Pastor, what is your personal definition of “success” as a follower of Jesus?
This can be a tricky question, because, the line between your role as a pastor and follower of Jesus is probably blurry, like a chalk batter’s box after nine-innings of baseball. Often, you’re unsure where one role ends and the other begins.
To be fair, in many ways, your role as pastor and follower do overlap. Shepherding is part of your journey as Jesus’ follower; it is the part you fulfill in Christ’s body.
However, if you ceased to be a pastor, you would still be a follower. “Pastor” is not ultimate, but follower is. So, beware if you are too consumed with shepherding to ever contemplate your role as Christ’s follower by itself.
For the next 8-10 minutes, take off the “pastor hat.” Go ahead. No, don’t even hold it in your hands like you’ve just removed your ball cap to say grace. Lay it aside and leave it there.
Now, what does it mean to be successful as a follower of Jesus?
Wrestling with “Success”
I have found myself forced to wrestle with this question over the past few weeks.
While working from home, an attempt at a four-hour work session may actually afford two solid hours of focus. I get settled in and get focused, when the faint patter of a timid “knock-knock, knock” pulls my eyes from the computer screen to the door. In a small gap between the open door and its frame, big blue eyes peek at me from beneath a pile of blonde hair.
“Yes, son,” I reply.
“Will you play with me?”
Study session over.
Five-year-old little boys don’t necessarily understand the concept of #workingfromhome. Daddy’s home, and that means play-time anytime.
Sure, there are times when I have to lock-in and get something done. But, honestly, there are few times when I won’t drop everything I’m doing to grant a play-time request. He won’t be five forever, and this COVID-19 lockdown won’t last forever.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that our working situations now can be less-than-ideal for productivity. I’m accustomed to making a to-do-list, going to the office, accomplishing said to-do list, and going home. Nowadays, my to-do-lists are often just a depressing reminder of how little I accomplished in a given day.
When I lay my head down at night, I don’t regret the time spent with my family in the least. I am fully aware that time with family is a precious gift, and that time with family is never wasted time.
Still, the uncompleted to-do list remains. Rather than counting sheep, I find myself counting unchecked bullet points. My lack of productivity in the day hangs over my head and whispers into my ear, “failure.”
A Wrong Idea of “Success”
As the tally marks for these less-productive days have stacked up, I’ve seen my mood drop. My joy has decreased. Why? The scales didn’t fall from my eyes all at once. But, gradually, Jesus has used this unprecedented situation to reveal a glaring flaw in my idea of success. I had mistaken productivity as a pastor for success as a follower of Jesus.
I was, for the most part, unaware of this mistake. Even before COVID-19, “less-productive” days happened. You know what those days are like–the unplanned visitor at the office, the emergency call, or any other number of things that wreck your schedule and push today’s projects onto tomorrow’s to-do list.
When those less-productive days happened, I noticed the same decrease in joy. I just took it for “holy discontentment” that signaled a righteous passion to do the things God called me to do.
However, the increased frequency of less-productive days over the past few weeks has granted me the perspective to see my mood-changes for what they are–the signal of a broken idol.
Tim Keller explains that an idol is anything about which we think, “If I have that, then I feel like my life has meaning. Then I’ll know I have value. And I’ll feel significant and secure.”
When I see my incomplete to-do list, or a project that should’ve been completed by now, or when I feel a sermon just didn’t quite measure up to what it could have been, the idol in my heart of pastoral productivity takes a hit. And my joy takes a dive.
To be clear, God calls us to do things. He has spelled out clear tasks for us as pastors, and excellent, diligent work honors God. God does indeed care about our productivity. However, he does not intend for us to make our productivity an idol.
So, have you mistaken your productivity as a pastor for success as a follower of Jesus? Does your joy decrease when, in spite of your best effort, your pastoral productivity lags?
Success as a Disposition, Not a Destination
Imagine that you’ve reached “success” as a follower of Jesus, that you’ve “made it” so to speak. How would you describe what you see in the mirror?
Take a few moments.
Most likely, you have described the person you would be if not for sinful flesh. Perfect discipline. Perfect passion. The perfect disciple. But there’s a problem–you’re stuck with your sinful flesh for the rest of this life.
Does this mean that you will never be a “successful” follower of Jesus? If your idea of success is perfection, then yes, because we’ll only be made perfect when Jesus returns.
But Jesus’ standard of success for you as his follower, right now, is not about reaching a destination of perfection. Rather, his standard of success is, first and foremost, about your disposition toward him.
A Disposition of Dependence
In The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones describes the qualifications Jesus looked for in his disciples in this way: “[T]he people God uses don’t have to know a lot of things, or have a lot of things–they just have to need him a lot.”
Success as a follower of Jesus is about maintaining a disposition of dependence on Him. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself…” (Lk. 9:23). Self-denial is the essence of discipleship, and it involves abandoning faith in yourself in exchange for faith in Jesus. Discipleship is first and foremost about depending on Jesus.
You are successful as Christ’s follower, insofar as you depend on him. So, when you have a less-productive day, and feel your joy dissipate, let Jesus remove your idol and re-frame your standard of success.
Pastor, your “success” is based on Jesus’ finished work on the cross, not the amount of work you accomplish in a given day.
It may very well be that Jesus is using this upside-down, productivity-killing season to flip your idea of success right-side up. Perhaps he is trying to teach us what Paul really meant when he said, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
 Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009), xx.
 Sally-Lloyd Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).