Comparison creeps in, unwelcome and yet irresistible. It settles in the chest, a knot of frustration, exhaustion, fear, shame. At the dinner table, it drops into your stomach. In the yard with the kids, you catch your breath at the sharpness of it. You saw the tweet, the Facebook post, the Instagram shot. Full pews (or, these days, innumerable likes), budgets met and surpassed, momentum and energy abounding. Your mind cannot help but compare.
Social comparison theory tells us that there are two types of comparison: upward and downward. Upward comparison is comparing oneself to a person you perceive to be ahead of you or better off than you while downward comparison is comparing oneself to a person who is behind you or worse off than you. Both forms of comparison have gifts, but also perilous pitfalls.
Upward comparison can inspire us to strive for excellence. It can motivate us to work toward goals and imagine what could be in the future. However, upward comparison can also instill envy, low self-esteem, and unrealistic expectations. We are afraid to pursue goals inspired by others because of the visibility of our work, particularly during this season in which much of what we do is online for the world to see. We feel exposed and vulnerable. Instead of pursuing growth and taking risks, we suffer silently, wondering if our work is meaningful at all since it cannot be that.
Downward comparison can elicit compassion and empathy for those who might be struggling. It might also make us feel less alone in our own struggle. However, downward comparison frequently takes a negative turn. Instead of thinking of others with compassion and solidarity, we allow their circumstances to fuel a “Glad it’s not me” attitude. We binge on the sensation of being better off than someone else. But the relief does not last, and we are left with sour stomachs. As American writer Max Ehrmann wrote in his poem “Desiderata,” “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
Can we heal from the wound that is comparison? What practices might lead us toward freedom and wholeness?
1. Tend to our own souls.
The most important thing we must do as ministers of the gospel is tend to our own souls. We must do the work to cultivate a healthy inner life that is congruent with that which we proclaim. When we acknowledge that our insecurities are less about “them” and more about ourselves and what is happening within us, we are free to do the work of reorienting ourselves and re-rooting our hearts in our first identity as a child of God.
This is not work that can be done in isolation. We must ask, Who are the voices of truth in my life? Who has permission to say hard things? Who loves me and will be a nonjudgmental, non-anxious presence in my life? A trusted friend, a spiritual director, perhaps another pastor? These people can serve as means of grace and, often, spiritual guides who walk with us through seasons of wilderness.
It is also helpful to consider what patterns breed the most anxiety and tend to result in comparison. Is it helpful or necessary to “check the stats” first thing on Monday morning? Is it life-giving to immerse yourself in social media without boundary? Pay attention to those things that create the most unrest in you—sit with them and allow the Spirit to guide you toward change.
2. Hold the church lightly.
Fellow pastor Megan Pardue said of this strange season in pastoral ministry: “I am trying to hold the church more lightly right now…The image of holding church with open hands, instead of clenched hands, is giving me some more room for grace. And helping me remember that it’s God’s church anyway.”
We are not our ministries, nor do our ministries belong to us. We are stewards and shepherds. When our sense of self-worth becomes entangled with our performance, good or bad, we are on a treacherous path. Positive feedback and perceived success are wonderful, but also addictive. If we allow ourselves to be fed by them, we will find ourselves malnourished and afraid when they dry up.
What might it look like to “hold the church more lightly”? As best you are able, set firm boundaries around when you work, and be sure to practice sabbath. Of course, ministry frequently happens in the interruptions, but often we use this as an excuse to always “be on.” We must check our motivations and see what we might be avoiding or attempting to gain by working continuously. Remember the challenge of Hilary of Tours, to avoid irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo, the blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for God.
3. Be faithful.
Finally, be faithful. Persevere. Our work is not in vain. The One who calls us sees our toil, our discouragement, and even our unhealthy coping mechanisms and takes them into himself for our good and healing if we will release them.
Humility will also serve us well as we persist. Pride and shame often prevent us from learning and growing. Allowing the work of others to challenge us in healthy ways can bear positive fruit born of cooperation. How can we posture ourselves to learn from others as we persevere in such a way that we are encouraged to try new things without internalizing our differences as personal failures?
Finally, we remember we are not alone. Thousands of faithful servants have preceded us and walk alongside us now in this good work. Even in moments of deepest isolation, we discipline our minds to remember we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, thus “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).