If 19 years in ministry has taught me anything, it has taught me that leading is difficult. There are times where you are on top of the world and other times where you feel the world is collapsing around you. The challenge is not to give in when the going gets hard and to not blow up when things are going your way.
In life and ministry, success is an amazing byproduct but a terrible goal and an even worse master. The challenge for each of us, especially those in ministry, is to measure our lives by the right yardstick. It is very easy to get sucked into the more is better, leadership fixes everything trap. The modern leadership movement has done much to help pastors and churches, but we must also be aware of the damage it has done and continues to do. There has slipped in this idea of a post-modern, secular identity that we can rise from obscurity to be the church everyone in the nation is talking about. If we allow success to be our goal, business strategies to be our mantra and CEOs to be our heroes, we will be swallowed up by the success we think will earn God’s favor and man’s respect. Tim Keller in his book Making Sense of God says the secular identity brings a crushing burden with it.
Ironically, the apparent freedom of secular identity brings crushing burdens with it. In former times, when our self-regard was more rooted in social roles, there was much less value placed on competitive achievement. Rising from rags to riches was nice but rare and optional. It was quite sufficient to be a good father or mother, son or daughter, and to be conscientious and diligent in all your work and duties. Today, as Alain de Botton has written, we believe in the meritocracy, that anyone who is of humble means is so only because of a lack of ambition and savvy. It is an embarrassment now to be merely faithful and not successful.
It is an embarrassment now to be merely faithful and not successful. What a powerful thought that in life and sadly in the church we could be living in an age where we think the measure of our worth is in our success rather than our faithfulness. I can’t remember a time in the modern history of the church where more well-known pastors are leaving the ministry, not because of moral failure but because of burnout and disillusionment. Pastor, we must find our identity in weakness over our projected strengths. We must flee the gospel of meritocracy. The gospel that preaches success as the goal, and the CEO as the role model. Pastor, for the sake of your church and the health of your soul, plunge your weakness and your failures into the grace of God. Find your identity in Christ’s faithfulness to you and your need of Him. We need to ask ourselves different questions. Rather than “what would I need to do to have success?” we should ask “what does this look like to have our identity shaped by the cross of Christ?” Keller again deals with the issue of where our identity is found.
What will create a different kind of identity in which humility and confidence grow jointly? Volf answers: “No one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long…without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous humanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.” Christians are simul justus et peccator—simultaneously perfectly righteous in Christ and in the Father’s eyes yet in ourselves very flawed and sinful. This leads to a security and humility that live together. John Stott argues that this is a cross-shaped identity, one that leads to self-affirmation and self-denial at once. Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation. That is, at the same moment, a profound statement of our sin, telling us that we are so flawed and guilty that nothing less than the death of the Son of God can save us. But it is at the same time the highest and strongest expression of his love for us and our value to him.
Pastor, fight the urge to be only successful and seek to be only faithful, and in the end, you will have both.