Gospel Ministry: Ace or Average? – We need To Avoid Envy & An Unhealthy Competitive Culture Of Ministry Success

There is a tragically high fall-out rate from pastoral ministry.

We love to honour our perceived ministry “aces.” We can so easily boast of church size and church growth, number of books written or sold, number of churches planted, or social media profile. But the result  of such adulation is that more modestly able pastors feel inadequate, push themselves too hard, or take unnecessary risks and shortcuts to achieve a similar glory for themselves.


There was a fascinating article in the Times last week reporting the results of a study by a team from the universities of Chicago, Southern Denmark and Zurich showing that death rates amongst German fighter pilots in the Second World War were raised because of a highly competitive culture fuelled by envy and jealousy.

Head of the Luftwaffe Herman Goering created this culture, and the notable feats of individuals were published in a regular bulletin to inspire both troops and civilians. The research showed that after a pilot was mentioned in the bulletin the kill rate of his peers rose from 0.8 to 1.2 aircraft shot down per month, but at the same time the death rate increased from 2.7% to 4%.

These higher death rates were primarily among more mediocre pilots, who needlessly put themselves in danger in the hope of achieving similar glory. This competitive culture was typified during the Battle of Britain when ace Werner Molders refused to return to German for a meeting unless his chief rival, Adolf Galland, was grounded for the period he was away from the front line.

The researchers concluded: “High-powered incentives – in the form of public recognition – may backfire precisely because concerns about relative standing can induce too much risk-taking.”

The lessons from this research can, I think, be applied all too easily to gospel ministry. There is a tragically high fall-out rate from pastoral ministry – whether from disillusionment, burn-out or moral failure – and I suspect this is not helped by the creation of a competitive culture in which the notable feats of some who are exceptionally gifted are celebrated as an example or encouragement for others. Those that are highly successful in ministry can inadvertently have a detrimental impact on their peers.

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