My friend over at Soaking Up the Blessings recently blogged about redefining success. And anyone in ministry, in other words, anyone who is trying to serve God with their gifts and talents; knows how hard it is to know if we are being successful. Are we being good stewards? Are we falling short of what God has planned for our gifts and talents HE gave to us? So I dug up this article that I read years and years ago in some youth magazine. Daniel's posted it on Facebook before, so it may be familiar to some of you. Give it a read, I hope you are a bit encouraged.
I always feel like a big geek when I visit high schools. This week is no exception. As I enter the cafeteria I pass long lines of students waiting for food. I watch their eyes flash towards my neon pink visitor's badge; then they whisper and point. It's like the first day of freshman year all over again. Like a nerdy kid looking for someone to sit by, I stand in the door as my eyes scour the lunchroom looking for students from my ministry. A few wave happily back; a few duck their heads and try to avoid my gaze. Why do I even come? I wonder to myself. Am I doing any good? Is this really where God can best use me? What in the world am I going to talk to these kids about today?
As I sort through these feelings of inadequacy I approach the table of two young men in my youth group. The older one is everything you'd want in a youth group kid. He's a senior leader who loves to give devotional talks and really lives it. He loves and leads others and is thinking of going into ministry himself. The student to his left is Wes, a freshman. It's Thursday, and much to his embarrassment, he has to wear his JROTC uniform. Wes has the potential to be a leader in a few years. He recently said goodbye to a rough group of friends and is trying to turn over a new leaf. I really like Wes and want to see him grow.
For 15 minutes we talk about nothing. They tell me about school, homework, and paintball. I beg God for the inspiration to say something meaningful that'll make me feel like my visit was worthwhile. Suddenly the bell rings and they're out the door. I look at the massive crowd of students and feel powerless to do anything that would show them Christ. As I get up and begin to walk out I hear a smack and some screaming behind me. I turn around to see Wes walking away holding his face while a teacher drags another student off toward the office. A moment later the vice principal emerges, grabs Wes, and says to me, "Aren't you his youth pastor? Why don't you come into my office?"
I enter the vice principal's office feeling more helpless than ever. We sit for 15 minutes as the office staff pieces together the details of why the other student walked up and punched Wes. Apparently a third student had incited the attacker by claiming that Wes had said he was going to beat him up. Wes wanted to hit him back but knew he should walk away. Without a clue what to do or say, I mumble clichés such as, "You did the right thing," and, "It takes a big person to walk away." Finally I leave the school feeling like I picked the wrong profession.
Some days I feel like I'm going to walk into my office to see one of those bright yellow "While You Were Out" sticky notes with a handwritten note on the bottom that says, "Jesus called. He wants his students back." I've always struggled with the parable of the talents in which the guy who buried his talent is chastised. At the end of the parable Jesus says, "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29). The moral of the story seems to be If you don't have tangible evidence of good works, God will take back what you've been given. In other words, use it or lose it. After a day when you've seen one of your students get punched in the face and had nothing more to offer than cold clichés, it's hard to imagine you're using it. Those are the days I ask the Lord, "Why did you call me to help others if I'm so helpless myself?"
Oh, I never have doubted that I was called. I was led by the Spirit, confirmed by others in the church, and assured through prayer. I underwent years of training and education and have had success in various ministerial contexts. By all accounts I was called to be a full-time minister. But the question that rings out in my head again and again is, "Why do I feel like a failure at my job when I know I'm called to do it?" I bet the wicked servant didn't set out to be wicked. He felt strongly called to bury that coin in the ground. He knew his master was a hard man, ruthless in the way he earned every penny. He was sure the master wouldn't be pleased if the money was gone when he returned. But in the end the servant failed his job, despite his initial confidence that he'd done what he was supposed to do.
Society tells us that the true measure of vocational success must be empirical. Performance reviews, profit sharing, and promotions are all based on measurable success. No one moves up the corporate ladder by being really humble or a servant to all. Corporations take the role of the master giving out the talents. They measure the growth results and throw out the weakest performer. Millions of dollars each year are spent on research to measure and verify that employees are performing well. Some churches operate this same way. They treat their youth ministers like pro athletes. When youth ministers put up big numbers they pile on the praise, but when a slump comes they start looking for a trade to get out of the expensive contract obligation.
What's the measure of vocational success for youth ministry? How do we know that we're not burying our talents? How can we know we're making a difference day by day? Can it be boiled down to a formula? More importantly, how can we be certain we're successfully fulfilling God's calling in our lives while still fulfilling our vocational obligations?
Anyone in ministry knows that certain things must be done to keep the church feeling good about paying you to work there. These are the daily tasks of keeping office hours, planning activities, teaching classes, sending out newsletters, and showing up at the occasional ball game for little Timmy or Tammy. These things keep people feeling good about your role in the church but have very little to do with success. Success, if measured by the effective change you make in the lives of your students, isn't dependent on your ability to plate juggle or serve the body politic. Jesus showed us that success comes from modeling and mentoring through meaningful relationships. I bet Jesus didn't feel very successful when the disciples argued over who'd be the greatest in the kingdom. I bet he didn't feel great when Peter denied him. I bet Jesus felt frustrated knowing that Judas would turn his back on him. If Jesus had been given a performance review on the "success" of a ministry that ended up with him crucified and his followers scattered, I don't think he'd have scored very high. But Jesus knew that true success is found in following your call to the end.
Success in youth ministry is found in your presence in moments of turmoil, your character in times of distress, the love you model to your students and others, and your dedication to Christ through all of life's storms. Whether or not you have vocational success by having gobs of kids at your youth service or run a great VBS has little correlation with successfully fulfilling your calling in the lives of teenagers. Success in God's kingdom has more to do with who you are than what you do. If an employee of a Fortune 500 company demonstrated qualities like humility, servanthood, admitting weaknesses, and letting others take the glory, she'd never advance and most likely would get axed. The very things that block advancement in this world are the things that Christ calls us to be in order to advance the Kingdom. The humble, the meek, the lowly in heart, and the servants lead the victory parade for God. All of humanity's logic is reversed in the upside down kingdom.
Imagine for a moment a church board giving a performance review of John Youthguy based on God's formula for success:
"Well, guys, John's numbers are down, the parents are grumbling, and the preacher is upset that he planned his canoe trip the same weekend as the annual chili cooking competition potluck Sunday," the chairman says.
"Yeah, but John sure is humble," Mr. Johnson replies.
"And he'd be the first one to admit his weaknesses," quips another guy.
"That's true," the chairman responds. "And the Bible does say that God's power is perfected in weakness. John really isn't very good at anything. I guess that means we should be seeing God's power just explode all over this place."
"You'd better believe it!" Mr. Smith says, jumping in. "If we want God to work around here then we need to keep this guy around. He's the weakest link we have."
With that, the board decides unanimously to give John a raise.
Okay, maybe that's a little bit far-fetched, but how often do we think of our definition of success from that point of view? Jesus said the least will be greatest. As an avid perfectionist, I've had to learn that it's all right for me not to always have the right words to say at a given moment. It's okay for me to feel like I don't know what to do. It increases my dependence on God to not always know if I'm doing the best thing in every circumstance. The servants who invested their talents didn't know what type of return they'd receive. They took a financial risk with their master's money. But the risk paid off and their master was pleased. We have a much more compassionate master than the one in the parable, but we still take a risk. We don't always know the return we'll receive, but we must trust and hold on to logic that the world can't understand.
Around dinnertime the day Wes got punched, I headed over to his house to check on him. I talked with him for a few minutes and then left feeling even more like I hadn't made any difference at all. Two days later I sat in the back of a congregational meeting. As I sat, I glanced over at Wes with his black eye. I ran the scene over and over again in my head trying to think of anything I could've said that would've been meaningful. Just then Wes's mom raised her hand to make a comment.
"I just wanted to let the church know that I'm thankful for Brian. The other day Wes had a little incident at school and Brian was there for him throughout the whole thing. Brian was Jesus in the flesh to our family that day, and I'm so thankful that we have him on staff here."
Sometimes we don't know the impact we have. Sometimes we never will. When we feel inadequate, helpless, and unsuccessful, those may be the times that God's received a great return on an investment. We may not ever be able to get church boards and youth committees to understand the logic of the upside down kingdom, but we can be assured that our vocation is understood by the One who matters most.