Back when I still had preschoolers, I was asked to be a Bible study leader. Our group met on Thursday mornings—the same morning that the moms’ group met down the hall. I loved this because it meant my kids could participate in the wonderful childcare program at that time. Apart from coordinating childcare though, these two groups functioned independently of each other. Perhaps a bit too independently.
I remember talking with Sarah one summer Sunday morning at church. Sarah was a godly woman whose children were grown, and I had always wanted to get to know her better. I said, “Sarah, I heard that you’re not going to be a mentor for the moms’ group this year. Would you consider being a Bible study leader? We need a couple more.”
A look of surprise flickered across Sarah’s face and then she said, “Oh, I . . . I could never do that. The moms’ group would find that very offensive.”
Offensive? To lead Bible study at church? I told Sarah I didn’t understand, but she struggled to articulate why. She said, “I might consider leading one of the evening groups if they need a leader, but I couldn’t lead a morning one.” I walked away puzzled and disappointed.
A month or so later, I was at a park with some other moms from our church, and while we were pushing our kids on the swings, I said, “Hey, you guys should consider joining Bible study this year. I think you’d really like what we’re going to be studying.” My friends looked uncomfortable at this suggestion. One said, “Oh, I think I would feel too guilty. I’d feel like a deserter!”
A deserter? By attending a Bible study at her own church? Again, I told my friend that I didn’t understand. The others chimed in, agreeing that it would seem disloyal. “Can you imagine walking past the moms’ group on the way to Bible study?” one asked. “I think I’d be sick!”
Looking back, I’m confident that both the Bible study and the moms’ group at my church were led by godly women who were passionately using their spiritual gifts to serve their Lord. I’m also quite confident no Bible study leader said, “Let’s try to poach some of the young women from the moms’ group!” And no moms’ group leader said, “If you leave this group, you’ll be seen as a deserter.”
Yet though these things had not been spelled out, the message was clearly being received. There was an undercurrent of competition running down the hallway between these two groups.
Do you have a situation like this in your church or ministry? Perhaps a church a few miles away is growing while yours is shrinking. Maybe your Bible study group is committed to each other and connects deeply, while the other group is disjointed and disingenuous. Or perhaps the older women are complaining that the church always panders to the requests of the younger women.
So what can we do? How can we—as individuals and leaders—help foster a sense of community, not competition, in our churches and women’s ministries? Thinking back to those two Thursday morning groups at my church, I could have come up with some programming ideas to help connect the groups and dispel rivalry. Yet I doubt the undercurrent of competition was due to a lack of programming. Unity is built when we, as individuals and leaders, deal with our own sense of inferiority and superiority before the Lord.
Community is collective unity. It’s the sense that we each belong to and are connected to the others. We cultivate the community we crave by pursuing the unity God commands. Ephesians 4:3 tells us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Philippians 2:2 exhorts us to be “in full accord and of one mind.”
Competition, as you know, creates disunity between individuals, which tears at the community as a whole. When a woman compares herself to others and tries to outdo them or measures herself against them—though she may consider her attitudes private or subtle—she impacts the whole group more than she realizes. Like my friends who felt torn about transferring from the moms’ group to the Bible study, we can feel even a subtle undercurrent of competition.
So how can we replace our jealousy, disappointment, and rivalry with community? Since we usually try to use commonality to build unity, the response from the apostle Paul might surprise you. He tells us to consider not only our sameness, but also our differences.
Just Stop Comparing?
Many people say that to build unity we need to “just stop comparing.” And while I understand the desire to protect against jealousy and rivalry, when Paul was addressing a church that had splintered off into little groups (1 Cor. 3:4), he seems to say just the opposite. Some of the people of Corinth were comparing and feeling superior (1 Cor. 12:21–24). Others were comparing and feeling inferior (1 Cor. 12:14–20). See if you can find a “just stop comparing” message in Paul’s response:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (1 Cor. 12:4–6, emphasis added).
It wouldn’t make sense for Paul to point at their contrasting differences, and then tell them to stop comparing, right? Instead, he seems to be instructing them to compare. Not in a competitive, rivaling sort of way, but rather in a fellow-servants-of-God sort of way. They needed to see that their unity was not built on uniformity, but rather on differences that He designed.
Comparing Down the Hall
Let’s take the three instructions offered by Paul in these verses and apply them to ourselves. As we do so, I invite you to look “down the hall” or across town or “next door” on the Internet and make this a personal exercise. Choose the ministry, leader, or church you’re most tempted to compare and compete with, and as you take a sideways glance, also take an inventory of your heart. Do you feel secretly jealous and threatened? Do you feel proud and self-important? Stop for a moment and jot down a description of this ministry “down the hall” and how your heart is responding.
Ready? Now fill in the blanks with your “down the hall” ministry, church, or leader, and consider the following three truths.
1. __________ is gifted by the same Spirit.
God has placed spiritual gifts in all of our hands that are meant for the people of God. As 1 Corinthians 12:4 emphasizes, we hold a variety of gifts, which are meant to be shared potluck-style. It would be a shame if everyone brought the same thing.
Because our gifts are varied, so are our ministries and passions. In the illustration I shared, the moms’ ministry in one room was likely shaped by a leader who had gifts for mentoring and shepherding, while the Bible study in another room was likely shaped by a leader with a gift for teaching and exhortation. These differences were on purpose and by God’s design. 1 Corinthians 12:18 says, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”
In your mind’s eye look down the hall and notice the differences shaped by various spiritual gifts. Say “______________ is gifted by the same Spirit as I am,” and praise God for the differences.
2. ___________ serves the same Lord.
Not only are our gifts distinctive and varied, our ways of serving are as well. Think about that word “servant.” The servant in the room isn’t the one trying to outrank or outdo the others. She’s the one leaning down to humble herself.
How is your church or group or ministry leaning down to serve in a way that is different from the way the other servant(s) serve? Is there a need or a type of person that you are each uniquely responding to? How has God uniquely positioned you to serve Him in varied ways?
The problem comes when we assign values to these differences. In the Church, we have no hierarchy of service. The leader of a moms’ group is not serving in a more important way than a leader of the Bible study. The one who serves in a small church is not any less useful than the one who serves in a large church. The one who serves a thriving group does not have more worth and value than the one who serves a broken, struggling group.
In your mind’s eye, look down the hall and picture the one(s) you’ve been tempted to compare and compete with. Picture her bending down to serve in her unique way before God, and say: “____________ serves the same Lord that I do.” Praise God for her service.
3. _____________ is empowered by the same God.
If you have God’s power, you need no other ingredient. If you’ve ever experienced God’s favor, you know this is true. When God breathes His power into a ministry effort or “activity” it doesn’t matter how much raw talent the contributors have. God makes up for any lack. In fact, He often chooses those who are small and weak so His power will be more significantly displayed (2 Cor. 12:9).
Look at the one(s) down the hall and consider any favorable outcomes that she/they have experienced as evidence of God’s power. Now consider any difficulties, shortcomings, or weaknesses she/they are encumbered with as new opportunities for God to display his great power. Say, “_____________ is empowered by the same God I am.”
Friend, our enemy wants to divide us with jealousy, rivalry, self-focus, and pride. But our Jesus cultivates unity between members who are as different as can be, but who serve the same great God.
Which of these three instructions from Paul was the most convicting to you? How can you help community (not competition) develop in your church or ministry by embracing the unique way God has positioned and equipped you to serve Him? How can you foster community (not competition) by embracing the unique way God has positioned and equipped another person or ministry to serve Him?