As a young pastor I looked for ward to the fellowship of workers' meetings but often drove away depressed. I compared myself with my peers, measuring who had the most baptisms and the biggest church. I felt like a failure and wished I could leave my three tiny flocks in exchange for greener pastures.
So much for being a good shepherd. Lord, have mercy!
What makes us crave "bigger and better" things? Pride plays a part, but often it's mingled with a nobler motive. We want to be all we can be for God; unless we see potential for that in present circumstances, we may pray for a "promotion" as if God might send Elijah's chariot of fire to whisk us away from Raccoon Hollow and deposit us in Pleasant Valley, where we might do something significant for Him.
Well, shouldn't we expect that a ministry at its maximum will win fame for God's name? Not necessarily.
Meet Noble Alexander. From all human appearances, my good friend has an insignificant ministry, pastoring a couple of small churches in New England. But Noble does this by choice, having turned down an offer to become a conference departmental leader. Despite the absence of human honor, this dear brother is the most remarkable person I've ever met. For 22 years he remained faithful in Communist dungeons, tortured for Jesus. He exudes an amazing joy in the Lord and the presence of the Spirit.1 Noble may never be a mover and shaker in the church, but he doesn't need any human promotion.
Nor do the rest of us. God is unimpressed by human titles, talents, or achievements. After all, He is more talented and accomplished than we are. He also has a higher position than any of us. But in His high and holy heaven, something on earth will always catch His notice: "a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God" (1 Peter 3:4).* Faithful pastors mingle such meekness with the courage to do things God's way instead of their own way or some one else's way. For this humble integrity they may suffer like John the Baptist, scorned by human wisdom but "great in the sight of the Lord" (Luke 1:15).
From the widow and her mitey offering we get another glimpse of what God values. That poor woman would be shunned at a fund-raising banquet, but Heaven judged her pittance as more significant than gifts of surplus gold. The widow symbolizes those millions of lay members who quietly go about their Father's business day by day, unnoticed by people but valued by Him. She also represents thousands of faithful pastors who labor in the shadows, passed up for promotions. Sometimes they just lack the pizzazz and political aspirations that others have, or they may lack outstanding talent. Certainly God wants us to hone our skills and efficiency, but one's purpose in perfecting talents might be selfish and ego-driven. God may bless that pastor anyway, even though Christ is preached from vain motives (see Phil. 1:15-18). Such a sinister minister, though praised by man and permitted success by God, may wake up too late, a lost soul.
Many leaders deserve their sterling reputation, but other famous soul winners appear so infatuated with themselves that Christ seems crowded out. They may speak with the tongues of angels and thus captivate the masses, but their families and coworkers are not impressed. Nor, I suppose, is God. We cannot judge, nor can we measure true success in ourselves or in others.
Recently a friend conducted evangelistic meetings in our locality. He advertised, he prayed, he preached. All for nothing, by human standards. Zero baptism. Immediately afterward he went to another part of the world, held the same meetings, and baptized 900. Same man, same message; vastly different results. Was this man a failure or a success?
Let's not waste time wondering about it. How much better simply to go about God's business, doing our best in faith and leaving results to Him. "Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men" (Col. 3:23). We may fail to fulfill some of the plans people have for our ministry. At that point it helps to remember that God has not called us to be "successful" but to be faithful. Faithful to our Lord, faithful to our spouse, faithful to our children, and then faithful to our flock.
Are you stuck in Raccoon Hollow? Then make friends with the raccoons! Take good care of them. "I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content" (Phil. 4:11).
In his younger years Paul ambitiously climbed the ecclesiastical ladder. He later testified: "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous" (Gal. 1:14, NIV). "But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. But indeed I also count all things ... as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him" (Phil. 3:7-9). Shall we likewise satisfy ourselves with simply having Christ, relinquishing our grandiose plans and ambitions?
I confess that I once aspired to be some kind of VIP (very important pastor) in heaven. I imagined Jesus escorting me about the Holy City introducing to me all the people I helped find salvation, as angels watched respectfully. I'm learning now that all celestial glory will go to the Lamb. None of it will go to me. How silly to seek recognition beyond Christ's accomplishments already imputed to us by grace! "Therefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours: whether ... the world or life or death, or things present or things to come all are yours. And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's" (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
When we lose our career ambitions for Christ's sake, our ministry is transformed. We don't worry about what people are thinking; we just love them and meet their needs. We rejoice in the successes of fellow pas tors, no longer rivals but comrades in Christ. Priorities are reordered, motives purified. Fueled by gratitude for grace, we remain busily involved in ministry, but we no longer neglect our families for the sake of impressing members or conference leaders. We labor in love love for God and love for people without which we are clanging cymbals. The fruit of the Spirit replaces human hay and stubble (see 1 Cor. 3:10-14). We rest in the Lord as we labor for Him.
Working for the Lord is serious business, but we can't take success or failure too seriously. Just today a pas tor criticized my book on social is sues, accusing me of venturing beyond my expertise. I agreed he might be correct; sometimes in wanting to be helpful I try to contribute more than I'm able to offer. What a relief not to feel threatened at the suggestion of failure!
Recently I heard an evangelist just back from Russia relate what God had done through him. I was thrilled that people found Christ through this good brother, but also I felt like a failure, not having seen many souls saved lately in my ministry. Then it dawned on me: Maybe I can't talk about what Jesus did through me in Russia, but I can proclaim what He did for me at Calvary!
Amen? That's the real good news in which we must live and move and have our ministry. Therein we find true success.
* Unless otherwise noted, all texts are from the New King James Version.
1. You may want to read Noble's story in Kay Rizzo's I Will Die Free, available at Adventist Book Centers. Call 1-800-765-6955.