Recently I was talking with a friend who made a comment that really unsettled me. She said that she felt that these days every time a leader or a pastor communicates about their church or ministry it is always about the success of the ministry. That led us into a discussion about why that would be the case, the pressure that our culture places on us to succeed, the unhealthy drives that plague us all and the fear of authenticity that resides deep with us.
The comment unsettled me because I had kind of lulled myself into a false sense that in the Christian culture we are actually fairly authentic and honest about our struggles. The more I thought about my friend’s comment and the more I applied it to my reality the more I realised how frightened we all actually are of sharing our weaknesses. Why is that?
Last week Prime Minister Julia Gillard was interviewed by a group of 280 high school students and she was asked the question about whether she ever doubts herself. She answered;
Everybody has moments of self doubt. I mean, you know to not feel that wouldn’t be human and so I feel that too
Then she said that she often has to kind of ‘turn it on’ by faking that she is confident when really she is not. She says,
We have this kind of cultural image of leadership that self doubt equals weakness and we don’t like to sense weakness. And so we don’t exhibit weakness and I don’t exhibit weakness
I think that there are many reasons why we don’t exhibit our weaknesses, self doubt and lack of victory but one that Gillard has highlighted is our cultural expectations of success.
I think that deep in the heart of every leader is a fear that if we talk about our weaknesses then people will see us as unsuccessful and we will not climb up that ladder to glory that we all want to be on.
When we go to our respective areas of employment and mine is the church, when we gather, notice who are the ones that get the limelight? Who are the ones that are lifted up as examples? Who are the ones that get a subconscious pat on the back? Usually those seen to be successful. That is those with the bigger churches, the ones who write the most books, the ones who are cutting edge.
Zack Eswine in his wonderful book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as Human Being says
In theory we know that an unknown pastor in a long and faithful ministry who doesn’t write books would have a great deal to share with us for our growth. But in practice we find this very difficult to act on.
I think there are two serious problems with this type of success culture that has infiltrated our Christian culture
Firstly it makes those who are not as ‘successful’ feel awful. Those who are struggling with ministry for example or not even struggling but perhaps just not perceived as doing as well in comparison to others feel as though they are failures. More than that they may feel that God has abandoned them, his anointing has left them or that they are doing something dreadfully wrong.
Secondly I think it can be even worse for the successful person or leader because as they present their image of infallibility and constant progress it locks them into that cycle of success. This then grows an expectation in the corporate body that this person or ministry must always be successful, leading to that person having to maintain their success or at least a mirage of success in order to keep up with expectations. This produces a cycle of fear, worry, it taps into unhealthy drivenness, and it can lead to burnout. Internally they could be screaming ‘Get me out of here!’
I was at a gathering of leaders recently and I was asked to, along with others, share briefly about a recent, inspirational, positive story from our church. So I did that but I simply could not get off that platform without also sharing that even though what I shared was a success story in fact the truth is that our church is going through a difficult season at the moment of change and processing some very sensitive, difficult issues. I think it is wonderful to gather and share our hope in God and to speak out what he is doing in and through us but why do all the stories have to be success oriented? Do we think that sharing a lack of success will create a discouraging atmosphere? Will it bring the mood of the gathering down? I think it can only contribute to a more honest and godly culture.
And then if someone does eventually speak out that they are struggling or perhaps going through a season of difficulty usually many gather around that person to pray. I think that is great but we should also be gathering around those who are successful and praying wholeheartedly that they can manage their success with humility, wisdom and dependency on God in a success driven culture! Perhaps those ‘struggling’ can also pray for the ‘successful’ in such gatherings?
All of this has made me wonder about the need for a ‘Discipline of Invisibility’.
Do we need to regularly practice becoming invisible in a culture that is incessantly enticing us to be noticed, to be successful, to produce more and to climb that ladder of popular affirmation?
Zack Eswine in his mentioned book tells about his observation of his University professor and the success he had. His professor was a brilliant scholar with incredible wisdom yet he had only written a few books in his life. When Eswine asked him why that was the case and why he did not want to impart more of his wisdom onto future generations in order to advance the kingdom of God, the professor shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I’d like to write more, but I really enjoy my garden’. This led Eswine to ask the question of his own driven nature ‘Somehow (I had) come to believe that fulfilling the Great Commission (had) more to do with writing books than with planting gardens. Why is that?’ Then he states ‘Ironically I had learned the doctrine of creation, and yet I possessed little ability to feel the air God has made.’
Do we all need to spend a little more time in the ‘garden of invisibility’ to discipline our lust for success and visibility? The problem here is that often a lack of success is often labeled in Christian circles as ‘unblessed by God’.
Do we need to sit in the ‘ordinary’ a little more convinced that God is there too, and actually that he is especially there at work where we are planted in our place, among the people around us in this particular time give to us?
Do we need to remember that we are never forgotten by God even if we are forgotten by people? And that this is all that matters?
I was reflecting on Jesus on the cross the other day and his response to those who tempted him with success at his apparent defeat.
As he hung on the cross passers by yelled out;
‘Save yourself’ (Matthew 27:40)
‘Come down from the cross’ (27:40)
All the temptations were telling Jesus to ‘take action’, ‘do something’, ‘be victorious’, ‘be visible’.
Yet he kept silent, he stayed on the cross, he did not come down, he did not rise to success but rather accepted humiliation and invisibility because he knew that he was not forgotten by his God.
As the world scoffed that God had forgotten him (‘He trusts God let him deliver him’, Matthew 27:43) Jesus could abandon the need for success as the world forgot him because he had an unshakable belief that God was right there with him.
Would we be countercultural enough to put that into practice in our ministry settings?