I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 1 of 3)

Finally moving on from Matthew 3!

Here’s a story about John the Baptist from the book written by another dude whose name was also John:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

I’m going to sit on this passage for a minute―and by a minute, I mean this post and the next two as well. I particularly want to stew on the last sentence. John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, says, he must increase, but I must decrease.

I could probably spend a while waxing poetic…or just preachy…on the virtues of humility, of decreasing our own power and need for control so that Jesus might increase, of laying down our own rights and needs and very lives so that the gospel might go forward and flourish.

I could say these things, and I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

But I also think it’s very complicated. And so, over the next three days, I want to share three personal stories that relate to John’s statement and (I hope) might help draw out some of the complexities that come up as we think about it.

Here is story number one:

I used to lead the college ministry at the church that I was a part of for a long time in the Bay area.

At this church, there is a pastor―whom I like, respect, and look up to a lot―who sometimes makes self-deprecating comments and jokes, in staff meetings or otherwise. I appreciate his quick wit and his humility, and I think others do too.

This pastor is also male, about ten years older than me, and much more well-established in the structures of institutional power at the church. Given all this―his social location, if you will―I think his self-deprecating humor helps people feel comfortable around him rather than intimidated. It helps people see that he is relatable and human.

At some point, I realized that sometimes I would make similar kinds of comments and jokes―but for me, they weren’t really working in my favor.

I was young, female, and not at all well-established in the church’s leadership structures. And I had to deal with things my male, well-established pastor colleague didn’t have to deal with.

For example, I would be surprised if my colleague has ever had a conversation with a male stranger in the church parking lot that went like this:

Male stranger (seeing me getting food out of my car, about to head toward the college breakfast meeting): “Hey, could you tell me, who’s leading the college ministry these days?”

Me (with a friendly smile): “I am!”

Male stranger: “No, no. Who’s leading the group?”

Me (the smile starting to fade a bit): “Right, that would be me.”

Male stranger: “No, I mean, who’s the college pastor?”

Me: “Oh, well, Scott is the pastor who supervises me, but I’m the one responsible for leading the college group. Did you have a question about the group or anything?”

Male stranger: “Ah, okay, it’s Scott. Great. Thanks!”

My unfortunate reality was that, no matter how much I might have wanted to make self-deprecating jokes, and how appropriate they might have been for my colleague, it wasn’t the same for me. When I said self-deprecating things, people would take them at face value. I knew that I was more capable than I was speaking about, but that wasn’t always obvious to others. 

As a young woman, fairly new to my job, with a lot of responsibilities but without the title of pastor―and all this in a church that did not fully approve of women in leadership―I was in a situation where I didn’t really need to “decrease” any more. I didn’t really need to be any lower than I was already.
I needed to step forward and step up, bringing the best of my talents and passions into a challenging role. I needed to confidently embrace my own belonging and appropriateness in that role. I did not need to try to “decrease” myself by downplaying my gifts or abilities. Doing so―through self-deprecating humor or otherwise―only hindered my ability to do my job, using my gifts fully and freely to lead the college ministry.

I think this is a common tension, and an important one. John the Baptist’s words about decreasing and increasing don’t always apply in our lives and communities in straightforward ways. In fact, the ways in which they do or don’t apply has a great deal to do with social location and power. And, on top of that, the amount of power and kinds of power each of us has can be very different in different contexts and situations.

Tomorrow I’ll share a second story that keeps exploring these kinds of thoughts, from another angle. 

2 thoughts on “I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. This echoes similar sentiments expressed by Hannah Goldsby in her Nanette special, where she talks about why she now finds it problematic to use self deprecating humor from a marginalized starting point. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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