The Curse of Comparison: when pastors compare

Several years ago I got a tweet that a large church in the southeast was starting another campus in the county where I started a church over 20 years ago. This church started out with over 1,000 from day one. The church I started finally reached 500 after 14 years. I must confess that unpleasant emotions crept into my heart when I read this tweet. The curse of comparison had reared its ugly head. When we pastors compare our work against others, what can we do?

Classic scales of justice

Our fallen human nature naturally tempts us to compare ourselves with the more successful, the prettier, the smarter. I believe we often do so to build ourselves up ao we can feel significant. No matter your vocation, position in life, or size of your ministry if you are a pastor,  you probably face this same curse.

I don’t have pat answers, but a few choices have helped me avoid the vortex of discouragement that comparison can bring.

  • I must remind myself that my identity comes not from my performance, but from my relationship with Christ. 
  • I must do my best with the opportunity God gives me right now and if I do, I will please Jesus. Jesus commended the guy who returned 10 talents back to him the same way he commended the guy who returned 4. They each had different levels of giftedness, yet they both were faithful to the task they were given.
  • I must believe the words of Paul when he said that ultimately it’s not what I think of my performance that counts, but what the Lord thinks.

What you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that makes the difference. (2 Cor. 10.18, The Message)

What has helped you avoid the curse of comparison?

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3 Thinking Errors Leaders often Commit

God gave us an amazing 3 pound dynamo called the brain. And although it weighs on average 2% of our body weight, it requires 20% of our body’s energy and blood flow. So, it follows that we should steward well our energy and consider what goes on in our brains. Great leaders recognize that great leadership demands great thinking.

Unfortunately, we often commit serious thinking errors that muddies thinking and hinders leadership. Ask yourself if you commit these thinking errors.

thinking error

Before I list them, it’s important to understand a concept called metacognition. It simply means to think about what you are thinking about. In other words, when we pay attention to our inner chatter, we’re more likely to catch ourselves in these critical thinking errors. Neuroscientists tell us that we have five times more negative networks in our brains than positive ones so we naturally default toward these errors.

Here are the three thinking errors.

  1. Catastrophizing: We assume the worse-case scenarios. We don’t get an email response from a critic and assume that they are causing trouble. It’s Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
  2. Discounting: Because we biologically tend toward negative thinking, discounting minimizes the good. If you are a pastor, after a Sunday service you may have received several positive comments but the one negative comment casts a shadow over all the positive ones.
  3. Mind reading: We think we know what someone is thinking even though we have no real evidence. The fight-fight-freeze-appease structure in our brain, the amygdala, has twice as many neurons looking for the negative than the positive. As a result mind reading often results in negative assumptions.

So, how can we minimize these thinking errors. Consider using the STOP process, often used in mindfulness exercises. Here’s what it means.

S: Stop. When you feel anxiety rising, catch yourself before the emotion gets out of hand. Literally stop what you are doing to attend to yourself.

T: Take a breath. After you stop what you are doing, take several deep breaths. Studies show that deep breathing calms our sympathetic nervous system (the body’s response to an activated amygdala).

O: Observe. Observe and pay attention to the thoughts in your mind. What’s happening in your mind, in your body, or in your environment at this very moment? Don’t listen to the narratives in your mind about how bad everything is, how wrong he or she was, or what may happen at the meeting coming up. What negative emotions are you feeling? Pay attention to them. When we name them we actually reduce their intensity.

P: Proceed. By now you’ve probably paused for a few moments. You are ready to move forward, probably having caught some of these thinking errors.

The Apostle Paul understood how we easily get caught in these thinking errors. To counter that tendency, he counsels us with these words in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Which thinking error challenges you the most?

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3 Ways Leaders can Deal with their Shame

Shame is a powerful and often silent killer of our soul. It has afflicted many pastors and ministry leaders. Edward Welch, author of Shame Interrupted (a great book) defines shame in this way. Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated. Or, to strengthen the language, you are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses (Kindle loc 177-180). So how do we deal with it. Here are some thoughts.

Upset boy against a wall

3 Ways Leaders can Deal with their Shame

  1. Realize where shame comes from. 
    • It comes from our own sin.
    • It comes from sins others commit against us.
    • It comes simply by association (i.e., someone in your family commited something scandalous and you feel shame because of it).
    • It comes from our humanness (i.e., when we realize we don’t have what it takes to achieve our goals in life; this is often true for pastors when they realize they may never pastor a big church).
  2. Take comfort in God’s perspective on shame.
  3. Make four critical decisions.
    • Turn to his face in repentance. Read the amazing story of Isaiah’s encounter with God in Is. 6.1-7 for the biblical basis of my thoughts below.
      • When we feel shamed, we don’t want to look someone in the face. We want to avoid them. However, Jesus wants us to come into his presence and look Him in the face to deal with our shame caused by our own sin. He wants us to confess and repent. Psalms 34.5 says, Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.
    • Receive his touch of forgiveness.
      • Jesus often physically touched the outcast, broken, and shamed. Human touch can often melt away shame. Jesus wants us to experience his touch of forgiveness and cleansing
    • Drink deeply of His Spirit.
      • In John 4 we read the familiar story about the woman at the well. When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for water, he crossed many shame barriers: rabbis did not talk to women, Jews did not talk to Samaritans, and Jews did not contaminate themselves by eating or drinking with non-Jews. He offered her life-giving water from His Spirit. God’s Holy Spirit can wash away our shame as it did for this woman.
    • Feast at his table of acceptance in the church community.
      • After Peter denied Jesus, he felt great shame. Yet, after Jesus’ resurrection and after Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, he had a meal with Peter and the other disciples which pictured his being welcomed back into community. Shame can melt away when we experience real community in the church.

Shame stings, but it need not be deadly. Although people and circumstances around us may still shame us (and it hurts), Christ can release us from its destructive power.

1Pet. 2.6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

What has helped people you know deal with their shame?

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My 7 Do-Overs after 35 Years in Ministry

This year I am approaching 35 years in ministry. I’ve served as a singles pastor, discipleship pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and as a lead pastor where I currently serve. I’ve served in the deep south (the land of grits), the southwest (the land of Mexican buffets), the far west (the land of fish tacos), the mid-west (the land of Chicago hot-dawgs), and now in Canada (the land of poutine; I wondered what that was too. Google it). Three kids, one grandchild, and four books later, each experience has made me a more rounded leader. Yet, as I look back, I think I’d have done a few things differently. Here’s a list of my do-overs.

Erasing Regrets with Pencil Eraser
  1. I wouldn’t have been so much a people pleaser.
  2. I would have carved out more time to think and reflect.
  3. I would have more consistently disconnected one day each week.
  4. I would have spent more time building closer friendships with other pastors.
  5. I would have turned off my smart phone and computer more often.
  6. I would have read twice as many books as I actually did.
  7. I would have listened more and talked less.

As I enter not my life’s ‘half-time’ but more like my life’s ‘3/5’s-time, I hope to apply some of these lessons better going forward.

What would be your biggest do-over?

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5 Mistakes Pastors Make when Planning Staff Retreats

Dave Berry, one of the funniest guys on the planet once wrote, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: meetings.” I’m not sure if he’s 100% right, but he’s close. Meetings, and extended ones like retreats, often don’t achieve their intended purpose. Why? Because we make significant mistakes when we plan them. Consider these five mistakes and potential corrective measures.

eraser and word mistakes

Here are some dumb mistakes I’ve made when planning and holding retreats.

  1. Packing too much into a retreat (which have ranged from 1-3 days). I once handed out about 20 different documents for review and study.
  2. Talking too much. At times I’ve talked/taught so much that I left little time for thorough interaction.
  3. Going too long. As the adage goes, “The brain will absorb only what the rear can endure.”
  4. Not including R&R.
  5. Including other leaders too late into the planning process. In one church I asked our elders to join us after we had completed our planning. They ended up not being on the same page and the pastors felt like our retreat was a waste of time.

As I’ve grown in my retreat leading and planning, these factors have contributed to better success.

  1. Narrow your discussion to a fewer number of topics.
  2. Create a “talk about later” list of subjects that surface during the retreat.
  3. Hold your retreat off-site rather than at the office.
  4. Begin and end at a reasonable hour. Don’t wear people out.
  5. Do something fun like watch a movie together.
  6. Listen more that you talk. Remember the acronym, WAIT, which means Why Am I Talking?
What tips can you share that have helped make your retreats effective?
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