaching opportunities”.
Leaders can fall into the numbers game, “what sort of size is Kerith now?”, “how’s it going at Sandhurst – are you getting a reasonable number?”. Even in the same church, you can feel it between ministries and team members. Tracking how well others ministries are going, being aware of how effective other colleagues are, the invitations and opportunities they get, the chances they get to meet with specific influential individuals, the investment and “one on one time” that the leadership team put into them.
But Paul gives us a different example of working together without competitiveness or comparison. In Galatians 2: 7-9, Paul writes this about his meeting with some influential people in the church:
“On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.”
Peter and Paul were both clearly effective apostles and evangelists. God gave Paul a flourishing ministry with Gentiles (the uncircumcised) and Peter was on it for reaching all the Jews (the circumcised). The “pillars” (James, Cephas, and John) didn’t feel threatened or intimidated, by Paul’s effectiveness. They could have tried to ignore him or bring him down a peg or two but they recognised the gift God had given Paul and worked with him to advance Gods kingdom. They gave him and Barnabus their blessing and sent them on their way.
This is a beautiful picture of the church working together.
It’s easy to celebrate the ministry and achievements of those who are older or younger than me, but I find competitiveness often encroaches when it comes to my peers. I have to remind myself that just because God’s at work in someone else, doesn’t mean he’s not at work in me. Paul wrote “For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles”. God can multitask and works in more than one person or one church at the same time. We each have an individual calling from him and different tasks before us. When we can work together, we can bring far more life change and growth and fruit than if we work apart. Let’s commit to champion each other and celebrate each other’s successes and wins in life.
My friend Becca lives in tropical El Salvador now teaching. She’s having a wonderful adventure out there and I’ve been cooing over all her photos. She’s really smart (an oxford graduate), has tremendous leadership gifting in her, is beautiful, hilarious and brave. And I can celebrate her. I can cheer her on from afar and see all that she’s doing. Because God has put Becca on one road (probably a dirt track through the jungle in El Salvador) and me on another road filled with roundabouts in Bracknell. Both are valuable, both valid and both just as important.