Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
-Galatians 6:2 (NIV)
I was listening this week to a podcast — an episode titled “How Do You Measure Success in Ministry?“ I was struck by the title because I live in that weird crossroads between ministry and career — the work I do for a paycheck is ministry, service to the church and to the world in the name of Jesus and for the purpose of spreading the gospel. And, to be honest, it’s sometimes hard to know how I’m doing. Are the attendance numbers at church because of me, in spite of me, or am I irrelevant to the question? What percentage of my time should I be spending with church people? With unchurched people? Preparing for preaching and teaching? Praying? Do I measure success by attendance at church? Baptisms? Bible studies? Spiritual conversations? How do the people who pay my salary know how I’m doing? What should a performance review look like? Sometimes success in ministry feels like a moving target, which is why, I guess, I’ve come to really enjoy work that is finished at some point and I can look at and say, “OK, I accomplished that today.”
It occurred to me as I listened, though, that I’m not the only one who struggles with that question. That, in fact, people who do ministry professionally are not the only ones who wonder how to measure success. Every Christian who does ministry of any kind — and that should be every Christian — wonders from time to time how to evaluate how they're doing. If you teach a kids’ Sunday school class. If you send a card to someone who’s sick. If you comfort someone who’s grieving, or pray with someone, or offer counsel to someone, or share your faith with someone, or give food to someone. If you lead singing or lead the church in communion, if you’re an elder or ministry leader — well, you get the point. I bet you’ve asked the question: “How did I do, and how can I know?” It’s an important question for several reasons, one important one being that it’s hard for most people to sustain enthusiasm for doing anything that they aren't feeling successful at.
I think my friends Becky and Kerry Holton, who do the podcast, offered some good insights into answering that question. They start by talking about some flawed metrics for success, and they look at some metrics that are maybe more profitable. I won’t rehash their thoughts here; I encourage you to listen to the podcast (it’s just about 20 minutes long). They led me to think of some other standards for success, standards marked off in the Bible by one phrase: “In this way.”
As a first example, the verse at the top of this post: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The law of Christ Paul refers to here is Jesus’ insistence that his disciples should be known primarily for how we love each other. So Paul wants the church in Galatia to know that one way to follow that law is to share in the loads that each of them have to carry in life.
So here’s a measure for success in whatever your ministry is: How well are you fulfilling the law of Christ to love each other by carrying others’ burdens? If you serve in a food pantry, are you grudging and easily irritated in the way you deal with clients? Are you impatient and short with other people who are trying to serve in this way? Or do you prioritize service, kindness, compassion, grace, and trustworthiness? Do you let them know by your words and actions that you care about the burden they’re carrying and want to help them with it? One way to evaluate your success in ministry is to see if you’re carrying others’ burdens in the name of Jesus.
Here’s another, this time from Romans 14:17-18 — “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.” Paul wrote these words to a Roman church dealing with disagreements and outright division about menu and calendar — what you can and can’t eat and what religious holidays you should and shouldn’t celebrate. He doesn’t come down definitively on one side or the other, but reminds them that the kingdom of God of which they're subjects doesn’t take a hard line about the things they’re so argumentative about. He tells them that their King wants them to be more concerned about “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” and that maintaining and promoting those things is much more important than winning an argument.
So we surely want to use righteousness, peace, and joy as one of our standards of success. I know plenty of Christians whose primary “ministry” seems to be pointing out how everyone else is wrong. God has given them the gift of criticism, and they’re faithful in using it! I know that sometimes there have to be arguments and debates in every church, but we have to just remember that if they aren’t had in the service of righteousness, peace, and joy then they aren’t the work of the kingdom and can’t be very pleasing to our King. Does your ministry promote righteousness, peace, and joy in your home, your neighborhood, your workplace, your church? Then you’re successful; God is pleased, and people with eyes to see will approve.
Another mark of success in ministry is in Acts 19:20 — “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” You’re a success if through your ministry the word of the Lord — the gospel — spreads from person to person, place to place. I think that’s maybe a better metric than how many believe, because the faith of others is really out of our hands. What we can control is whether or not people know about Jesus — not the messages that the church sometimes confuses for the gospel, but the actual good news of Jesus. Some will believe. Some won’t. All we can do is to resolve that in the witness of our lives and our words — and in the witness and words of our life together as the church — “the word of the Lord” will spread and grow as it touches the people we come in contact with.
Want one more measurement of success in the ministry God has given you? How about this, from Philippians 3:20-4:1 — “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” You’re successful when you stand firm by remembering who our Savior is, who our Lord is, and that we’re waiting for him. We’re waiting for him to come and give the final stamp of approval to the work we do for him. We’re waiting for him to come and redeem the mistakes we’ve made. We’re waiting for him to make us, finally and completely, like him. All of that power is his, not ours. Until he comes, we won’t be what we will be. We’ll be flawed, and so will our work for him. But that shouldn’t lead us to despair. When he comes, I think surely people who I fell short of loving and serving will finally see what I in my imperfect ministry failed to show them. So our ministry is successful if we’re always waiting on him, always hoping in the transformation to come when he will bring everything under his control, and always remembering where our homeland is and who our Lord and Savior is.
In your life, there will be plenty of people to tell you that you’re the greatest. And there will be plenty to tell you that you’re the worst. Please don’t believe either; human metrics for success are pretty limited. Try evaluating your life and your ministry for the Lord “in this way” instead. May God bless your work for him.