Summary: I have done a lot of thinking about the problem of how to evaluate your own success in the ministry. We can say that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. That’s true, but we do it anyway.
(I preached this sermon at the Spring Bible Conference at New Brunswick Bible Institute, April 26-29, 2007. The conference ended with the graduation ceremonies. This message was part of my series on the parables of Jesus.)
I want to make a few predictions about this year’s graduating class.
1) All of you will go on serve the Lord somewhere.
2) Some of you will go to small churches. A few will go to larger churches.
3) Some of you will see early success. Others will end up in difficult situations.
4) Some of you will move quickly up the ladder of ministerial success. Others will spend years moving from one small location to another.
5) Some of you will surprise others by the positions you attain in the Lord’s work. Some will surprise others because you don’t attain those positions.
6) And as the years roll on, it will be obvious some of you seem to be doing better while others seem to continually struggle. I use the word "seem" advisedly because things are not always what they appear to be.
7) And even though we like to say that we don’t play the comparison game, we do. You can’t deny it. Graduates are weighed and measured against other graduates. Pastors are continually compared to their peers. So are missionaries and youth pastors and music leaders and everyone else in the Lord’s work.
8) Because we live in a competitive society, there seems to be no getting around the problem of comparison and competition.
9) And some of you will come back for your 10th anniversary feeling good about yourselves. Others will feel less good. Some will stay away altogether. And by your 20th anniversary, you may wonder if you chose the wrong career path.
As I have said, we don’t often talk about these things, but we should because they are true.If you don’t want to be compared to anyone else, you picked the wrong world to be born in. Everything is measured and evaluated. And we reward those who have the largest, the fastest growing, the most productive, and we pay special honor to those who work the hardest, do the most, and produce at the highest level.
In every church you serve, you will be compared with those that came before you and with others in the same position in nearby churches. And the graduates will compare themselves with each other to see how they are doing in the great race of life.
Hit the Ground Running
When I talk with young people going into the ministry, I always tell them to hit the ground running because you won’t have much of a honeymoon period. That’s one thing that has changed in the last 30 years. For better or worse, the following two things are true about most churches:
Expectations are higher than ever.
Patience is lower than ever.
I know of no profession where it is easier to feel like a failure than the ministry because it is a job with no clearly defined boundaries. No one knows exactly what the pastor’s job is supposed to be. And writing a job description doesn’t really help. If you have 300 people in your church, you have 300 different job descriptions. And all of them are comparing you with other pastors in other places. A lot of the time you won’t measure up.
To say what I have just said may make it sound as if I am negative about the ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am positive and upbeat about the potential of this generation of young people. I see a passion for Christ in the twentysomething generation that is much deeper than anything I experienced when I was their age. And despite all the problems—and there are problems in every church—I still think the local church is the best hope of the world. And there is no better way to serve the Lord.
I have done a lot of thinking about the problem of how to evaluate your own success in the ministry. We can say that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. That’s true, but we do it anyway. It is very hard not to look at the success of others, especially of those you know well, and not feel a twinge of envy. I certainly have struggled with that over the years.
You Can’t Tell in Advance
Since this is graduation weekend, I will add one other fact. You can’t tell in advance how people will do in the future. Some we think will shine may struggle for years. Some will labor in relative obscurity. And some will seem to go from one success to another, rising in influence and power. Others will struggle for decades. Some will face family problems and unforeseen health issues. Some will reach positions of great influence, others will flounder, and there will be many somewhere in between. But there is no way to know beforehand how things will shake out.