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The Success Syndrome

What does success look like for you?

During my Phoenix Seminary years many of my classes were held at Scottsdale Bible, a large church in the middle of affluent North Scottsdale. This congregation has for decades impacted the area and world for Christ.

Being a poor graduate student, it was amusing and ironic to me that so much of my seminary training took place in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. One evening I showed up for class to see a white stretch limo outside one of the buildings. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought it was one of the least expensive cars in the church parking lot. Spotting who was there for seminary classes wasn’t difficult. “BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Lexus, Infiniti, Land Rover, Porsche,…GEO Prism.”

One of my professors invited two overseas missionaries, home on furlough, to speak with one of our classes. Regarding the material possessions we have in the USA they said,  “What surprises us is not how much Americans have, but how little joy it brings them.” 

It’s true. In our American culture it’s often difficult for us to find significance and purpose in the immediate moment. Success, as we have defined it in our country, is to be found at some future point. The next level. Around the corner. On the other side of the fence. At the top of the ladder. After the next diploma. Someday when.

“Someday when I buy that…”

“Someday when I earn that degree…”

“Someday when I get that promotion…” 

“Someday when I win that award…”

When we reach the top, we rarely enjoy the contentment we convinced ourselves we’d find. Instead we lean our ladder against a higher wall and start climbing again. Perhaps that’s why John Rockefeller’s answer to the question, “How much money is enough?” was, “Just a little bit more.”

This success syndrome isn’t limited to any particular neighborhood or career. It’s a challenge for those in ministry as well. “Someday when I become a well known pastor in a mega church, I’ll be successful.” Those in our country who enter vocational ministry sometimes find it difficult to separate their calling from the American dream. Small churches may be unconsciously or, too often, consciously viewed as stepping stones to bigger churches. Low profile is left behind for higher profile and supposed greater influence.

One study/survey asked pastors why they leave their churches. The top three answers?

1) Desire to live in a different part of the country.

2) Getting promoted to a higher position.

3) Wanting to pastor a larger church.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, only 4% of those surveyed said their reason for leaving was to pastor a smaller church.

Successful ministry is too often measured exclusively by Sunday attendance, number of programs, size of the budget, and the magnitude of church expansion plans. (None of which are mentioned in the Bible. But that’s a column for another time.) If anyone thinks pastors don’t have egos, go observe one of our conferences. The first three questions asked in conversation are, “What’s your name?”, “Where’s your church?” and “How many people in your congregation?” Those asked to give keynote addresses at such gatherings are almost always those who can boast exponential membership growth. Rarely, if ever, will you find a break out session titled, “Pastoring A Flock Of 100 People Or Less”, even though 90% of churches in this country are just that.

One of my favorite books is an eloquently written and frightening novel titled The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic. It’s the tale of a young Methodist minister fresh out of seminary in the late 1800’s settling into his first church, a small congregation. As the story unfolds his heart changes ever so subtly from one of service to one desiring all that is intellectually grand and glittering. In the transformation, he loses himself.

I’ve been thinking about the Rev. Theron Ware and asking myself some hard questions about success, significance, and service. How do we measure success? How do we determine significance? And when it comes to these is it possible we’ve been using the wrong measuring stick?

This is the week we reflect on the final days of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. By 2017 American evangelical standards, He would be embarrassed to show up at a church conference. He never traveled more than 30 miles from His birthplace. He had some fickle followers but never officially pastored a church. If given opportunity to speak, His topic could easily have been, “3 Easy Steps To Alienating And Angering The Deacon Board”. He spoke to large crowds, but invested Himself in a small group of 12. 

Dying a bloody death on a cross at 33 certainly wasn’t the path to becoming a best-selling church growth guru.

Yet in the moment of decision, Jesus said, Not my will, God, but yours.” (Mark 14:36)

Could it be that success is simply doing what God puts in front of us? To faithfully and obediently walk in the good works He has prepared for us where we are without popping our heads up like prairie dogs, looking for the next big thing?

In God’s economy, doing what we do where we are right now is as significant as anything we will ever do in the future. The people God has in our lives today, the jobs we are doing, the churches we are serving, are equally significant to anything we will do in the future. There are no stepping stone jobs, no stepping stone churches. Only doing God’s will in this present moment which is as eternally significant as any moment we’ll have in the future.

Which is to say there is no “next big thing”. There’s only “this big thing” right now.

Todd A. Thompson – One Eye Out

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Pam Switzer

    Another great word, Todd. So insightful and thought provoking. As a stay at home mom and caregiver, success is very hard to define. Being in God’s Will gives a great perspective to me. Really all I want to strive for are the words, “Well done good and faithful servant” at the end of the road. Thank you for your obedience to our Father.

    1. Todd Thompson

      Pam – Thanks for your kind words. You are doing the most important job in the world. God’s economy is very different than ours. I believe in heaven we will be surprised at what God found important regarding our time on earth. Keep being a great wife and mother! You and your family are a blessing to so many. – tat

  2. Keith Wilks

    This statement has pricked my conscience……”could it be that success is simply doing what God puts in front of us?”
    I know this in my heart, but it is easy to find myself lost in the care of this life and to forget whom I serve.

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