For many years, I struggled with jealousy toward those in ministry who seemed more successful than I was.
In my mid-twenties, I was a full-time youth/Christian education director at a church in Orange County, California. A friend I’ll call Ben … the pastor’s son … was a youth pastor at a church I had admired all my life, and he was making plans to attend seminary outside California.
Ben recommended that the church hire me as his replacement, and since many people already knew me, that’s what happened.
But right off the bat, I ran into resistance.
One high school girl told me that she felt sorry for me because I didn’t compare to Ben.
The adult youth leaders openly resisted my leadership.
An adult youth leader once stared at me and finally said, “Jim, you’re just so different than Ben” … intimating that wasn’t a good thing.
The following Christmas, Ben returned to the church and spoke on Sunday to a packed house where I was forced to sit on the platform and watch the lovefest between him and the congregation. It hurt … immensely.
When I left that church three-and-a-half years later, I tried to pave the way for the next youth pastor.
A few years later, the pastor retired, and who did the church hire as their new pastor? That’s right … Ben.
When I left that church, I became pastor of a small church in Silicon Valley. Pastor Joe led the largest church in the area, and one Sunday when I was on vacation, I took my family to that megachurch.
It was so crowded that we sat on the last row of the balcony. It was a hot day … the a/c wasn’t working … and we could barely see the stage.
But boy, could Pastor Joe pack them in!
I served a church of less than 100 people, and Pastor Joe pastored 2000 … and had co-written a book with someone who had a study Bible named after him.
To me, Pastor Joe was the epitome of success … and I felt great jealousy toward Pastor Joe because he seemed wildly successful while I was not.
But then something happened that profoundly impacted those feelings.
I had started a Spiritual Leadership Retreat for pastors and their board members in our district the year before.
Pastors often attend conferences … return home … tell their board members what they learned … but meet resistance because the board didn’t hear what the pastor heard.
So, I thought … let’s get pastors and their boards together, bring in a speaker, let him do a few sessions, and then after each session, ask the pastors and their boards to discuss the speaker’s ideas immediately.
We needed a speaker for our second retreat, and someone suggested Pastor Joe, so I contacted him, and we met in a restaurant to talk.
Going into that luncheon, I was greatly intimidated by Pastor Joe. After all, he was a SOMEBODY while I was a NOBODY.
But during our three hours together, he poured out his heart to me about all the problems he was having in his church.
The biggest problem involved a staff member who was single and had been caught having sex with another woman.
The pastor and his elders decided to remove this man from his position … keep him at the church … put him under an accountability group … and give him a job as a church custodian.
Pastor Joe could not have predicted the avalanche of criticism he would receive. He had received 300 letters that he could not bear to answer about the decision he and the board had made. Half the writers felt the decision was too strict, while half felt the decision was too lenient.
The pastor also shared some shocking news with me. While he had a degree from a Bible college, he had never gone to seminary, and his lack of a master’s degree made him feel very insecure.
So he overstudied. He spent 15 hours a week on his Sunday morning message … 15 hours on his Sunday evening message … and 20 hours on his Wednesday night message.
Why did he spent 20 hours on his midweek message, I wondered?
Because, he told me, on several occasions, he stood up to speak and John MacArthur was sitting in the congregation, and Joe didn’t want to say anything inaccurate.
The three hours I spent with that pastor did more to cure me of jealousy than anything I’ve ever experienced.
Here is what I’ve learned about jealousy over the years:
First, we should never compare ourselves to others because God has made us all so different.
Whitey Herzog was a Hall of Fame manager who led both the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals to World Series championships.
During his heyday in the 1980s, Herzog was often considered to be the best manager in baseball, an accolade he disputed. He said the only way to tell the best manager was to give several managers the exact same players and see where they finished at the end of the year … an impossible feat.
In the same way, the only way to compare pastors would be to take a few of them … put them all in the same community … give them the same number of people … give them the same size campus and buildings … give them identical staffs and board members … give them the same income … and then see how they fared five years later.
But since that’s completely unrealistic, why even try to compare ourselves with others?
It may be human, but it’s ultimately counterproductive.
Second, jealousy often doesn’t start inside of us but within the followers of others.
Before Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, John’s ministry took people by storm, and his followers reveled in their access to this superstar and his fame.
But then Jesus came along and began baptizing as well. The Baptism Wars were ready to start when John’s disciples said to him in John 3:26, “Rabbi, that man [notice they won’t name Jesus] who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
There wasn’t any problem between John and Jesus. The problem was with John’s followers.
In the story I told above about Pastor Ben … the youth pastor I succeeded … there wasn’t any problem between us. We often met for meals at denominational events and laughed about my perception of the way people adored him.
And years later, I served as his teaching pastor for sixteen months.
Since we can’t stop people from comparing us to others, we either have to plug our ears or realize that we have our admirers as well, even if they aren’t as numerous or vocal.
Third, our job isn’t to become famous or well-loved, but to carry out God’s unique assignment for us.
In John 3:27-29, John tells his followers that he knows his role very well. Jesus is the bridegroom, and John’s assignment is to be Jesus’ friend, or best man.
In other words, John says, who cares what people think about me as long as Jesus receives the spotlight?
That’s what he meant when he said, “He must become greater; I must become less.”
During my second staff assignment, I occasionally preached from the church’s large pulpit. There was a small plaque attached to it that only the preacher could view. The plaque read, “Sir, we must see Jesus.”
I’ve heard guys preach who told story after story where they were the heroes … and those individuals often acquired a large following.
But like John, there comes a time when we all have to say, “I don’t even care if people remember my name as long as they see Jesus.”
And since He’s why we serve, there’s no reason to be jealous of Him.
Fourth, every pastor has his successes … but they only last for a season.
After a very slow start, I’ve had some successes in ministry:
*I once appeared with several other pastors on a live radio program in the Bay Area. I was very nervous going in, but talked quite a lot, and when I drove back to my church for our midweek Bible study, the congregation gathered in the lobby to greet me.
While that was cool, nothing really happened because of it.
*I pastored the largest Protestant church in a city of 75,000 for years.
But it didn’t last.
*The starting quarterback of the Oakland Raiders attended my church one year right before the season started.
But he only came for three weeks … and went on to became the worst quarterback in the league.
*I earned a doctoral degree, and enjoyed my classwork immensely.
But two years after graduation, I was forced out as pastor.
*I wrote a book, which I never thought I’d do, and it’s fun to see it on Amazon.
But the paperback has stopped selling, and as of this writing, it’s number 2,176,901 on Amazon, although I did sell one today, which will probably help me jump over a million places.
Our perceived ministry successes often don’t last very long. John the Baptist’s ministry came and went quickly. Jesus’ ministry lasted less than four years.
Years ago, I became convinced that success in ministry can only be measured by faithfulness. On occasion, God lets us taste greater success, but it rarely lasts forever, because …
Finally, great success is often followed by great suffering.
When Paul ascended to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12, he said he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”
Paul was tempted to say, “Wow! I’ll bet nobody else has had this experience! I am obviously someone very special!”
But, Paul writes, “to keep me from becoming conceited” he received “a thorn in my flesh,” some kind of nagging bodily ailment.
When I sat in that restaurant with Pastor Joe, and heard him tell me about the 300 critical letters he had received, I reminded myself of an adage I had often heard:
“Big churches have big problems … small churches have small problems.”
At that moment, I realized that if I were ever to pastor a large church, I would probably have to suffer greatly … and I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay the price.
And I was instantly cured of jealousy.
A year-and-a-half after our initial meeting, Pastor Joe died. I never found out what killed him, but mean-spirited criticism, constant stress, and sitting in a chair studying fifty hours a week surely didn’t help.
Several years later, that church of 2000 had plunged to 400 … and was barely holding on.
When I was in seminary, we had to attend chapel four times a week. Because we had to leave for work after chapel, my friend Dave and I both sat together on the back row.
Today, Dave pastors a large church. He’s on the radio every day in many US markets. I often watch his service on Roku. He has a lot of influence in the Calvary Chapel movement. He wrote the notes for The Word for Today Study Bible. He hosted Chuck Smith’s question and answer radio program with Chuck many times … especially at the end of Chuck’s life.
I don’t feel any jealousy toward Dave. He’s been my friend for nearly 50 years. I know how gifted he is and how hard he’s worked over the years.
In fact, I’m happy for him … and when the Lord takes me home, I want Dave to conduct my memorial service.
Dave has a very public ministry. By contrast, mine is quite private.
I spent two hours on the phone yesterday with a leader who has been struggling with some issues in his church. The situation is complex … without easy answers … but I know I was able to help him.
At this point in my life, I wouldn’t trade places with Dave for anything. I am quite content with my small ministry and glad that the Lord has called me to it.
And in the end, isn’t the antidote to jealousy to be content with the place, people, status, and salary the Lord has given us?