The Finite and Infinite Game of Pastoral Ministry
Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game explains the difference between finite and infinite games:
- Finite games — “Finite games are played by known players. They have fixed rules. And there is an agreed-upon objective that, when reached, ends the game.” Examples are football and team sports. Finite games have established rules, and a beginning, middle, and end. The goal is to get to the end and win, and the winner is easy to identify
- Infinite games — “Infinite games, in contrast, are played by known and unknown players. There are no exact or agreed-upon rules,” even though there may be conventions. The goal isn’t to win because there are no clear winners. The goal is to be able to continue to play. Examples are friendship and marriage.
“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning; an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play,” writes James P. Carse.
The difference is important because you play each game differently. You get into trouble when you try to win at marriage, for instance, or when you don’t play by the rules when playing a sport.
Sinek argues that business is like an infinite game. Players can join at any time. Each player has his or her own strategy. Rules aren’t codified. There’s no beginning or end. “To succeed in the Infinite Game of business, we have to stop thinking about who wins or who’s the best and start thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to stay in the game for many generations to come,” he writes.
Pastoral Ministry is Like Both
I want to suggest that pastoral ministry has elements of both kinds of games.
Pastoral Ministry is Like a Finite Game
Paul uses compares pastoral ministry to finite games.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Timothy 2:5)
Pastoral ministry is like a finite game. You must play by the rules. Your ministry has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can win or lose at the task God has given you. The goal is to win the prize. You are accountable to an outside authority.
Pastors: play by the rules. Don’t freestyle. Stay faithful. Aim to win the prize. Carry out the tasks that have been laid down for you in Scripture. “Always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). One day you will give an account to God, so play by his rules and stay faithful to the end.
Pastoral Ministry is Like an Infinite Game
From another perspective, pastoral ministry is like an infinite game.
We’re in partnership together with others, united with all those who are part of the church. We’re not in competition with anyone. We’ve been given a pattern for ministry in Scripture, but applying that pattern in each context takes wisdom. Our goal in ministry is not our own success but to serve the church. There’s no finish line. We want to stay faithful so that we keep on serving as long as we can. Ministry will continue long after we’re gone.
Seeing ministry as an infinite game keeps us from trying to keep score using worldly metrics, and it also keeps us from competing with other ministries. We get into trouble when we try to “win” as pastors by making ourselves successful and beating others.
When it comes to God, aim to win. Play by his rules. Make God’s commendation your goal.
When it comes to others, stop competing. Don’t try to get ahead of other ministries. Shift the focus from yourself. Stay faithful so you can keep serving as long as you can.
Both perspectives give us insight into the nature of pastoral ministry. When it comes to God, aim to win the prize. When it comes to others, stop competing and start serving.