Defining Ministry Success

I was in full-time Christian ministry for 11 years (9 of them in churches) and felt successful at very little of what I did. And I'm not entirely basing this on feelings. Though I did have some times where the implicit criteria for success was something like, "Well, Daniel, all buildings and children are still standing, so it looks like you're doing a great job!", in the times when it was anything more defined than that, my report cards usually weren't very good. Sure, there were some highlights along the way, but for the most part, I set a lot of goals and accomplished very, very few of them. If you analyze the paragraph above, you can see a partial definition of success: the ability to set good goals and achieve them. I don't have any problem with that, but it reveals the tremendous importance of being wise about the goals that we set.

As I think about the 11 years in full-time ministry (particularly the 9 in churches more so than the 2 as a missionary), I don't think many goals were set wisely, and since I accomplished so few of them, it's easy to see why I felt so unsuccessful at the time (and why I don't really carry any guilt about those report cards).

The tricky part is that every goal I ever set was something good. It's not like I ever had a goal of intentionally doing anything damaging or that would lead to a waste of people's resources and time. ("By next January I'd like to decrease participants' involvement by 50%, and put undue stress on those helping me.") No, of course every goal was something that if you looked at it, you'd say, "It would be good if that happened."

Yet those good things I wrote as goals almost never came to pass. It wasn't because I went through the process poorly. (For those of you familiar with such processes, I could BHAG and SMART with the best of them.) It wasn't because I was unwilling to work hard to accomplish things. There was a lack of talent for some of the things I tried to do, but that's not enough to explain how rarely I accomplished the SMART BHAGs I wrote down.

So what was the issue?

For me, the entire process was flawed because it seemingly had to start with a poor idea of success, which almost always boiled down to making something bigger and (of secondary importance) better. From this point on in any ministry efforts, I've decided to never again feel like adopting the bigger/better premise is the only option available.

As is often the case, this paradigm shift is due to running across a simple statement from Dallas Willard. In a 2010 interview in Leadership Journal, he said,

Success in ministry is to develop a vital relationship with God and the capacity to pass it on to others.

I have been part of a lot of goal-setting processes, but never one that implicitly or explicitly began there.

How would your church be different if every staff person and volunteer viewed success in their role through that statement?

If a staff member resolved to define success in this way, what resistance might they encounter?

Would this view of success bring up fears in anyone? What would they be, and what does that tell us about ourselves?

What kinds of goals could someone write down based on this framework of success? Do you believe those are worth a person's whole-hearted pursuit, really? Would the culture of your church/ministry allow it?