What Does Success Look Like?

You’d think it would be easy to identify a successful church. Pews packed; parking lot overflowing; crib room stuffed to the gills, right? But. . . we who do interim ministry are all too familiar with the church which dramatically loses members after a beloved pastor leaves. It turns out that those pews were packed with people who were worshipping their pastor, and when he/she left — so did the parishioners. So, while successful churches are likely to be filled on Sundays, those packed pews are not the primary sign of success.

A few years ago, a colleague was called to a neighboring church as interim. The church was happy, and anticipated a brief and cheerful interim. But the interim named some things that everyone would rather had been swept under the carpet. A fight ensued, half the congregation walked out the door, the interim was fired. A failure, you’d say? Sure, except that the next settled pastor says the church would not be in the healthy place it now is, save for that interim’s naming truths everyone wanted to ignore. Sometimes, success looks like failure.

Recently I worked with a church which loves its secretary. You’d hope, of course, that every church would love its secretary, but I’m not so sure any more that’s a good idea. Loving has all those overtones of “my secretary, right or wrong,” And this secretary – a charming, kind-hearted person – was neither competent at the ordinary tasks of a church secretary nor reliably present at the appointed time and place. The church recognized her shortcomings but they loved her, and so covered her work themselves. But is loving our employees, even in their incompetence what God asks of us?

I’ve come to believe that success, church-style, is about more than happy campers, more than packed pews, more than a kindly acceptance of “good enough”. That’s not the kind of life to which Jesus calls us.

Jesus calls us to a life of courage; a life of vision; a life committed to giving our best at all times and in all places.

It takes courage to step into the new, to turn away from the habitual, to risk failure and condemnation.

It takes vision to recognize the ways the world has changed, and to imagine how we might adapt and adopt to serve our world.

It takes commitment to move from “good enough” to “excellence”, to recognize that it is not kind, not loving, to encourage mediocrity.

Sometimes that means folks won’t be happy, that the pews will thin out, but more often, it means that people will be focused, that they’ll be glad to be there, and energized by the opportunity to serve God.