What do success and failure mean to you?
Listen, I don't want any prepackaged, vacuum-sealed answers to that question. I will reference the movie Elizabethtown and ask that you not give me an ice cream cone. That means I don't want an answer that is sweet and pretty but melts away into a sticky nothing in the end. That movie is one of my favorites, by the way. It also says this about failure:
(Oh, Claire. You are a delightful rainbow unicorn in a woman's body.)
I want to smile about my failure. Really, I do. But the usual definitions of success that we love dish out to one another on sugar cones with cherries on top aren't doing it for me. Yes, I understand that success is journey, not a destination. I realize no [wo]man is a failure who has friends, and that success isn't about money or fame or even grand influence. As a mom of four future adults, I have accepted the beautiful thought that I can impact generations just by baking some chocolate chip cookies while raising my kids with a healthy dose of wisdom and grace. I'm not saying that I'm afraid I'm shooting blanks, wasting my life, or losing some kind of race.
I know we live in a culture where everybody gets a trophy at the YMCA, but I don't want to win a trophy. I want to fulfill my calling:
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." -1 Peter 2:9
Let's not allow a post-modern need to soothe our existential angst and affirm our awesmeness lessen the weight of reality. If everyone is a success simply because they breathe air and have meaningful relationships, then why the heck should we even try to make a difference in the world?
This is important. We need to know what success looks like so we can fight like crazy ninja warriors when we fail. Forgive me for being so dramatic. I'm a little tipsy with failure today. I'm over here eating a Costco-sized bag of Doritos because my book proposal received its first (and probably not last) rejection.
Apparently, my writing is good. My proposal is great. My project is beautiful. But my platform needs to be bigger. I knew this would be the challenge going into the process, which is why I've put off the whole book writing thing for years.
Essentially, I need to find thousands of people who will line up and love me, in order to prove the marketability of a book about the dicey world of pastoring. I need scores of people who want to hear the hilarious stories that happen after the service, like when a guy demanded that my husband name the actual anti-Christ (and it wasn't even an election year!). I need to find the people who want to know how and why we kept a giant secret from our kids for almost five years: namely, that their dad is the pastor of the church they attend. I need people to listen to God's dream for His church, and how it involves a kind of leadership that is hard on our families, our marriages, our emotional and physical heath.
Lots of us quit. Those who don't often wish they could. Which begs the question: Is quitting the ministry a kind of failure? How does one fail in the ministry? Do we fail people? Do we fail God? Do we fail our kids, our spouses, or even ourselves? Do we fail everyone all at once, or just one segment of the population at a time? Is it our intentions that matter more or our disciplines and theology? When people leave our churches because they didn't like us, how should we process that? Is our success related directly to our influence and/or our gifting? Are attendance and giving numbers an indication of success or failure at all?
I am writing a book about how we can find a million reasons to quit the church, every single day. It's very tempting. After all, this is what ministry requires: that you lose yourself in Christ, filling up in your flesh the great need that exists in the world, while learning to delight in suffering for the sake of a cause that is greater than your own life. (Doesn't that sound like fun??) Suffering and sacrifice often feel like failure. Jesus's life looked an awful lot like a failure from the world's perspective. Ministry life isn't exactly a shiny island vacation brochure.
Some days pastoring feels like the worst kind of torture. Other days it feels like a priceless gift and privilege we do not deserve. Mostly it's both at the same time. But how do we do it well? How do we process God's requirements for us as leaders, the diverse expectations of so many people, and the pressure on our own lives and families? All those questions are what my book is about. Don't you want to line up to read it once it's published? I really, really hope a few thousand people do.
Because until then, my book will be an unpopular wallflower waiting for an agent and publisher to come ask it to dance. Writing a book is like living my entire middle school experience all over again, except now I have cuter jeans and a phone that is also a robot named Siri.
Siri can help you find a good Asian fusion restaurant, but if you ask her what it means to succeed in life, she isn't very helpful.
My friend Ellen, though, has taught me a lot about success and failure. Ellen is a child development specialist. Ellen has told me a million times to praise the effort my children exert instead of the accomplishment they achieve. Basically instead of "I'm so proud of you for getting an A on that test!", we should say "Wow! You're studying so hard! I'm so proud of you!" She also says to refrain from broad strokes of praise that have no foundation in reality. Don't say "You're an awesome kid!" and leave it at that. Instead, praise their generosity when you see them give the last of the cereal to their brother. Thank them for their kind response when you ask them to unload the dishwasher. Compliment them when they run hard at soccer practice even though it's 99 degrees and they would rather be at the pool.
Kids (and grown ups eating too many neon orange tortilla chips) need concrete praise founded in their effort even when they fail so they won't be afraid to try again. If they didn't try very hard, then ask them if they have a plan for the next time, encouraging them to increase or change their effort and strategy.
So that's what I'm doing for myself today. (Well, that and binge eating cookies and Doritos by the fistfuls.) I am making a list of all my effort that is praiseworthy and making a game plan for the ways I can improve. Because in reality, I have failed today, but tomorrow or next month or next year I may succeed and find that God has taken a tiny bit of His glory and lit the world through my words.
That hope is all I need to drag me out of bed every morning and try to achieve my dream again. Right there in the middle of my effort and my dream I find that I feel God's pleasure and love. You know what? I'm pretty sure His love and pleasure are the success we are clamoring about to find in life.
So don't worry, Claire. I'm still smiling. Also, I think I want ice cream with my cookies now.