Success is first and foremost doing what God has asked us to do, doing it His way, and in His timing.
Years ago, when I was first wrestling with redefining success, I imagined what it might be like to come before God’s throne at the end of my earthly life and say, “‘Here, God, is what I have done for you. We had 500 new people on Good Friday and Easter!’ Then he would respond, ‘Pete, I love you, but that was not what I gave you to do. I didn’t ask you to neglect your family for the last three weeks and push your volunteers beyond their limits.’”
Have you ever considered that your ministry, organization, or team may be growing and yet actually failing? Think with me for a moment about some of God’s faithful and, hence, most successful leaders:
Jesus said of John the Baptist, “Among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Yet, if we were to create a chart on the size of John’s ministry over time, it would demonstrate a peak followed by a steady and precipitous decline.
The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah both served God with passion and obedience, but they were mostly written off by an unresponsive remnant—definitely not what anyone likely considered success.
Jesus didn’t wring his hands and question his preaching strategy when “many of his disciples turned away and deserted him” (Jn. 6:66). He remained content, knowing he was in the Father’s will. He had a larger perspective of what God was doing.
It’s hard to see how any of the names on this list would be considered successful in most leadership circles today. And yet the Bible makes it clear that God approved of their ministries. The implications are that we may well be growing our ministries but nevertheless failing.
Embracing God’s definition of success for New Life over the years was initially difficult for me to accept. It slowed me down and I suddenly felt like I didn’t look as good as the leaders of other more successful ministries to which I compared myself.
It meant that New Life had one objective: to become what God had called us to become, and to do what God had called us to do—regardless of where any of that might lead us. It meant that all the previous markers—increased attendance, bigger and better programs, a larger budget—had to take a backseat to this one.
I encourage you to pause and reflect for a moment. What might change in your context if you were to define success not by the numbers but as radically doing God’s will? What external markers might become less important? What internal markers might become more important? What fears or anxieties are you aware of as you even consider such questions?
Believe me, I understand how disorienting these questions might be. But I also know how rewarding and freeing it is to live and lead from the center of God’s definition of success. If you are willing to take some risks and live with the tensions, I can promise you won’t regret it.
Measuring ministry impact with numbers is biblical.
The book of Acts uses numbers to describe the impact of the gospel — about 3,000 baptized (Acts 2:41), about 5,000 believers (Acts 4:4), and crowds coming to faith (Acts 5:14). We have a whole book in the Bible called Numbers. So, in the context of the church, it is good to measure things like attendance, baptisms, membership, number of small groups, and financial giving.
The problem comes when that is all we measure.
Measuring deep, beneath the surface transformation in people’s lives is also critically important – if not more important. (Consider Paul, Gal. 4:19, Jesus mentoring the 12). The specifics of these internal markers will differ from ministry to ministry and from context to context.
The following are several examples we set to measure at New Life Fellowship Church:
Each leader at New Life will develop his or her relationship with God by spending ten to thirty minutes in prayer and Scripture reading in the morning, and a few additional minutes of prayer and reflection in the afternoon/evening.
Our staff, board, and key leaders will slow down their lives by practicing Sabbath for twenty-four hours each week.
Our staff, board, and key leaders will pray the Examen at least once a day in order to discern and follow God’s will in their lives.
Every member of our pastoral and administrative staff team will consistently seek to integrate emotionally healthy skills into their ministries and relationships.
Each member at New Life will develop a personal Rule of Life that enables them to receive and give the love of God. They will share it at their membership interview.
Seventy percent of our members will connect in a small group or ministry (i.e. a smaller community) for support as part of their spiritual formation.
Every child will participate in a discipleship small group with an appointed leader.
Fifty percent of married couples will go through training to view their relationship as a living sign of God’s passionate love for the world.
Some of these are fairly easy to measure, but others have proved more difficult.
Yet, even when the measurement is fairly straightforward, it is vitally important to humbly acknowledge our limits in “measuring” a person’s transformation into the image of Jesus.
But one thing is sure. Every one of us must wrestle with our teams and do the painstaking discernment work of identifying precisely what those internal markers of success are for us at any given point in time.