Immediately after finishing seminary, I was hired to lead a large and thriving college ministry. The previous college pastor (who is now my senior pastor and boss) was an excellent teacher and leader. Under his leadership, God had allowed the ministry to grow. When I took the job, the college ministry had two Sunday morning services, constituting more than 1000 students.
During my first year, though, attendance dropped. Attrition was especially high in the early service, which met at 9:15 in the morning. I tried everything in my power to diagnose and solve the problems, but I was ultimately unsuccessful. I was preaching week after week to about 50 people in a room designed for 500. About eighteen months after I became the college pastor, we shut down the 9:15 college service. It had effectively died a slow and painful death.
I felt like we had taken a large step backwards, and I felt like a failure. I really hoped and expected to take the ministry to the "next level" (which I equated at the time with a bigger group) and I felt like I had let everybody down.
In hindsight, though, I see how God's hand was active throughout that time. He used those events to shape me and to prepare our college ministry for a new generation of students. Here are a few things I learned from my "failure":
First, I had to reconsider my definition of success. Before our attendance dropped, I would have given you the standard ministry line that "numbers aren't how we measure success." Easy to say when the room is full. Hard to believe when it's empty. My understanding of success truly had to change. Yes, we wanted more people in the room. However, I was forced to define my ministry in terms of faithfulness to Christ's command to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). I worked on building strong relationships with a few dedicated student leaders, and I tried to trust the Lord that He would use the few to reach the many. Even if our Sunday morning numbers never increased again.
Second, I had to recognize that most of my circumstances are outside of my control. Control of my own life is an illusion. I can only make decisions about how to respond to the circumstances God places in my life, but I can't change most of the actual circumstances. In hindsight I know a few of the reasons our services lost momentum, but I still don't understand all of them. And the parts I understand aren't factors I could have changed anyway. I spent way too much time that first year worrying about why people were leaving instead of shepherding the people who were there.
Third, I came to understand that what I do doesn't define who I am. College pastor is my job title. It's not my identity. It's not even my life's purpose. I am first and foremost a child of God, saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. My purpose in life is to know Jesus and to make disciples for His kingdom. I can do that whether I'm a college pastor, an insurance salesman, or a plumber. I think God directed my life into vocational ministry, but if He directs me to another job it won't fundamentally change who I am or what I'm called to do. Experiencing struggle and failure at my job reminded me of that truth.
Finally, I learned that sometimes failure paves the way for something better. I don't mean to say that every financial loss will be replaced with more money, or that every job failure will correspond to some sort of worldly success. But I have learned that failure might be God's way of paving the road for you to fulfill His purposes more effectively. In our case, shutting down that 9:15 service forced us to rethink how we reached students. We created smaller elective classes and reinforced our mid-week small groups. We started a second college service at 6:00 in the evening and drew in a whole different group of students. Over time, the ministry has grown, but more importantly it's structured in a way that better meets the needs of this generation of students. And when I move on from this job I fully expect that the next guy will rearrange things as well. Sometimes something has to die before something new can be born.
I could list more of the lessons I learned during that time, but those are some of the most useful ones. I'm curious: Do you have a story of failure? If so, how has God used it in your life?
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Recently I was cleaning my desk (a rare event indeed) and I ran across some old forms filled out by students applying for college leadership positions. In the past eight years we've had hundreds of young men and women involved in our ministry as Bible study and service team leaders.
As I scanned the applications, I noticed a pattern. There was one consistent character trait shared by every difficult and unproductive leader. To my surprise, I had often noted it during the application and interview process. Most students who shared this trait clashed with authority, struggled to keep people in their groups, and experienced significant conflict with other leaders. Few of them lasted in leadership for more than one year.
It wasn't a lack of gifting -- in fact, many of these students were the most gifted ones in their peer group.
It wasn't a lack of personal purity -- some students who struggled with pornography, sexual sin, or eating disorders eventually grew to be faithful and effective leaders.
What was the one trait that predicted failure, then?
Lack of teachability.
Without exception, every student who failed in leadership simply refused instruction and correction. If anyone suggested areas of improvement, these students made excuses or changed the subject. Every time somebody tried to teach them something new, the unteachable leaders simply said, "Yeah, I know that already."
As a result, they never grew beyond spiritual infancy. In some cases they seemed less mature when they left their leadership positions than when they started.
A person who never listens is a person who will never grow. That shouldn't surprise us. Look at what Proverbs says on this subject:
"The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice" (Proverbs 12:15).
"A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool" (Proverbs 17:10).
"A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion" (Proverbs 18:2).
"Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him" (Proverbs 27:22).
Lack of teachability is the quick road to spiritual immaturity. If we want to grow, we must learn to listen. If we want to become more like Jesus, we need to understand that we're not there yet. Not even close. The godly person knows that and so eagerly seeks wisdom and correction.
So take a look at your own life. Are you quick to listen, or do you always need the final word? Do you trust the authority God has placed in your life or do you argue and make excuses? Do you already know everything, or are you willing to learn?
The answer to those questions will play a huge role in determining whether you progress toward spiritual maturity or whether you remain in your folly.
Question: Are there areas in which it's particularly hard for you to accept correction? How can you and I become more teachable in order to grow in maturity?
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