I met up with a younger colleague in ministry. We had first connected about seven years ago when I relocated to Singapore. He was on staff with another church and we would meet up periodically to talk about ministry and life in general. We had not met for a while. This time round he wanted to ask me about some tough ministry situations he was facing. It was good to catch up.
Sometime during our conversation he asked me two interesting questions. First, he asked me, “What would you have done differently if you had a chance to do it all over again.” I asked him how far back he was thinking of. He said it was up to me. I told him that I had written a piece recently that highlighted the fact that one really can’t go back in time (You Can’t Go Back). But he wouldn’t let me off the hook.
So I did a little time travelling in my mind. I told him that if I had a chance to do it all over again, I would work at being a better husband and father. Images of my younger life appeared on my mental monitor and I saw so many areas I had done so poorly in in these key roles. Oh, yes, I would also try to be a better son. I thought of how much my parents had sacrificed for me and how little time and attention I had given them.
We both noticed that I had not mentioned work/ministry. Perhaps that was one area in my life that had had adequate attention. Perhaps I was compensating for the fact that in my younger days I had given my best energies to my work and not quite nearly enough to those closest to me. Perhaps Rabbi Harold Kushner was right — on one’s deathbed, no one wishes they had spent more time in the office. No, I cannot go back in time but perhaps my answer would help my younger colleague in some way.
He then went on to ask a second question: “How do you measure success in ministry?” I thought for a little while and I said “faithfulness”. We “succeed” in ministry when we have been faithful to what God has called us to do. It is not “our” ministry. We are stewards of our lives and our ministry. And Paul tells us what is expected of stewards:
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Corinthians 4:1–5 NIV)
Pointing my friend to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) I pointed out that we are not to compare our lives with others’ but to be faithful to what has been entrusted to us. I also confessed that there were days when it was not easy to live out this understanding of “ministry success”.
There are days when, against my own convictions, I compare my life and ministry to other ministers’ and other ministries. There are days when I wonder why some other ministries seem to be more in demand, making a wider impact, and better funded. It seems that too often the church follows the world and measures success purely in numerical terms: How many people has your ministry touched? What is your budget? How successful is your fund raising? How big is your staff? If these were the primary criteria for ministry success, Graceworks doesn’t appear to have been very successful. Graceworks is committed to seeing lives changed through spiritual friendship. We carry out our mission through publishing and training. But it has been hard going.
My friend encouraged me. He had been vey encouraged by what we had done and he knew others who had been encouraged too. He understood why Graceworks is low key. “It’s counter cultural,” he said. It was affirming but I didn’t have the time to tell him that counter cultural can sometimes be a lonely place.
I had come to help my friend out with some tough ministry issues he was facing and to catch up with him. It turned out to be a divine appointment where I was confronted afresh by two key questions. Life has been more hectic than usual. I needed to be confronted afresh by those questions. I finished my double espresso and left the burning bush.