Pursuing Excellence In Obscurity

There is an inner struggle ministers may face with attaining success in the ministry. There are conflicting ideas about what a successful ministry or church may look like.

Some pastors and ministries have been pushed into the limelight because of the positive affect they are having in the areas they minister. Pastors who have not attained that level of defined success may even get discouraged, especially when they incorporate tactics and methodology employed by these limelight ministries with little to no impact.

Success is a trap. How many young actors and actresses will never make it to the $20 Million movie status? How many artists will never have their works of art displayed in a museum? How many pastors will never have their sermons downloaded over a million times?

Sarah Lewis recently gave a TED Talk at TED2014 in March.  Her talk is called “Embrace The Near Win.”  Sarah Lewis is an author, historian and curator based out of New York.  She has written a book entitled The Rise which “analyzes the idea of failure, focusing on case studies that reveal how setbacks can become a tool enabling us to master our destinies” (http://www.ted.com/speakers/sarah_lewis). 

In her talk, she gives the illustration of an archer on a varsity archery team. She stood behind one archer as she lined her sights aiming at the 10 ring 75 yards away. The 10-ring on a target at 75 yards looks like a matchstick tip held out at arms length.  She witnessed the archer hit the 7, the 9, and then the 10 ring twice.  The next arrow missed the target completely.

This miss did not deter the archer from placing another arrow’s nock into the string of the bow, pulling and releasing. The archer seemed to take the miss as a challenge and practiced for three straight hours until she was completely exhausted.

Even though she hit the bulls-eye twice, she did not celebrate hitting the target and stop firing arrows nor did she crumble under the failure to hit the target after hitting the 10-ring.

This example by Sarah Lewis is a snapshot of the difference between success and mastery.  Success, as Sarah explains, is hitting the 10-ring, but mastery says success is nothing if you cannot hit it again and again and again.

She goes on to say success is an event, a moment in time, reaching a goal. Mastery is not a commitment to a goal, but to a constant pursuit. To achieve mastery is to understand the value of the near win. Mastery is in the reaching, not in the arriving. Mastery is sacrificing for the craft not in crafting your career.

Lewis continues to press us that success motivates us, but a near win propels us into an ongoing quest. When we become more proficient at something, the more we see the imperfections, flaws and what we have yet to accomplish and know.

Compare this example and these words to local church ministry.

Local church ministry is NEVER done. It is not something to be considered a success – an event or a moment in time. Local church ministry is a commitment to a constant pursuit. We will always be achieving a “near win” no matter how many people accept Christ and are baptized.

What a pastor does every week can be seen as monotonous. Pastors can go for years of striving and after those years ask, “what difference have I really made?” All of the near wins of people he or she has touched with the hope of the Gospel, all of the men or women who have come for counsel, but not committed their life to Christ and never come to church to be discipled. All of the teenagers or children who have come through the ministry but do not return and stay at the church when they are grown.

These situations can drive a pastor to the point where they wonder if their life has been any value to the kingdom – whether they have ever been successful in the ministry.

The local church pastor writes sermons on a weekly basis.  Not every sermon will hit the mark, but when it does, it doesn’t mean you stop preaching because you had a “successful” sermon. Not every service will be life-changing for those who attend, but when you do have a transformational service, you don’t close the doors because you have attained success that one day.

When you have been successful in encouraging someone because they were in need of a loving word or expression, you don’t stop encouraging them or anyone else because you have been successful for that one individual.

Success is finite. Mastery is infinite.  Mastery in the ministry means we never give up on the daily monotony of ministry because that seemingly never-ending tediousness will one day produce a harvest. The more you learn in ministry, the more you can see your own imperfections in the outcome of what you do, driving you to improve it, tweak it, and change it in order to master it.

Progress can be stalled in ministry when we find a program or attain a level of attendance that feels like a sweet spot. When we see how a particular program or style of service begins to have a “successful” feel to it, we have a tendency to continue to do things the same way over and over.

Logic would encourage you to keep on using the same program or methodology expecting the same results.  This would make sense if it were not for the “archer’s paradox.”

If you take a look at a high speed video of an arrow as it is being released from a bow, you may be shocked to see that the arrow bends and vacillates due to the force of the string weight pushing it, the way the arrow was seated and the angle the string was pulled back relative to the bow.

There are so many other factors involved when an arrow is released from a bow.  If you had the same stance, pull, and release, there is no guarantee the arrow will hit the bulls eye at the same spot over and over. This is an elementary review of the archer’s paradox.

The same applies to local church ministry. You can try to repeat the same style, methodology, and program, but over time see that the results will change depending on the many other factors involved.  Those other factors are external forces beyond our control.

A significant world event, the death of a loved one, the economy, sickness, immoral conduct from a leader, or circumstances in the pastor’s family – all of these can play a role in missing the target.  It is important to recognize we need to adapt as time and context change.  We need to adjust as issues arise. We need to tweak part of the ministry when we see it losing effectiveness. We need to change it when it ceases to be effective at all.

This is the definition of mastering the craft of the ministry.  We are not crafting a career in ministry. We are sacrificing for the craft of the ministry.

Success in churches can be seen as the larger church in town. It can be seen as how many people heard the gospel and raised their hand in response to receive Christ. Success can be defined as how many people were fed and cared for at a community event sponsored by the church.

Mastery in the local church ministry is walking with someone or a group of people as they learn how to grow closer to Christ in relationship.  Mastery is continually working on building healthy relationships with those in your church and community even through the messiness of life.  Mastery is going after those people who have accepted Christ and teaching them how to grow in their faith to one day come to a point where they do the same for others.

Mastery is understanding, however many we influence for Christ, there are that many more who need to hear and receive.  This is why we should never give up.  This is why we should continue to sharpen our knowledge, expand our faith, hone our leadership skills, spend time in prayer, exercise the spiritual disciplines, deepen our understanding of Scripture.  We do all of this to work toward mastery, NOT success.

Leadership summits are wonderful.  No matter how many you attend, you can always go away encouraged in your faith to dream bigger, to expand your horizons and desire to see God do amazing things.

The downside of these leadership summits is we usually hear from the leaders who have obtained a certain status in ministry.  This is not a judgment on these individuals.  They have more responsibility to work toward mastery and will be held accountable for so much more.  We should continue to lift them up in prayer as God uses them.

What we may not be hearing or learning during these summits is the cry of the local church pastor who works tirelessly day in and day out – some working a full-time job in order to fulfill their calling.  The cry that silently arises is this, “I feel like I am on an endless pursuit of obscurity?”

What do we say to the one who has been faithful to God for years in their gifts and has done everything in their ability to share the love of Christ?

It’s the pastor who may never see the big numbers in his or her church, but continues every day and week to be an example of Jesus, urging the people he or she leads toward a deeper relationship with God and more meaningful relationships with each other.

It’s the pastor who wakes in the morning and prays for each person they influence.  It’s the pastor who holds those morning Bible studies, encourages learning in small groups, visits those in the hospital or nursing homes.  It’s the pastor who shares the message of the gospel with the mailman, a grocery store cashier, or a neighbor in their community.

As Sarah Lewis teaches us through her talk and book, it is rare to see a “profession any longer where someone needs to continually focus with doggedness on hitting the target over and over. What it means to align your body posture for three hours in order to hit a target, pursuing a kind of excellence in obscurity.”

When the archer competes, those in the crowd do not see all the arrows that archer drew back in practice and fired at the target.  They do not see the frustration and fierce resolve to master their craft. They only see the competition target and the result of their efforts under the pressure of light, audience, and judges.

In local church ministry, we need to pursue excellence in obscurity. We are not working for a reward, notoriety, money, or status.  We are working for a greater purpose. Sundays should be the reflection of what we as pastors/leaders have tenaciously pursued that week in our relationship with Jesus.

Ephesians 5:1 (NLT) says, “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.

Let us also be reminded of Philippians 2:1-8…

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Lewis explains, “masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end.  They are masters because they realize there isn’t one. Mastery understands there is no end to what you do.”

There will always be people who have not accepted Christ and need to hear of His love, mercy and forgiveness. There will always be those who need to experience His amazing grace.

Pursuing excellence in obscurity does not mean accepting a state of being where decline is acceptable.  This pursuit is not about accepting you will never hit the mark.  It is about continually pursuing the mark over and over again whether we hit it or not.

Pursuing excellence in obscurity is taking on the very nature of a servant, and being obedient to God, even to the very last breath.

We are, as Lewis puts it, “on a voracious unfinished path that always requires more.”

We understand in the ministry that our work will never be fully completed. There is only ONE who can complete the work, and the work is not over until He says it is.

We began by stating the inner struggle ministers may face with attaining success in the ministry. We end with the encouragement to pursue excellence in obscurity.

In pursuing excellence in obscurity we place the credit and results in the hands of the one who has earned the right to receive it, Jesus. I leave you with the words of Paul from Colossians 3:16-17 (NLT).

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dan Chrystal is serving on the leadership team of THRIVE Conferences (www.ThriveConference.org) and one of the pastors at Bayside Church serving directly under the leadership of founding/lead pastor Ray Johnston, Dan is passionate about helping others love their neighbors as themselves. He is a dedicated life, career, and couples coach, holds an MBA in Executive Leadership from Purdue Global University and is currently studying Law at Concord University. Dan’s ministry background has taken him from the east coast to the west coast where he has served as Lead Pastor, Church Planter, Executive Pastor, Youth Pastor and also Executive Director of a California non-profit. He is a coach/consultant for hundreds of churches, small businesses, and people looking to grow their influence.

Dan has written a book entitled The Lost Art of Relationship, and a partner book called Discussions for Better Relationships: An 8-Week Group Study Guide.

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