“If you know you are the Beloved, you can live with an enormous amount of success and an enormous amount of failure without losing your identity. Because your identity is that you are the Beloved… the question becomes ‘Can I live a life of faith in the world and trust that it will bear fruit?’” –Henri Nouwen
Recently I read a letter that I have not been able to get off my mind. It was written by a pastor to the editor of a Christian magazine and it said, “I retired a year ago from one of several consecutive positions as associate or senior pastor. I retired not because I didn’t love the people, the missions, the act of preaching and the way weekly preaching shaped me…No, it was because I was never able to navigate through the expectations of my church, both at the local level and from the hierarchy, that I would attract more and more money and bring in more and more members.
“By the time I decided to retire, these two components of ministry became the only validations of effective ministry in my denomination. Conducting ministry by such a method was mind-numbing and soul-draining. I tried my best, and in the end I left. Today I guest preach and lead retreats only occasionally. Mostly I spend my time in utter joy, compiling my journal entries and letters from my first year as a solo pastor in England. At long last, I have time to reflect.”
“Never Quite Sure if I’m Measuring Up”
This pastor is not alone in the experience of being driven from ministry by false measures of success. In Pastors at Greater Risk, H.B. London Jr. and Dr. Neil B. Wiseman state that 45.5% of pastors say that they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry. It would be naive to think that this large percentage does not include some of the brightest, most inspiring pastors in the country.
Not surprisingly, several of the top reasons pastors leave ministry too soon have to do with discouragement and a sense of failure around how they measure success, how they compare themselves to other pastors and ministries, and how those around them measure success and critique them on that basis.
Even leadership conferences, which are designed to be helpful and empowering, can contribute to this sense of not measuring up. As one young pastor shared with me, “I find leadership conferences to be very exciting on one level but there is something darker that happens as well. Sometimes they leave me feeling competitive towards other churches and what they are accomplishing. I leave the conference feeling dissatisfied with my own situation—my own staff, my own resources, my own gifts and abilities. My ego gets ramped up to do bigger and better things and then I go home and drive everyone crazy. Three months later, the conference notebook is on a bookshelf somewhere and I have returned to life as usual with a vague feeling of uneasiness about my effectiveness as a leader, never quite sure if I am measuring up.”
I suppose clergy and Christian ministry leaders have always been subject to the subtle temptations of the ego as it relates to the call to ministry, but there are aspects of this phenomenon that seem to have their own unique expression in our day. When I was growing up as a pastor’s kid my dad’s responsibilities as a pastor were, in some ways, very simple. He preached on Sundays and in some cases Wednesday evenings. He visited the sick and counseled those in need of pastoral care. He sat with the elders and they made decisions together regarding the ministries and business aspects of the church. That was about it and that was enough!
These days, however, the pastoral/ministry role is much more complicated than that. Now, in addition to those basic responsibilities, many are expected to function like CEO’s of large corporations. They are expected to be strategic thinkers and planners. They are expected to be good managers. They are expected to preach sermons that are culturally relevant and contribute expertise and innovative ideas regarding production and programming. They are expected to lead fundraisers and capital campaigns. They are expected to be skilled at interpersonal relating but also command the attention (or draw the attention) of large crowds. Such expectations can create inner confusion about what true success really is.
Faithfulness that Leads to Fruitfulness
Just to be clear: I am not advocating mediocrity, lack of excellence or laziness in ministry. Anyone who works closely with me knows that I have my own issues with perfectionism and the drive for excellence; in fact, on days when I don’t keep that part of my personality in check, it can make us all crazy.
But I also know that there is a difference between valuing excellence—the quest for beauty, accuracy, and effectiveness—and allowing the outcomes of all that to define me and us and our success. It is a difference we do well to pay attention to.
As we head into a new ministry season, I am convinced that one of the things we can do to save our souls in ministry is to re-think our definition of success and to be vigilant in rejecting the subtle seductions of the ego in this regard. Mother Theresa’s perspective helps me to stay grounded in the deepest truth about what success really is; it rescues me from my own inner strivings when I need rescuing. She says,
I was never called to be successful;
I was called to be faithful
and in my striving to be faithful
my life will be fruitful
and because it is fruitful
you could say I am successful.”
Amen and amen!