Redefining Success

Twenty years ago a young man walked across a stage and received a piece of paper that was evidence of four years of hard work, study, perseverance, and ping-pong. Tassels were flipped, hats were tossed, pats on the back were given. The future was before him, and he was eager to apply all that he learned in Bible college to real world ministry.

Okay. Sorry. I had to wipe the screen from the coffee that I just sprayed all over it from the spit-take I did after writing that last sentence. “Apply all that he learned in Bible college to real world ministry.” I am thankful for my education. I am. I learned to use the original languages of the Bible to gain a deeper understanding of Scripture. I learned many leadership principles from great educators who loved God and loved the Church. I made friendships that have lasted decades and that I value deeply. But the biggest lesson that I have learned in “real world ministry” is the one thing I have had to unlearn: what does success in ministry look like? I also learned there could be a whole semester of classes on “things they don’t teach you in Bible College.”

The Unspoken Truth

I want to be clear. Not one professor ever said, “This is what success in ministry looks like. Copy it.” I never sat in a class that said, “This type of church is good and this type is bad.” To claim that would be disingenuous to the good men and women that I studied under. I honestly feel that they were, and still are, training future leaders to lead to the best of their ability. But it was the unspoken things that seeped in and began to permeate my view of what success in ministry looks like.

EXHIBIT A: Textbooks – My first year of Bible College coincided with the publishing of a very influential book: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church. This book was used in several classes over four years on leadership, church growth, ministry essentials, etc. Saddleback (Warren’s Church) was lifted up as an ideal paradigm of ministry: large, white, and suburban. Other authors were used and cited in these classes as well. Names like Bill Hybels, Bob Russell, and Dave Stone graced the spines of my collegiate library. The organization models that their churches followed (Willow Creek and Southeast, respectively) were examined and dissected. Again, the unspoken message was loud: successful churches are large, well organized, with great leaders at all levels. (To be fair, we did speak on house churches, churches who multiply and plant rather than grow, and other alternative types of ministry. But those conversations were few and very far between.)

EXHIBIT B: Guest Speakers – Throughout the years my alma mater invited guest speakers and lecturers to come in and teach or speak in chapel. Many were alumni that had gone on to plant or grow churches. Some were missionaries home on furlough whose ministries were as varied as the cultures they served. But, as hard as I try to, I cannot remember a single guest speaker who was serving a stagnant, struggling, or even a dying church. Again, it was the unspoken that resounded in my mind: successful churches are growing, thriving churches.

EXHIBIT C: Attitudes – To be fair, this was more from students than professors, but I can remember talking with friends about a building project that a church in my home-town was undertaking. I grew up in small-town rural Virginia. So the sanctuary being built was going to accommodate seating for 300 people. In my humble experience, this was a “big” church. Several of my friends were from much bigger churches however, and their comments betrayed their attitudes toward smaller churches:

  • “Why would they build so small?”
  • “I can’t believe their leaders have such limited vision.”
  • “Don’t they expect to grow at all?”
  • “They need to step out on faith and build a bigger sanctuary.”

The sentiment from my peers was near universal: small churches have limited vision, faith, and expectations. I wish I could say that it didn’t rub off on me. I wish I could say I didn’t buy into their vision of local church ministry. I wish I could say my hubris and ambition didn’t cloud my judgment. I wish I could say I wasn’t deeply influenced by both unspoken and spoken definitions of success.

I guess I could say it, but I’d be lying.

When Education Meets the Real World

Twenty years ago that same young man started his first full -time preaching ministry. The setting was a picturesque small farming community in north-central Ohio. The congregation was over 130 years old, and the culture was different than any other the young man had experienced. Growing up in the rural South he was used to a more laid back, at ease way of life. That was replaced by blue-collar get-it-done types with little time for amenities like humor and rest. Immediately he started trying to implement all he had learned in Bible College.

What I didn’t know was that I was just spinning my wheels. I did a lot of work. I researched and recruited leaders to transition from a Sunday Night service to a small-groups structure. This was shot down literally two weeks away from launch. I tried to introduce more modern praise music with limited success. The harder I worked on the things I thought mattered, the more I neglected the things in ministry that do matter. I was focused on systems, programs, and structure instead of people, preaching, and humility. What resulted was a mutual frustration that resulted in me leaving that ministry for the bluegrass of Kentucky.
But Kentucky was more of the same. Another established church. More and more trying to put a square peg into a round hole. More frustration. More failure. More moving to hopefully better things.
Then I took on a church plant. There were a lot of things wrong going in that I didn’t see due to lack of experience and training. Add a frustrated twenty-something to the mix and what I got was a church-split, and shuttered doors three years later.

Seven years. Three ministries. One church closed forever. All before my 29th birthday. To say I was heartbroken doesn’t even to begin to cover it. I was frustrated, angry, bitter, depressed, and doubtful. I was a giant ball of negative energy lashing out at anything and anyone that dared cross me. I was no longer the starry-eyed graduate that was going to transform the way a church does ministry. I was a full-blown cynic who seriously began to question whether or not ministry was meant to be his occupation.

I was never taught in Bible College how to handle stubborn, selfish, and angry people, especially when those people serve in leadership positions. I was never taught what to do when the local congregation doesn’t share your vision. I was never instructed on how to navigate the murky waters of real world ministry where you are dealing with broken people who sometimes have their own broken agendas. I was taught to implement systems and write good sermons. That wasn’t enough in the real world.

A Helpful Hiatus

Time away. That’s what I needed, I just needed to be away. Away from responsibility. Away from the pulpit. Away from the spotlight. I needed to be away from full-time ministry. My wounds were fresh and deep, and I needed healing. My ego was bruised and my pride had been punctured. My hubris lacerated. My confidence shredded. My idealism broken. I was in a spiritual and emotional triage. God knew this, so he sent me to an unexpected place to heal and learn. He sent me to school.

In Maryland I tried my hand at teaching middle and high school at a private Christian school. I learned many things about myself. One, I am not cut out for teaching. It’s hard work and requires two things that I did not possess, organization and self-discipline. For four years I learned these traits, not from teachers, but by teaching. I also learned humility. I was thrust into an environment where I was no longer the one seen as an “expert.” No one comes to the rookie teacher asking questions. In fact, I had to ask for help on numerous occasions, and had to be corrected repeatedly. I learned my place, and that it’s okay and beneficial to admit that you don’t know how to do something. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was how to define success.

A teacher has a small congregation they are trying to reach. While in Maryland my class sizes rarely exceeded more than 20 students. I didn’t measure success by how big my class was, or how polished my presentation was. Nope, the only rubric of success that matters in teaching is does the student “get it.” I learned to celebrate when a “D” student got a “B-” on a test that he studied hard for weeks to pass. I learned to celebrate when a kid who had everything in life stacked against her managed to remember her homework. I learned to celebrate small victories, that may have seemed like baby steps to me, but were great leaps forward to the children who were making them. I began to measure success differently, and I began to see how this applies to the Church.

Graduating… Again

After four years, it was time for me to “graduate.” Once again I received a piece of paper, however this one was not a recognition of something accomplished, but a notice of something discontinued: my contract. The elders who ran the school in Maryland knew I was not a good fit for the classroom. They were wise enough to know my gifts were better suited for ministry, and to give me a boost, they decided to not renew my contract for the 2009-2010 school year. So it was back to the pulpit.

But this time I was not confident, nor was I idealistic. I was scared. A fear of failure gripped me. Would I succeed? That’s when I began formulating an idea of what success looks like in congregations.

  • Success is measured by individual personal growth, which will lead to congregational growth.
  • Congregational growth does not always translate into numbers. Rather it results in spiritual maturity. I.e. how well are they producing the “Fruit of the Spirit” of Galatians 5?
  • Growth is often punctuated by stagnation. Churches, like people, go through seasons. There are seasons where we plant. There are seasons where we work the fields. There are seasons where we harvest. And there are seasons where a field goes fallow for a time. Notice, in only one of these seasons is dynamic growth achieved, the other seasons are marked by our faithfulness in planting, growing, and waiting. Success is not in the growth, it is in the faithfulness in between seasons of harvest.
  • Success will look different depending on the context. An addict deciding to try to quit is a success even if his chance of relapse is high. A single mom deciding to bring her special needs kid to church is a success, even if the child is disruptive. A leadership willing to do something they have never done before is a success, even if the new venture fails. These things may be baby steps elsewhere, or they may not even be on the radar in a large church that has the resources to counsel addicts, care for special needs kids, and has a culture of “outside-the-box” thinking, but to some congregations these are giant leaps of successful triumph.

With my new lens of how I viewed success I found my next ministry venture to be, you guessed it, successful! I celebrated small victories like they were huge ones, because they were. I valued people over programs. I focused more on spiritual maturity than on flawless organizational structures. My focus had changed, and with it, my expectations. I was able to let a church celebrate her strengths, and help her in her weaknesses, rather than disregarding both in favor of a vision of how I thought church should be. I learned not every sacred cow needs sacrificing, and not every hill is my mountain to die on. Most importantly I learned that success is not about me. It’s about how close are my people getting to Jesus, and sometimes that means I need to get out of the way. So when I meet other ministers, I don’t ask how their church is doing, because that inevitably devolves into a conversation of attendance, offerings, and buildings. Rather, I ask how their people are doing. This results in a much different conversation about things that really matter in ministry.

You see, God does not measure personal success by how much we get paid, how big our friends list is, or how well we dress. He measures success in our life by how close we are to Him. It’s time we measure our churches the same way.

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