Friday, September 21, 2012

Success in Ministry

SCRIPTURE: 2 Corinthians 12:9
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 21 September 2012

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Last week, I was among a gathering of pastors by gracious invitation of the Bargens, owners of a Christian Retreat Center in the NorthWest part of Washington state. Called a "Pastors and Wives' Escape," We mingled with pastors both young and old, from both Canada and the US. We marveled at the beauty of the place, and the awesome hospitality of the hosts. They refuse any payment. They only wanted to honour God's servants, both active and retired. They took care of the housing and the meals, the programs and the refreshments, the setting up and the cleaning up. In one word, my wife and I are deeply grateful.

Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center
Since entering full-time theological studies nine years ago, my family have been surviving on our savings and love gifts from friends and well-wishers. My current work in Church also helps pay part of the bills. As we gain more years in things Church and theology, we lose more years in our former careers and work experiences crucial for our previous professions. Like what an ex-colleague tells me, "You will be losing your seniority." I try keeping up with things technology, but when I compare with the newer graduates, and the ferocious advancement of all things latest and greatest, I cannot help but feel old and slow, seeing my former technological accomplishments appear more like a history book, than a technical resume.

Right on. Indeed, I see many of my peers moving way up the career ladder. Seeing them with glittering titles and comfortable bank accounts, we do from time to time, wonder if we have made the wrong choice. I see people in Church taking month-long holidays in the Far East, through the Mediterranean, holy land tours, luxury cruises around the world, trips to Europe, and multiple trips back and forth continents. Their children go to Ivy League universities, and receive multiple job offers from posh corporate firms and big time companies. Some do weekend getaways to places like Las Vegas, New York, drive big cars and live in posh houses. Though not all are like that, the weakness in me, tempts me to look at the haves rather than the have-nots.

For us? No annual holidays of old. No splashes on goodies according to our desires. No big time celebrations of accomplishments. We have largely kept our holidays and any celebration low-key. There is always a budget consideration. This year is particularly hard, that we celebrated our 20th Wedding Anniversary, in so ordinary way: At home. We have reserved our funds for a short family getaway nearby before our daughter goes off to University. With our daughter in her first year at University, and my wife recently retrenched from one of her key jobs, we have to be careful in our spending, and humble in our celebrations. This makes the invitation to the Retreat particularly more meaningful. It is one way that God has said to us: "Don't worry. I will take care of it."

A) Measuring Success

One of the reminders over the 2 day retreat is how we measure success. Many churches measure success on the basis of the 3 Bs: Bodies, Budgets, and Buildings. The more people you have in your church, the bigger the budget, and the classier your buildings are, more or less determine the level of "success" in your church. If you are in a MegaChurch, where people queue up each Sunday to enter the Church, you are deemed to be more successful than the average Church. If more people come when you preach, you are seen to be more successful as far as sermons are concerned. If more people give, the Church is more successful financially. I can understand success from the perspective of the world. The question is, how is success seen from the eyes of God?

Dr Kent Hughes, our keynote speaker argues from 2 Corinthians 12:9, that faithfulness is more important than to be successful. I reflect on what he said, and here is my take home. We do not measure success according to what we see. We measure success according to how God sees.

B) Man's Weakness

The Road Less Traveled?
It is hard. Having lived in the high rolling corporate lifestyle, looking back can sometimes bring a tinge of regret. What if I have NOT given up my cushy job? What if we have simply remained in our previous lifestyles? Will not life be better, at least materially? What about our children? Do they deserve better? Such questions do haunt us from time to time. Such questions can stumble. It can tempt us to complain like the Israelites of old, whose complaining attitude makes God angry.

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:4-5)
When I see myself wearing a hat of complaint, I am reminded that such things do not honour God.

  • Have I missed out on the invaluable learning and training I have received?
  • Have I undermined the exposure and the experience of pastoral work?
  • Have I appreciated the survival skills developed over these past years?
  • Have I forgotten how God has carried us this far?
  • Remember how the Lord has been faithful to draw the family closer?
I need to be reminded that I do not let any complaint wipe away the faithfulness shown to me over the years.

C) God's Strength

Ministry is a faith journey. It always is. The way we measure success is not according to visible numbers. It is in quiet faithfulness and gradual fruitfulness. Success is not in the eyes of men, but in the eyes of God. For Paul, success is in three things. Firstly, it is recognizing God's grace is sufficient. It is like God saying, "Trust me. Remember now that I will provide sufficiently for you."

Secondly, it relies on God's strengths rather than human strengths. It is like saying, "Care not for how the world sees you. Care for how God sees you."

Thirdly, it boasts in God, that God is able to turn man's weakness around to glorify God. It is like God saying to us, "Go forth in the power of God, not in the power of human strength."

I remember how faithful God has been for the past nine years, to sustain our journey of faith. He has brought many saints to walk alongside us, to encourage, and to motivate us to persevere. We use our testimony regularly to remind our children not to take life for granted. We tell them that as the Lord provide for us, that they trust that we as parents will provide for them. There is no need to worry, we tell them. On a more important level, we need to tell ourselves that we do not worry about how our needs are to be met too! Mind you, kids know when parents worry.

I am encouraged not to be too conscious about how the world sees me. In fact, whenever I introduce myself as a pastor, people around quietly roll their eyes. They seem to have a negative view of people in churches. After all, religion in the West is increasingly painted negatively by the media, no thanks to scandals in the Church, and the accusations of homophobia in others, etc. I prefer not to be distracted by the negativity of the culture, but to be faithful, to be humble, and to show the positive side of Christlikeness.

I am reminded that we serve not out of our own strengths, but in the Power and Might of the Holy Spirit. Measuring success is not in external numbers but in inner transformation of the heart.

D) Measuring Success

Kent Hughes has reminded the group of us that faithfulness is better than worldly success. Tim Keller in his latest book, "Center Church" has urged us to go beyond mere faithfulness, toward fruitfulness.  In ministry, I have learned too that numbers do not necessarily reflect inner changes. Many come for the attractive programs or the charismatic personalities. All you need is to create brilliant programming that attract the masses. You can also hire a powerful orator who can draw in crowds. Yet, that is not the way God measures success. God uses little children to spread his message to be childlike. God uses humble Jesus to speak out against the hypocrisies in society. God uses a small ragtag group of ordinary disciples to rock the world. Conversions by God is more important than crowds drawn in by human strength. It is Christ, not the Church, that ought to be glorified in ministry. It is not preserving the Church in its current state that is important, but glorifying God in ALL manner of Church life. It is not hanging on to old tested ways, but faith in changing our ways to make the gospel known to more. It is not holding on to power in the Church, but to hold on to Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Perhaps, the most important question with regards to success in ministry is this:

"How closely does your church resemble Jesus?"

That is the best measure of success. Thanks John and Ginny, for the wonderful gift of faithfulness for God's servants.

THOUGHT: "As pastors, the greatest battle we face is not a battle against our ministries. It's a battle between our flesh and his Spirit." (Shawn Lovejoy, The Measure of Our Success, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, p19)


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