Success versus Comparison
“He has achieved success, who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much.” (The first line in a poem written by Bessie Anderson Stanley in 1904)
Recently, I had the privilege of turning over another one of our church plants to a German pastor and his wife. I am very thankful for this transition and truly believe that they will take the church to the next level in terms of spiritual development and numerical growth. However, I was haunted for many days by the thought that after six years of hard work, the church should have at least twice as many members. We all know Paul’s words in our heads, but often do not take them to heart: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1. Cor. 3:6)
The thought that “there should be more” is not necessarily “unspiritual,” but such an attitude, when left unchecked, can cause great harm to us as pastors and leaders if we do not develop a balanced perspective in our thoughts and minds.
The “there should be more” thinking is very relative. I vividly recall sharing about our church planting ministry years ago when visiting a church in Florida. I noticed during the time of worship that the lead pastor sitting next to me seemed very unhappy and unsettled. After the service, he shared with me why he was so unhappy: “We usually run about 3,000 on a Sunday morning, and today we were right around 2,700.” I thought to myself that this kind of thinking is ridiculous, especially considering my situation, slugging it out as a church planter in post-Christian Europe. Today, however, looking back over many years of ministry, I would no longer find my colleague’s frustration as being unwarranted, because I too have experienced firsthand the “there should be more” mindset, even though my numerical expectations are on a different level.
You probably know where I am coming from! You and your dedicated team go to great lengths to plan and pray for a special church service or event, and when day X arrives, the house is half empty. Some people in your congregation have decided to go to the lake because it is a beautiful day, others needed to visit Grandma, and to top things off your worship leader is a no show because her cat had to be taken to urgent care. Ministry is so much more than the “there must be more” mindset. It all comes down to this: church ministry is touching one life at a time and allowing God to change that life.
At our last service in Bad Dürkheim mentioned above, three people were in attendance that came to the Lord through the church we planted in Saarbrücken more than 25 years earlier. The next day I received an email: “Without you and Mechthild we would not have found the way to Jesus. Through your ministry, our son is also serving God and with our other children a seed has been planted that one day will bring forth life.” Wow, this email was so encouraging!
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not against having “more” people in church! Actually I want every church to be packed out. But if we only define success in terms of numbers, we will usually come out on the short end. Several years ago I received the following email from a pastor in Germany:
“I have been deeply troubled through the subtle undercurrent of competition in our denomination, where comparisons among colleagues are often made, resulting in mistrust and suspicion. One example: We never see ‘normal pastors’ as speakers at our fellowship’s annual conference. It seems we are only allowed to hear from those who are very successful and highly innovative, leading larger churches. This sets the stage for making comparisons that often magnify our own shortcomings, which some may see as failure. Then the heart becomes weary. It seems to me there is a lack of genuine appreciation and interest for my brothers and sisters in ministry. This too is often exemplified, when you meet someone at our leadership conference for the very first time and the first question out of the gate is: ‘How large is your church?’”
When we were children some of us surely made a big deal about showing off our newest toys with the attitude, “If you have something great, you are something great.” Sad to say even for adults, this attitude is not unknown. Kevin DeYoung writes: “There is simply no Biblical teaching to indicate that church size is the measure of success.”
The Danish philosopher and theologian Sören Kierkegaard put it this way: “Comparison brings an end to happiness, that will ultimately lead to dissatisfaction.” Success for me as a worker in God’s kingdom simply means to know God’s will and then to do God’s will. I realize this is not always easy, because more often than not we are dealing with very difficult situations and less than perfect circumstances. Still we pray in faith and not by sight: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
So what about the men and women in the ministry who are from our perspective very successful indeed? Surely they are gifted, they are very diligent in their work, and we assume that they spend large amounts of time in prayer. But when all is said and done, I would hope these choice servants would acknowledge that their success is due to God’s grace. T.D. Jakes puts it so well: “Favor isn’t fair.” God in his grace has granted you and me various gifts of his choosing to be used at the time of his choosing. The challenge is simply to be faithful with that which the Lord has entrusted us. (Luke 16:10)
“The talent of success is nothing more than doing what you can do well; and doing well whatever you do, without a thought of fame.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882) How fitting are these words for those of us today. From our vantage point, there will always be those who have achieved more than we ever could, yet let us diligently serve the Lord with the gifts he has bestowed on us. We should never underestimate the positive influence of our ministry touching individual lives even though you and I will probably never receive an invitation to speak at one of the well known national church conferences.
As my colleague David Barringer writes in his Blog, “don’t let comparison thinking suck the joy out of your life.” Fred Price states: “If we continue to compare ourselves with others, we are not honoring God. We are being unthankful for what God has given us.” The true standard of success and recognition is found in God’s word:
“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.” (Heb. 6:10-11)
May you thrive and be nourished by God’s unique plan for your own life!
P.S. Here is the entire poem written by Bessie Anderson Stanley:
He has achieved success, who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.