Several years ago, as I prayed about a seeming plateau in our church size and the financial struggles that accompanied it, God spoke to me. "If I told you that you'd spend the rest of your ministry career in this building, with this size congregation, would it be enough for you?"
I responded immediately, with vehemence. "No! I've got so much more to offer than that!"
Then I realized what I'd said... I just told God how much more I had to offer.
For a couple of weeks, I struggled with that arrogance. The sense that I'd be throwing my life away. That I'd be wasting my time if God assigned me to a small church for life. I didn't have the sense that God was telling me that WOULD be the case, but wanted to know if I would be content where He placed me. My initial dismayed response was the honest answer.
But after those weeks of wrestling, I finally reached the point of repentance where I could honestly say "Lord, if you tell me I'm going to be here with this size congregation for life, I'll faithfully serve. It will be enough."
He responded "Then pour out your life over that neighborhood." I took that to be a call to a lifetime ministry in East Portland, and still believe it today.
But I still struggle with seeing my own value, and that of my ministry.
It frustrates me so much that I continually find myself there. I have this deep desire, almost a pathological need, for continual approval. And it goes way back.
I was a shy kid. Ridiculously shy. I always preferred to be alone rather than with the other kids on the playground. My second grade teacher shared concern over this with my parents and actually forbid me to play with my cousins in an attempt to get me to connect with others. But it didn't work. Then in third grade, I got glasses. In middle school, I developed both a weight problem (which dogs me to this day) and a severe body odor problem (solved in early adulthood with a dietary supplement). You can imagine what that did to my self-esteem.
Peers and important relatives told me (sometimes with words, sometimes with actions) that I was worthy of scorn. One time in middle school, a friend actually told me that he couldn't hang out with me anymore because the other kids were making fun of him for it. After that, I stopped trying to have friends. I've felt the outsider in almost every situation for as long as I can remember.
That has shaped a lot of my approach to ministry. When I became a youth pastor, my youth group was made up primarily of outcasts. Our initial purpose statement for Renaissance was to "share the love of God with the hurting, lost and unwanted people" in our neighborhood. The people others don't even notice.
I really believe that a special part of my calling in ministry (and my personal spiritual gifting) is to see the value in people that they don't even see in themselves, and then to draw it out. As a good friend likes to say, my ministry is "hard rock mining." It's a tough, slow process, with ups and downs along the way. It's deep, life-changing work, requiring more individual attention and patience than most ministries. It's more of a recovery ministry than a teaching ministry.
That means it doesn't fit the "typical" mold. I don't have the traditional feedback of increasing numbers of butts in the seats or dollars in the bank account to gauge my "success."
But I still have that deep need for affirmation. And I look to the wrong places to fill it.
On a recent Saturday night, I was teaching a passage that led to a discussion of the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. I shared (not for the first time) about my personal struggles in that area, especially in regards to success in ministry. I told the group that as we approached the eighth year of the coffee shop and ninth year since starting the church, I found myself wondering what I'd accomplished in that time. My amazing daughter-in-law cut me short...
She said something to the effect of "A lot! Every time you say that I wonder if you even see the people in this room!"
I'm running on the assumption that she intended that as an encouragement for me. But God used it as a correction. He showed me that every time I make such comments, it minimizes and denigrates the people who have been really, deeply changed by my ministry. By questioning my own value, I discount theirs.
I spent some time talking with God about that over the next few days. Once again He brought me to a place of repentance. He opened my eyes to the fact that my desire to evaluate the success or failure of my ministry was really a desire to prove my own value. I want to be able to point to something and say "look what I built!"
He reminded me of John the baptist's words "He must increase, but I must decrease." My ministry needs to bring Him into greater focus, even as I fade to a blur.
So the first truth in a new definition of success in ministry has to be this...
It's not about me.