A fascinating article recently showed that death rates among German fighter pilots in World War II were raised because of a highly competitive culture fueled by envy and jealousy.
Luftwaffe leader Herman Goering created this culture, publishing notable feats in a bulletin to inspire both troops and civilians. The research showed that after a pilot was mentioned in the bulletin, his peers’ kill rate rose from 0.8 to 1.2 aircraft shot down per month. But their death rate also increased, from 2.7 percent to 4 percent.
These higher death rates were found primarily among more mediocre pilots, who needlessly endangered themselves in hope of achieving similar glory. This competitive culture was typified during the Battle of Britain, when ace Werner Molders refused to return to Germany for a meeting unless his chief rival, Adolf Galland, was grounded while he was away.
The researchers’ conclusion: “High-powered incentives—in the form of public recognition—may backfire precisely because concerns about relative standing can induce too much risk-taking.”
No Kingdom Aces
The lessons from this research can be applied all too easily to the world of ministry. There is a tragically high fallout rate within pastoral ministry—whether from disillusionment, burnout, or moral failure. I suspect this isn’t helped by a competitive culture where the notable feats of the exceptionally gifted are (often exclusively) held forth as an example. Those highly successful in ministry can inadvertently have a detrimental effect on their peers.
We love to honor our perceived ministry “aces.”
We can easily boast of church size and church growth, books written or sold, churches planted, or social-media prowess. But the result of such adulation is that pastors of more modest ability can feel inadequate, push themselves too hard, or take unnecessary shortcuts to achieve a similar glory. Many pastors feel insecure about the fruitfulness of their gospel efforts compared to those in the limelight—even when they’re experiencing what is perfectly normal for most ministers in a comparable context.
Many of us may need to repent of jealousy and envy of others, and avoid comparing ourselves to them. Gospel ministry should be a collaborative—rather than a competitive—activity as we link arms to advance God’s kingdom. But we can all too easily grow envious of others’ greater gifting or easier ministry context. We can even succumb to a kind of historical envy, leading us to wish we’d labored in an earlier age of greater gospel progress. Or we can wrongly assume the results of the past would be replicated in the present if we just adopted their methodologies.
Danger for Type-A’s
Resisting a competitive urge can be especially difficult for men who enter gospel ministry after being highly successful in another field. They can carry an ingrained culture of success into their new calling, expecting to become an “ace” as they may have been in other aspects of life. The work of the kingdom is not accomplished by a few superstars, however, but by an army of ordinary pastors plugging away faithfully over the long haul. They may seem mediocre and average by comparison, but they’re the workhorses that accomplish the goal.
The work of the kingdom is not accomplished by a few superstars, but by an army of ordinary pastors plugging away faithfully over the long haul.
The German fighter “aces” could bask in their individual glory for a short time, but the needless loss of so many “mediocre” pilots taking needless risks arguably contributed to Germany losing the war. We must not allow this to happen in ministry.
Most of Us: Average
The vast majority of us can expect to be average, not aces. To be average or mediocre is not to be a failure; it’s to be normal. I remember the ridicule heaped on government-education goals a few years back that wanted all children to attain “above average” reading skills by the time they left school, which is of course impossible. It would be just as foolish to assume that most pastors will be above average, and it’s a sign of dangerous pride if we think this is what we all have to be.
Gospel ministry “aces” prone to competitiveness—or worse, quiet boasting—ought to reflect on the fact that “from those who have much, much is expected” (Luke 12:48). Jesus will demand more from the 10-talent guy than the one-talent guy. Comparative objective performance doesn’t tell you who has truly been a good and faithful servant of the master. The test is whether we have been faithful with what’s been entrusted to us.