I recently talked with a friend in ministry who had reached a significant career milestone, but he struggled with how to talk about it. Could he be proud of accomplishing something?
His comments stood out to me because I’ve been in that same place many times. Can I be proud of what has happened in our church? Or would that be sinful pride?
In ministry, “success” is a loaded term, one that many are quick to run from. And while I’ve certainly come across the cliched pastor who can’t wait to tell you how big his church is or how many followers her Instagram page has, most people in ministry truly aren’t like that. They want to serve God, help people, and live humble lives. But we also feel a desire to succeed in our vocation, and would like to know we’re doing a good job.
Here are four questions for you to process when thinking about success in ministry:
1. How does the gospel shape my experience of success? As Christians, we are completely loved by God before we do anything for Him. If we are driven to succeed out of fear that we are unloved otherwise, we need to re-order our understanding of the gospel.
That said, we sometimes go too far, acting as if the gospel invalidates our longing to participate in work that matters. I believe that it is a good thing to find joy and meaning in our work, as long as that joy and meaning is in right relationship to the Creator.
2. What do I want to see happen in people’s lives? Sometimes we’re the worst critics of our own ministry. “No one really liked my message.” “No one’s life is really changed.” “Ministry isn’t real work compared to manual labor, brain surgery, or corporate life.” Especially with experience, we can become skeptical of stories of life change, knowing that there are many factors that go into true transformation.
But don’t discourage yourself out of worship when God works in someone’s life. Cynicism isn’t maturity – it is faux-maturity, a sophomoric belief that we know how every story will end. Ministry work does matter, and your contributions can be significant to people.
3. What did I do to contribute? We may know that the ministry we’re a part of did something life-changing, but we dismiss our role in that process. Especially as we grow up the ladder and take on more of a visionary role, we sometimes aren’t sure what we contributed besides being the leader.
This sounds humble until we consider how important “just the leader” can be. Don’t believe me? Find a successful ministry without strong leaders. You may not be the one who gets to lead the child to Christ, feed the homeless person yourself, or mentor the troubled couple, but your leadership makes these contributions from others possible.
4. How does my success compare with others? Predecessors, neighboring leaders, heroes, and secular influencers all can make us feel like we aren’t keeping up with others. Our “wins” feel small compared to the deluge of success stories we hear at conferences, on social media, and in church history books.
Our successes aren’t invalidated because they are smaller than others, any more than a watermelon is invalidated because it is smaller than other watermelons.
Besides, if you aren’t sure if your success is truly from God (see #2), how can you be sure the successes of others are or aren’t? Make the words of Jesus to Peter his words to you: “What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22)
How have you found ways to hold on to the successes of ministry without being ruled by them?