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. New Life now has 10,000 people.” Then he would respond, “Pete, I love you, but that was not what I gave you to do. That task was for a pastor in another part of New York.”
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 bar 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.