The game is real (and its ok not to play)
In the Living Leadership Formation Residential conference this week (for junior leaders - ministry trainees, apprentices, interns etc.), I was one of a number of leaders asked the question:
What would you have liked your younger self to know starting out in ministry?
My answer was this:
That the game is real and its ok not to play it.
There were raised eyebrows and puzzled looks (even more than usual when I speak!) Some, knowing my distaste for soccer, thought I was referring to that game. But that's not the game I meant. I went on to say (more or less) what follows. I hope you might find it helpful too.
What do I mean by ‘the game’? I mean the way advancement in positions of leadership usually works in human systems: by a combination of promotion of self and patronage from other senior leaders.
Self-promotion: you put yourself forward, take every opportunity to be visible up front, and even step over others to get there.
Senior-patronage: finding other people who can open opportunities and give you visibility, and you get in with them and keep in with them.
That’s how most human systems work. I wish I could say it was always different in the Church. Sometimes it is. Please hear that. This is not a cynical moan about how bad everything and everyone is. But over the years I’ve seen this same dynamic in so-called Christian ministry. Of course, it is usually more subtle and often cloaked in spiritual language. We wouldn’t admit to self-promotion, but we are convinced God has gifted us or called us and we try to convince others of it. And I’ve seen so often how people work the room to be close to the important people.
For years when I was younger, I tried to deny the game existed in the Church. I tried to find a better explanation. Maybe people were just thoughtless. Maybe I was just too shy and lacking in self-confidence. Or maybe I just had a chip on my shoulder?
Now I know. I definitely do have a chip on my shoulder. In fact, I have so many, I’m not sure I have any shoulders left. But that doesn’t mean the game isn’t real. I know now that it is. High profile leadership scandals show it, but so do my years of experience in various settings. I think denying it hampers us. Until we name it, we can’t change it.
The game is utterly unworthy of the name of Christ. He did not play it. He condemned those who did – the Pharisees and tragic Judas and even the bickering disciples. His apostles were the same as the Spirit led them. The so-called ‘super-apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5) who plagued the church in Corinth played the game; the true apostle Paul would not (2 Corinthians 12:11).
The game is worldly. It is the outworking of the kind of ‘wisdom’ James calls “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15). It feeds from jealousy and selfish ambition and it gives rise to conflict, disorder and sin. It is the antithesis of heavenly wisdom, which James says is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
The game is destructive. When it finally comes to light, it causes some people to walk away from the Church. Even when it’s hidden, it causes some people and their gifts to be neglected or suppressed. And, of course, it eats away like a cancer in the heart of those who play it. It is not fun.
And you don’t have to play it. If you refuse, you may remain obscure and others may get ahead of you in the systems that exist, but you will be a faithful servant of the Lord. So, lay down your life. Surrender your ambition. Make it your goal to honour others above yourself. Have the attitude that is ours in Chrust Jesus, who humbled himself and served. This is the way of the kingdom.
I don’t think I’ve ever been tempted to play the game. I hope I never am, and I ask you to give me a swift kick in the shins if you ever see me doing it. My temptations lie in other directions. One of them is to give up in ministry for fear of getting sucked into the game or with despair that it seems so widespread.
But you don’t have to get frustrated when you see people play the game. The fact that I can identify it in some of the New Testament narratives and epistles means it has always been with us, even if the systems we have developed have caused it to increase and even to appear legitimate. It will be with us in some level until the Lord returns. But he is still Lord and he will right all that is wrong. The only thing that ultimately matters is that you can stand before him at his judgement seat as someone who knew they were a servant, not a player.