Some vulnerabilities are not as obvious as others. In fact, sometimes the very things we yearn for can become our greatest vulnerability! Think about success. All of us want our ministries to be successful and to impact as many as possible. But with success comes a major liability: pride, self-confidence that can push out our need for God or others and a feeling that somehow we are immune from the temptations of others. After all, have we not successfully negotiated life and ministry to get to where we are?
Ministry success has been the vulnerable spot for many. It is not that we should not seek ministry success but we must recognize that the greater our success, the more vulnerable we are to the dark side of success – and its ugly consequences.
One of the classic signs of the dark side of ministry success is unaccountability. In its twisted logic, many successful individuals can come to the conclusion that they do not need the council and accountability of others (usually what got them to where they are) and as they move away from accountability and toward dangerous autonomy there are fewer and fewer people who they listen to and often there is a marginalization of those who give them “bad news” rather than what they want to hear. Pride is one of the most insidious of dark sides for it elevates us above others and sometimes above God. Pride, autonomy, lack of accountability, and eventually twisted thinking come in a package often fueled by success.
With success comes the tendency of others to curry favor rather than to speak honestly. It isolates because of the increased demands that success brings. Those increased demands lesson the time for thinking, self reflection and close relationships which are so foundational for spiritual transformation, self-knowledge and intimacy with Christ. With the accolades of success comes the temptation to actually believe all those things people say about us when in reality if we were honest with ourselves we know that the true us does not match the us that others project upon us.
The more successful we are the more cautious, humble and accountable we must be to avoid the consequences of the shadow side. Successful men and women go in one of two directions – toward humility and accountability or toward pride and autonomy. The former deepens influence while the latter will eventually cause influence to dissipate.
We are also vulnerable in times of failure. This is particularly true for individuals in ministry whose identity is often wrapped up with what they do – confusing their identity in Christ for their ministry identity. Failure calls into question our calling, our competency, God’s intervention (or lack of it) and sometimes our very faith.
In times of failure we have two options and I have watched both play out with friends and acquaintances. Either we press into God in a new way, choosing faith and optimism or we settle for bitterness and a diminished life, often holding God responsible for our situation. Which direction we choose is just that – a choice we make. Life comes undone for all of us at one time or another. It is either an opportunity to move forward and build character and experience or it becomes a pit that we sink into and wallow there.
In no way do I want to minimize the pain of failure. I felt that my whole world had come apart when I left my church at the age of 28, clinically depressed, tired, broke and deeply wounded. It took me some ten years to fully heal from that traumatic experience: I know failure well, and its wounds. But, as hard as it was, we faced a choice during those years: to live in faith and hope or to settle for bitterness and diminishment. We chose the former and God has used what I felt as a failure as a major part of my spiritual construction, personal development and ministry impact. I could never have known how my failure would be used by God in my life and ministry. In fact, “failure” is one of the most powerful tools God has to mold us.
Ironically, what is failure to us is often a win for God and for our character and future influence. Moses’ early failure became his training ground for success. Joseph probably felt like a failure when he ended up in jail prior to becoming the second in command in Egypt.
Suffering is a prerequisite to deep influence. Failure is just one of the ways that suffering manifests itself. How we respond will determine its positive or negative impact on our life. I came close to throwing in the towel on ministry after my difficult pastorate. How grateful I am today that I walked away from that brink! Today I see that failure as one of the greatest gifts of my life and I will wear its divine scars proudly into eternity.
Between success and failure are periods of life that just are. And sometimes, like David sitting in his palace while his troops were out at war, boredom sets in and our restlessness makes us vulnerable – to temptation, to laziness, to moving away from our intimacy with God. Periods of restlessness, when boredom sets in are actually wonderful opportunities for growth because it usually means that we have more time on our hands. Either we find something productive to do that will build into our future influence or we move into that intellectual and vision decline that so often afflicts individuals in their forties and fifties.
Intellectual laziness and decline is actually one of the most acute issues faced by those in ministry. The world keeps changing and morphing and unless we continue to grow and lead in our sphere of influence we become superfluous just as so many middle and even senior managers in business have become. Thus the vulnerability that comes with allowing ourselves to slip into comfortable rhythms, content with what we already know is a real one. In many ways, laziness and contentment is a shadow side of earlier success and competency.
The Apostle Paul understood this vulnerability and risk and would have nothing of it in his own life. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Each of us has a prize – it is the fulfilling of God’s call on our lives and to settle for anything but the fullest expression of that call is to settle for less than God intended for us.
One of the reasons I write books and a regular blog is to continue to stretch myself, to force myself to think clearly, to explore new territory and to ward off boredom whether in a lonely hotel room when travelling or simply the dog days of life when it would be easy to settle into intellectual laziness. Each of us must find outlets for intellectual growth and rest (for me fly fishing) where the soul is nurtured, our hearts stay full and our intellect is challenged.