Pastor Roy said to me, “I have it on good authority that Pastor Tom has come into my church on Sunday afternoons and nosed around, trying to find who visited our church that morning and if any of his members joined us.”
We both called that taking insecurity to the next level.
There’s a lot of insecurity in the ministry, unfortunately. Some pastors forget their assignment to take the gospel to the world and shrink their field of ministry to the neighborhood around their church. If someone else starts a church inside what they consider their territory, they resent it. If the new church prospers, they feel jealous. If they lose members to that church, they become deadly enemies.
I know from personal experience how it happens. You’re leading a church that has been dying for years and you’re looking for any signs of life and revival. Suddenly a family joins your church. The fact that they are moving their membership from another congregation in the same town matters very little. All that counts is that someone thought your church was attractive enough, that your ministries were important enough, and that your preaching was successful enough that they wanted to join you. Sometimes that is the only encouragement you get in a month.
Meanwhile, the pastor of the church that just lost that family may take the loss personally, depending on a lot of things. If his church is otherwise healthy and prospering, he will take it in stride. If he also is struggling to stay alive, an entire family jumping ship can be a death blow. If it turns out that you were guilty of enticing them in any way, the pastor understandably takes it personally and feels insulted.
Just so easily do neighboring pastors, even of the same denomination, become competitors.
With over 40 years in the ministry, I have been in both situations. Sometimes I was pastor of the congregation welcoming the new members and still recall how excited that was. And I’ve been pastor of the weak church that was hemorrhaging members to other congregations in the community and know how discouraging that can be.
It’s so easy to get our eyes off our task as servant-leaders of the Lord’s people and put them on our brothers of other congregations. We even have a scriptural text for it.
The Lord Jesus was preparing Peter for all that lay before him in a lifetime of dedicated service. Perhaps growing uncomfortable with this kind of attention, Peter turned and pointed out John. “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me.” (John 21:21-22)
Do the task the Lord sent you to do. Stay on course. Carry out your assignment. Get your eyes off your brother. It’s not about him. It’s about you staying faithful.
“We labor not against flesh and blood,” Paul told the Ephesians (6:12), “but against…spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.” Our enemies are not the drug dealers or prostitutes, not other religions, not the lost men and women of this world, and most certainly not the ministers of other churches trying to carry out the same mandate as we.
Keeping the focus on our own task is not an easy thing to do. Early in 1988, the church I was serving, the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, dedicated a new sanctuary at its downtown location. It seated 1500 people and represented the culmination of years of planning and struggling by our people. At the same time, at the eastern side of the city, Hickory Grove Baptist Church dedicated their new sanctuary which seated 2500 people–and immediately had to go to two morning worship services.
If we had taken our eyes off the Lord and put them onto Pastor Joe Brown and his exciting church, we would have been miserable. To my knowledge, none of us did and we worked hard to rejoice with Hickory Grove over their successful ministry.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” This admonition from Romans 12:15 would stop the competitive struggle between churches in a heartbeat.
I invited a preacher to our monthly pastors gathering. He said, “I’ll tell you why I don’t come. I get so tired of the way preachers brag. ‘We had 5 additions yesterday.’ ‘My church was in revival last week and had 28 people saved.’ It gets so tiresome.”
I told him, “Friend, you must be talking about some other place where you used to live. It does not happen here. In the first place, we’ve not had a lot to brag about in recent years. And secondly, these guys love each other. If one has something good to happen, the others are excited for him.”
I might add here, by way of a postscript, that this pastor who avoided fellowship with the other ministers was eventually found to be living in sin and had to resign his church. The problem was within him, not with the fellowship of pastors.
As an aside, I know (also from personal experience, sadly) that when one is out of fellowship with the Lord, he becomes critical of his brothers and sisters and starts finding fault with everything they do. I’m going to conclude from this that many ministers who criticize and compete with their colleagues serving other churches are living in rebellion against God and venting their anger on their brothers, when they should be repenting and humbling themselves before the Lord.
At least twice in my pastoral ministry, I made it a point to invite a neighboring pastor to go with me as we called on newcomers to our town. It was fun to see the reaction on the faces of the new residents as we introduced ourselves: “I’m pastor of Highland Baptist Church and this is Charlie Dale, the pastor of Grace Baptist Church.” Even in the deep south where new residents are used to churches knocking at their doors with invitations and welcomes, this was an oddity.
We did it because we wanted to communicate that we were not in competition. We simply wanted them to join a church and get active serving the Lord. If we did this faithfully enough, we figured, each church would get its share of new members.
My one regret is that I didn’t do more of that.
In the last church I served, the First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the New Orleans airport, we tried to be proactive in combating the competitive spirit between churches. Each Sunday, we printed the name of a local church and its pastor in our bulletin and during one of the prayers, made mention of them. It was a small thing to do, but served as a reminder to our people that we are on the same team, that when another church prospers Christ is honored and we all should rejoice, and that we need each others’ prayers.
Occasionally, we used the large sign in front of our property to announce an event taking place in another church. We welcomed new pastors of other churches with a message on that sign.
There is no competition between lighthouses. And there shouldn’t be between family members.