Re-thinking Success

“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.”

Great Expectations

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!

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

40 Comments

  1. Biz Gainey on September 12, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you!

  2. Charles on September 7, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Great post. Thank you. This is the first time I’ve seen the second half of Theresa’s quote about fruitfulness in relation to faithfulness. So good. Would you share the source?

    • Jeffery James on September 7, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      Thanks for your question. Ruth is usually quick to respond, but she is on vacation right now.

  3. Kurt on September 7, 2016 at 12:44 am

    I serve in a ministry that has always been mendicant in many ways, a performing arts group that puts ourselves out there to serve, and are largely at the mercy of others whether we have places to serve, to stay, etc. In this equation, success has never been about dollars and souls, more so measured in “opportunities to minister”.
    We have, though, all along needed to focus on dollars – the church at large tends not to support the arts well, and in this day and age, we are just one of many groups, one of many places that money could be spent.
    I resonated with this article strongly. I find myself in a difficult spot of being “productive” according to the definition of opportunities to serve, yet there’s strong pressure to bring in more money. We have fewer people doing more work and I’m at my end. To quit would have a deep impact on the ministry, yet I am faltering. My faith in Christ is strong, vision of the power of our ministry strong – energy and emotional/spiritual stability a bit shaky.
    Thanks for posting the article. I need to take it before the Lord and let him speak. Again, thanks.

  4. Bob Fryling on September 6, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Ruth: Thanks for raising this critical ministry issue through the pastor’s letter. I believe that one of the results of our digitized age is that we are able to measure and quantify and evaluate so much, so quickly that no one can sustain success – it is like money and as John D. Rockefeller once said in response to the question of how much money he needed, he said just a little more!

    In a similar vein Max Depree has observed in the marketplace that “an over-emphasis on quantification makes organization eunuchs!” I fear that the more we depend on numbers to justify our ministry the more we can lose our spiritual passion and vitality. Yet ignoring realities that numbers and reports can surface is a common form of denial when things are not going well.

    In addition to all of the wise comments of others and the fundamental call to faithfulness I believe our greatest antidote to being captured by a worldly success mentality is to be able to embrace failure and weakness and to be able to ask for forgiveness. Even the Lord was able to ask for help and to acknowledge when he felt forsaken by the Father. This is the calling to humility – although we can’t strive for it or. Lose it!

    • Ruth Barton on September 12, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Bob, I could not agree with you more that technology has aided and abetted the temptation to be overly reliant on external measurements of success and to do it much more quickly. There is simply now no time to wait and observe the quieter and more substantive aspects of fruitfulness that take longer to show themselves. This, too, is a dynamic that was not nearly as present in the recent past.

      As you so wisely articulate, there are real paradoxes in all of this that require the ability live in creative tension–somewhere between the refusal to live in denial re:what numbers might have to tell us and not paying too much attention to numbers either. Its a good thing we have the Holy Spirit to guide us! Hopefully our reliance on that Spirit fosters the humility you describe.

  5. In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen on September 6, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    […] just read this that expresses more on this topic. Very helpful to […]

  6. sam voorhies on September 6, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you Ruth, for calling this out. I believe a false definition of success is one of the greatest challenges we are facing in the Church and Christian industry today. This distorted view, in my opinion, demonstrates the impact of culture and false theology. The message creeps in, “God is blessing us when we are growing and something is wrong when we are not”.

    Growth is always determined by numbers, particularly income. It is Satan’s lie to keep us distracted by false economies with false measures and methods of success which often corrupt the Gospel message.

    I have seen this at the highest level of the largest of organizations and it greatly concerns me. Debunking the notion that size and growth, budget and activity are somehow the primary indicators of God’s blessing and/or the impact God can have through a ministry is a critical leadership issue.

    Thank you for continuing to highlight this issue.

  7. Morris Dirks on September 6, 2016 at 10:57 am

    There is something fundamentally out of alignment in most churches and your article highlights the deep inner crisis that results in the life of the leader. As I try to navigate how to help leaders through this maze, I am beginning to realize that the issue is not just the leader or the church he or she leads, but it is also our “Christian culture”. Even when a pastor and leadership team decide to change the the measurements of success it seems that most of the people attending don’t share that vision. They have been swimming in a consumer culture for so long that the tail now wags the dog in such a way that it becomes very difficult to shift from the success model we have created. I believe the crisis among pastoral leaders is an indicator that the church is going to enter a season of realignment, but not until there is a disruption at a deeper level — one that impacts the whole community of believers and not just the leadership. Only then will we reach critical mass in a way that deep change will occur. With that said, the call upon leaders today is finding a way to move forward in a dysfunctional system and still remain in balance. Jesus modeled this as he went into Jerusalem regularly and ached over the disorientation that had seized the religious system. He was always swimming upstream. So, we have a leader who understands and will walk with us at a time when it is very difficult to lead the church.

    • Jeffery James on September 6, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      I would love to have some other Transforming Community alumni and Transforming Church members jump in, but I would say that it is possible to realize change. As chair of my elder board I regularly point our elders and pastors to the measurement of success modeled in the Bible. The dynamic on our elder board is changing and I am slowly working my way into the leadership DNA of the church. Modeling by God’s grace that the best thing I bring to my church leadership is a soul being transformed in Christ’s presence.

  8. Terrie on September 6, 2016 at 8:27 am

    This article is so needed and so timely. All pastors need encouragement. My son is a doctor and he’s told his dad and me that his pastor patients are the most miserable/unhappy people he treats. Thank you for writing about this.

  9. Enoch Era on September 6, 2016 at 8:07 am

    Thanks Ruth, for the quote from Henri Nouwen…the fact that we are already accepted in the beloved, I guess is the key…we don’t have to do anything more to be accepted by Him and in Him…it is from this position of confidence in Him we serve…this is what gives us the strength, the energy, security and identity come from it and not from what we do or do not do as part of our ministry. Your sessions on rest in the retreats taught me to cease from trying to be what the world expects or from the ‘ministry expectations’. Thanks again.

  10. Rob on September 6, 2016 at 7:55 am

    Ruth,
    Thank you for the honest assessment of the difficulties in ministry, the explosion of tasks and responsibilities and the desire to accomplish all of these activities well. You speak, briefly, about keeping your personality in check (relative to your perfectionism). What practices assist you in remaining focused on your call to be faithful rather than a call to perfection?
    Thank you,
    Rob

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Love this question! You will not be surprised to hear me say that a significant part of the answer to our wrong-headed addiction to success is a substantive practice of solitude and silence where 1–we “cease striving” (one translation of the phrase “be still” in Psalm 46:10 and know (experientially) that God is God and allow God to be God in our lives, and 2– God becomes and continues to be our ultimate orienting reality rather than whatever external measurements of success exist at any given time. All other measures of success are completely relativized when God becomes real to us in solitude and silence; all we want to do is be faithful to that Presence and call. The practice that is most helpful relative to perfectionism is love–love of self (the way God loves us) and love of others (the way God loves them). May sound trite and simple but when one’s greatest goal is to be in God for the world and to somehow do what we do in a way that reflects the love of God to others, we do our best to glorify God through the excellence we try to achieve and maintain, but we also know that without love, we are not a reflection of God’s nature at all and then we have defeated every significant purpose God has for us. We actually contradict the message we are trying to preach and that is a horrifying possibility! Of course, I could go on and on in response to such a thoughtful question but I’ll leave it at that for now 🙂

  11. Peter on September 6, 2016 at 7:03 am

    Right on! Ruth, thank you so much, for launching this post into the blogosphere. LORD, may this message continue to ripple outward, gaining momentum as time passes.

    I quickly shared within my pastoral network and on my blog site your previous eReflection: “First Things First: Practicing What We Preach.”

    “Rethinking Success” also needs to go forward to wherever and to whomever. I give thanks for you, E. Peterson’s et al, who champion so well this message. Nice to know that you were a PK. I’ll have to pass that on to my daughters.

  12. Ruth Barton on November 24, 2012 at 12:24 am

    Well said! Your comments rightly point out that the issue of how we measure sucess is very layered. It is about how the Christian subculture mirrors secular values and it is also about that which is false within us that is capable of being hooked by it all.

  13. Jamie Bohnett on October 5, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Thank you Ruth for this article. This is such a big struggle for many of us guys who get so easily caught up in worldly measurements of success when we are called to a different standard. The problem is exacerbated when our Christian sub-culture just mirrors the world in measuring success- often superficially… and it doesn’t help either if jealousy/envy of our false self also gets involved!

  14. Lynn on September 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    When I read this I substituted “generic ministry leader” for pastor and changed the details accordingly. Two years ago I was let go as executive leader from a moderately-sized Christian high school. While officially I was RIF’ed, I also know that board discussions in executive session revolved around metrics of enrollment, fundraising, etc. We all understand accountability and, in hindsight, my board did what it needed to do. I so appreciate Ruth’s post and the conversation here as I continue to struggle with the changes in my life and to embrace the new opportunities for ministry that the Lord has presented to me.

  15. Jeff Hyatt on September 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Just came across this quote from Richard Rohr that I think connects well with what you wrote, Ruth. I struggled with Rohr’s writing in TC4, but now welcome him as a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness.

    ‎”Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is “my personal Lord and Savior.” The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.”

    ~ Richard Rohr

    • Ruth Barton on September 9, 2012 at 12:56 am

      This is so true! Thanks for connecting these dots.

  16. Shane on September 5, 2012 at 3:39 am

    It is a good day when we are able to measure forever more our personal value according to Biblical scriptures which declare our Fathers’ love for us unconditionally and with never ending pursuit. From that day forward our success is never measured, but simply shared in overflowing volumous amounts of His love with everyone we encounter and everything we touch.

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks, all, for contributing to this very important conversation. May God help us to spur one another on to good thinking about the true nature of success and good deeds that are deeply faithful and truly fruitful.

  17. John on September 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Excellent. Thank you very much!

  18. Susie on September 4, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    I remember years ago when the pastor of a church on skid row in Los Angeles told me about his need to redefine success. For him, his ministry was a success if one out of 20 in his church–5%–eventually “made it” and continued to follow Christ. Listening to his heart and experiencing his willingness to live and minister where no “worldly” success would ever be visible was a huge encouragement to me, as an inner-city missionary. I have reflected many times on his words when I have tried to explain to others exactly what I do, or when I have felt the pressure to prove to supporters (or to myself!) that what I am doing is worthwhile. It seems I have to relearn time and time again to be content to be faithful to God and to His calling on my life, and leave the results/fruit completely up to Him.

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      I agree that this lesson about how we measure success is something many of us need to learn over and over again. The evil one knows how to lure us into increasinly subtle versions of temptation–even using the good and holy things of God (like ministry!) to do so. Lord have mercy!

  19. Sibyl Towner on September 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    This is a great writing; thank you Ruth, and very timely for people in ministry at the beginning of a ministry year. We have a retreat center where people come to encounter God and work with the issues you raise here as well as other concerns. In many ways the church has followed the culture..rather than than standing in sharp relief to the pace of the culture and saying there is another way to be considered.

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      Yes. I suppose it would be good clarify that one of the subtle temptations contained within our attempts to be culturally relevant is that we could also become culturally influenced and cease to be any kind of true alternative to what the culture in espousing.

  20. Sharon on September 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    This is a timely and refreshing article. Thank you, Ruth. Along the way, this quote from Brennan Manning has also been helpful to me… “Time has been given to us to cause love to grow, and the success of our lives will be measured by how delicately and sensitively we have loved.”

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Amen. Love often gets lost in the shuffle of our drivenness in ministry–a sure sign that we are not being “successful” in the truest sense of the word. Thank you.

  21. Howard Baker on September 4, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Thirty-four years ago when I graduated from seminary I heard Dr. Vernon Grounds in his Commencement address warn us of bowing down to worship (quoting William James’ characterization) ‘the bitch-goddess Success.’ That jolting phrase etched itself on my consciousness and on my ministry value system. It simply reflects the values of Jesus who calls us to lose our lives for his sake, not be successful for our sake. For 15 years in ministry I succumbed to the wiles of the success goddess. However, I must confess that I was not a victim. I chose her over Jesus. The ambition, envy, pride, and avarice in my heart made me an easy target. Sadly, I had no personal or ministry mentors warning me of those deep vices that can easily co-exist with an exterior facade of ministry success, the appearance of righteousness, and egoism disguised as self-sacrifice. As pastors, teachers, and ministry leaders we must learn, as Eugene Peterson encourages, to do our work not just in the truth of Jesus, but in the way of Jesus. This may mean a small, obscure, faithful ministry rather than a successful, glamorous one that has lost its soul.

    • Dave Sims on September 5, 2012 at 1:48 am

      Howard:

      Wow! Your transparency is courageous. Your self-awareness is inspiring. Your wisdom is priceless. Your perspective is needed.

      I hope you are able to mentor those young guys in ways you were not privileged.

      Your new admirer,

      Dave

    • Sande Rajcic on September 6, 2012 at 1:07 am

      Howard, when you write of “the values of Jesus who calls us to lose our lives for his sake, not be successful for our sake,” your words reach far into the places where our Lord continues to do a mighty work in me.

      I am recovering from a dreadful case of intransigent bipolar disorder which has knocked “success” as I was pursuing it in my 20’s entirely out of reach. I am now, through God’s powerful mercy, living in a state of restoration and stability that is allowing me to spearhead a ministry to hurting people within and beyond our church walls. It is particularly important for those of us who have been knocked out and off our paths to be constantly reminded our work is for him who restored my soul, and not for us to reclaim lost and unfulfilled dreams of “success.”

      I thank you for that reminder.

      Your cogent words will help me keep on track.

    • Jim Branch on September 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      Thanks for your wise words Howard, and for your faithfulness in living them out.

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Well said, Howard! Thank you for offering the wisdom of your experience to this conversation. Blessings.

  22. Tricia on September 4, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    I have been a spiritual director with pastors and their spouses for years and my husband is a congregational developer in our denomination. Too often congregational developers are mistakenly thought of as “numbers guys” who are trying to turn every church into a mega-church. This is not so. Evangelism and “success” for each church as it honors it’s own gifts and limitations while bearing God’s light and love to its unique community should be measured by fruitfulness within its context. What a blessing to see pastors and laity alike excited about the fruitfulness of lives transformed and neighborhoods blessed by God’s love made tangible through their new and revitalized churches. It saddens me to see other denominational officials judge such ministries’ viability and success by numbers alone. Too many are too impatient for ministry growth, and prematurly judge, or even shut down, fruitful ministries. I think in an effort to hold pastors and churches accountable, too often “success” is measured by attendance, membership, and monitary contributions to the denomination. I am encouraged that some are talking about different ways of measuring success. As a “half-time” pastor (no such thing) of two small churches, I feel the pressures you have described so well. Thank you for your words of encouragement and guidance. Your ministry is life-giving to pastors.

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm

      You’re welcome! I like your phrase that the “success” of community should be measured by “fruitfulness within it’s context.” Indeed.

  23. Janice Griswell on September 4, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Thank you for this article, Ruth – I needed it, my pastor needs it and it’s such a clear statement of the “something darker” that can accompany leadership teaching.
    I’m thinking how often we leave Rom 12:3 out of the picture when we quote Rom 12:2. Part of not being pressured by the world and of knowing God’s will for me is having the right measurement of success as you’ve said so well, and a sane estimate of myself… His call and design for me. Personally, I err on both sides, aiming both too low and too high.
    Agur asks two favors before he dies (Prov 30:7-9) – God’s help to never lie, and “neither poverty nor riches, but just enough to satisfy my needs”. “For if I grow rich, I may deny You” and forget I can’t be spiritually effective in my own gifts and management, but “if I am too poor, I may steal”, comparing myself and trying to imitate or borrow what’s worked for others while missing effectiveness and contentment with what He’s given ME, “and thus insult God’s holy Name”.
    Thanks for your ministry and your ongoing input in my life thru these articles. May I translate this for use with pastors and missionary candidates here?

    • Ruth Barton on September 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm

      Another wonderful articulation of the same idea. Thank you! And yes, feel free to translate this for your setting and then share it with us so we can perhaps use it. We often have requests for our materials translated into Spanish. Blessings on you faithful and fruitful ministry.

  24. Nancy on September 4, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    I measure success by the number of lives I have touched with Christ’s love and His message and the way I have responded to the call of God on my life as I am able to perceive it.

    • k on September 6, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      I think keeping it simple as Mother Theresa says. Keeping it true..success is defined by her faith, faith is what she based her life on. Keeping up with the”Jonse’s” doesn’t de
      fine what true ministry is in my perspective. I think re-defining success especially in an age where materialism and money seems to define success should be ministered should be spoken in great deal that in the end these two things really are at the bottom of the list. If one truely does not have faith in 1) God, 2) One,s self, 3) Family, 4) Humanity
      5) Mother Earth…what else really matters? We need to get back to simple ministry

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