Success and Failure in Ministry
Early in my priesthood, my clergy mentor and rector told me not to fear failure. Failure would be a regular occurrence in ministry. I should also try not to avoid trying something new for fear that it would fail. How else would I learn?
Of course, that wise priest was always right. I took the lesson, but inwardly I still wanted to do everything right. I wanted every activity that happened in the parish to be a success, as defined by me. Success for me looked like hundreds of people clamoring to participate and to proclaim their unending accolades for my efforts. I would run meetings and ministries with efficiency (or what I interpreted as efficiency).
Inevitably, failure occurred. Sometimes the fault lay with the circumstance. Often the fault would lie with me. My agenda, my need, my motivation would creep in the way. I would wonder why these failures occurred. What could I do in the future to avoid them?
I would, of course, experience failure in my personal life, and wonder the same thing: how could I avoid these failures? A friend helped me reframe the question slightly: what should the expected outcome have been? How are you defining success? Did the outcome really matter?
Does the outcome matter? I guess that the answer is often “yes, of course.” I want my surgeon to successfully operate. I want my airline pilot to correctly land a jet. In these areas, we must have set, determined, successful outcomes, but in ministry, a successful outcome is not necessarily defined as clearly.
You may have a wildly popular event, but what does that have to do with loving God and your neighbor as yourself? You may run an efficient meeting, but what does that have to do with the Kingdom of God? I am not saying that either has nothing to do with the Glory of God. I am saying that in ministry our outcomes are for the Glory of God. Our success is measured in relationship, if it can be measured at all.
How then can I measure success for myself? How then can I measure failure for myself? Do I measure by my motivation and effort? Do I measure by an outwardly discerned outcome? One thing I know for certain is that how I measure my success or failure in ministry must be based on something internal.
I need to be able to determine for myself whether or not I honestly gave my best effort. I need to be able to answer to myself and know my motives. I need to be able to discern if I have learned something. I need to know that I do love my God and my neighbor as myself. My measuring stick is internal, tapping into that eternal gut instinct.
The measuring stick for ministry is also somewhat internal, internal to the very Spirit of God. Successful Ministry is not concerned with popularity but impact. Successful Ministry is not concerned with numbers but relationship. Successful Ministry is not concerned with efficiency but motivation for the Glory of God.