How Not to Be the Best

In Leadership by Terry Linhart0 Comments

Bruce stopped by one time to take me out for lunch. I enjoy free food with good friends, especially friends that I haven’t seen for a while. The two of us sat down at the restaurant, the smell of hot Philly cheese steak sandwiches and fries bringing smiles to our faces; our appetites knew relief was on the way. I was particularly curious why he had called and wanted to spend the afternoon discussing his work life.

We prayed, dug into our lunches, and between juicy bites he stated, “I want to be the best.” I was surprised by his eagerness, but probably not as surprised as he was when I told him, “You can’t be.” I didn’t leave him hanging, though, “You’ll never be the best.” Ok, I did leave him there for a moment then … but after a pause and a smile, I explained, “The measuring stick to be THE best will always change. Once you meet the one you have in mind now, you’ll find another, then another, and you’ll find you’re never ever ‘best’ enough. Someone will always be better.”

Like a carrot on a stick that the donkey never reaches, if we measure success in comparison to others, we’re feeding a thirst that can be dangerous. Bruce didn’t want to just do well or be the best he could be; he wanted to be the best – better than other youth pastors in his town, better than you, and better than me. Once notoriety and significance become the measurements, our thirst to be the “best” will never be quenched. We usually end up feeling poorly about our work, even really fruitful ministry, because someone else is doing ‘better’ than us … or at least it seems like they are.

The measuring stick to be THE best will always change. Once you meet the one you have in mind now, you’ll find another, then another, and you’ll find you’re never ever ‘best’ enough. Someone will always be better.

Bruce’s drive came from his natural competitiveness as an athlete. For those of us who spent time on the sports field, we learned to measure how we’re doing by winning. So, we naturally carry that into ministerial work, though few want to admit it. How do you know you’re good? You win! How do you know you’re winning? You beat somebody! Let’s be honest, many of us have recognized the same comparative tendencies in ministry. It is no small wonder that many of in ministry aren’t as joyful as we could be – we’re striving for something more instead of what’s within our sphere of influence.

For those of us who are driven, this is difficult stuff. And before we move along too quickly, let’s make sure we’re tracking:

  • Are you jealous of other leaders who seem to get more attention?
  • Is there a person with whom you feel like you’re competing for the attention of others?
  • Do ever attend a seminar or read an article in a magazine and wonder why that person got to lead and you didn’t?
  • Is there a fellow volunteer who gets more pats on the back from the leader than you do?
  • Do you push to be noticed among the crowd; to get a pat on the back that no one else gets; to earn the reputation that you’re something special?
  • Have you teased a friend who may have achieved a level of notoriety that they’ve become “big time?”
  • Though often good-natured, might there be thoughts that have roots in pride, envy, or jealousy that run through your mind?

Once we recognize the existence of these issues (that’s the first step to dealing with them), we can then retreat for a time of reflection and identify their source. It’s in comparison that we find pride lurking in the shadows. We thought we had dealt with that a long time ago, but it seems to accompany us at every step of the ministry leadership journey – and we don’t really like to admit it out loud. But it’s there that Jesus wants to meet with us and again invite us to walk with him in this ministry journey. We then walk, serve, and lead like Jesus would have us to do with our eyes on him and not our place in line.

Header image provided through creative commons. Adaptation from a photograph by a4gpa

Terry Linhart is an author, strategist, and teacher who encourages and helps others be better and more effective in their ministry leadership, particularly those who work on behalf of young people around the world. He has become an experienced and credible voice in the field of Christian ministry and leadership. Terry is currently Professor of Youth Ministry and Adolescent Studies at Bethel College in South Bend, Indiana where he also chairs the Department of Religion and Philosophy. For over 25 years, he has focused on developing young leaders for vocational careers in ministry. He draws on his research expertise (Ph.D., Purdue) to consult with and support numerous national organizations. He has been recognized as one of the top 50 professors on leadership, strategy, and innovation.