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.

6 thoughts on “Why pastors need collaboration, not competition

  1. You should try being in another Denomination. It is extremely competitive in the SBC. Now that I am UMC it is a welcome breath of fresh air!!! I have experienced wonderful cooperation and encouragement from my preacher brothers since I have been in the UMC. I praise God for opening the door for me to be a UMC pastor!!!


  2. I’m so glad to hear your experience has been fruitful and positive in the UMC! Mine has been too. I also wanted to name the feelings that can float below the surface that are hard to put our finger on, even when we feel close to colleagues and love our connection. I’m thankful God continues to work in, through and in spite of us all!


  3. I've always liked the challenge of doing more with less. I like seeing what works in other churches and then “stealing” it to see if it will work in my setting. And, I have no problem with somebody “stealing” my “stolen” idea. What I'd like to see is a collection from area pastors in our district, for example, of what they are doing that is working. We all know what doesn't work anymore. What are you doing that is working, why is it working, and how simple it is. I like simple because it is cheaper and doesn't take a lot of effort to get off the ground and, if it catches on, it grows and sprouts new ideas and energy. FYI: I attended your church for a Roots and Wings two years ago, saw something you were doing, brought it home and got a great response and it didn't cost me a dime!


  4. Scott – Yes! I'm so glad to see an idea takes root in a new place and leads to more fruit. I borrow things from people and churches all the time!I'd like to think if we all truly believed it wasn't a competition that we'd feel more comfortable sharing ideas and fruit. Perhaps most don't struggle with this — but when I share fruit, it sometimes feels like people might think I'm bragging. I so resist that interaction that it keeps me quiet when maybe I do have something helpful to add to the conversation.


  5. Susan – I hear you. It takes a long time to shift culture. May we each be committed to the big and small ways we can name the hard things and move into new spaces together. For me, this happens by first naming my hang ups and difficulty with it at times.


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