What is a successful ministry? In my late 20’s, starting out in ordained ministry I think I saw a successful ministry as one that brought a church to a sense of dynamic energy. A successful ministry would be one with lots of programs, for people of all ages, large attendance on Sunday, there were new people joining the church, there was a buzz in the community about that church. I know that was my measuring stick, I judged myself by that criteria and I know most of the lay people around me felt the same way. And why wouldn’t we? Our culture defines success along the same lines, bigger is better, more is better, less is failure.
Some of my colleagues felt likewise. They were also the strivers, the keeners, the ones who never had difficulty getting a “call” to a church when they were ready to move. I know that when I would write my covering letter to a prospective church I would fill it with a list of accomplishments, all of which spoke of larger numbers, more activity. And lay people, hungry to see their dying church grow again, would eat that up. Those other ministers who are like me, the strivers, we all know how that works.
There was another view among my colleagues, the notion that God’s success and our success are two different things. The former is based on integrity, faith-fullness and living an authentic life based on a demanding Christian ethos. I admired those people then and even more now. These are the folks who live and die as people who “take up their cross and follow”. No matter the consequences they live for Christ. They will take whatever the world doles out as long as they live their lives in accordance with Kingdom values.
But among that crowd there were those who did so with humility and drive, they wanted to create a “kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” and everything about them bore the mark of a person who was in love with God and humanity. But also among that crowd were those who decided the work of kingdom building was too much, they were tired, worn out, defeated, and sought refuge in self-care and self-pity. Spending time with them would be a litany of woe and disappointment, the world is against them, the church is against them, if only people would listen to them…
Now older I don’t see success the way the world does, numbers don’t carry the same attraction they once did. Lay people who tell me that attendance is up or that people like me or that I am doing what people want are missing the point. Now I am attuned to a new tune, that is am I assisting others, are they assisting me, to become more selfless, less “me-focused” and more “other-focused”. A successful ministry to me is one where the church is moving people to consider the other, to love those who are not like us, to consider those who can offer us nothing except the satisfaction of knowing them as part of God’s Creation.
I find I work just as hard as I did in my late 20’s, if not harder. I am just as driven and focused. But numbers and the level of activity and energy are not my concern and mean nothing as compliments. Instead my work is focused exclusively on stretching my love and my soul to include others, to touch those who can touch me, to make a bond of sisterhood and brotherhood with kin who are not blood related, where there is not reciprocal relationship. I love others because I can. Period. To me this is a successful ministry and one I still striving to be part of, despite my limitations and flaws. It’s there, within me, within my grasp, and God in moments of insight and transformation, can take me there.