One of the hardest elements of being in mission and ministry is defining success.
Working as a missionary in Ukraine is difficult because things don't get accomplished in the way I am used to. A simple process might be governed by half a dozen government offices which all have different yet similarly random office hours. We shuffle from office to office patiently waiting stamps, seals, and signatures. A more complex process might require going the whole way to city hall.
And in the business world and the corporate structure, being busy is valued. Doing something is good. Accomplishing something is better. Our American churches reflect this cultural value by creating programs to hold everything. Each thing gets a shiny, new program. Our most dedicated volunteers end up making table decorations well into the night so that the sweetheart diner is a success. But they are doing something and so we thank them and tell them that they are doing a good job. When we see a need in our community our first response is to create a program to meet that need. Being in ministry in Ukraine has helped remind me of the value of sometimes NOT doing something.
Often we plan, prepare, and kill ourselves to create a program or to design an event: and sometimes everything is perfect and we are so excited, and sometimes the weather is weird and it's the festival of the Holy Full Moon or something else not in our calendars and no one shows up and we feel the press of failure. If God had called us to create programs and fill up calendars and to get people in the door - that feeling of failure would be well earned. But God calls us to be in ministry.
In ministry we sit with people and cry with them. We put aside our pain to celebrate something wonderful in a friend's life. We eat ice cream. We sit in courtrooms and waiting rooms and listen to painful conversations. We sit and drink tea and get every ninth word corrected to the proper case and gender. We swim in a lake that isn't clean enough. We laugh our way across bumpy roads and we visit enchanting villages filled with gracious people.
At the end of a long day, we can answer the question, "What did you do today?" with an honest, "Nothing."
If we believe that our worth and our calling are found in being busy and in getting things accomplished - we miss the blessing of being in ministry with people. When we sit and "do nothing" with people, we have the time and the space to learn, laugh, love, and to become one.
Success is faithfulness. Most days I don't have any idea what I'm doing. I don't mean that they aren't planned - I mean that I simply don't understand the things that are happening around me. Like a Ukrainian, I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Maybe I've adapted or maybe I burned through a few too many brain cells in college - but I love watching things play out and I love watching things fall into place. I love watching people interact and step up and move beyond fear. A week ago I sat with a friend on the bank of a lake for almost four hours. I didn't accomplish anything. We didn't have an agenda. They were some of the best hours of my life. Ideas and challenges came out of our conversation that I would have never dared to write on an agenda.
It's August. In a student ministry in Ukraine - everything shuts down in August. Even our students who live in the city find an escape to the village with a grandparent or distant cousin. Our friends who are present work very full hours and come to events exhausted. Especially after the exhausting flurry of activity that followed the tragedy in July, people feel guilty if they are "not doing" anything. What is hard is for us to embrace the uncertainty and to "do nothing." To choose to meet up with friends and to not steer the conversation in any direction. To set aside our programs and to lift up people in every way we can.
I'm a driven person. I set goals. I have an agenda. I love a challenge and I love getting things done. When I choose to place my whole heart in ministry, I have to lay some of that at the cross. Casting vision is good and moving things forward in ministry is a joy - but sometimes being faithful means letting go and letting God. Sometimes it means skipping rocks for four hours.
Ministry is messy. Faithfulness is hard. Choosing to be still and know that God is God is much harder than "doing something" and holding a finished product in your hand. My fear is that sometimes I get busy with activities because I am afraid of the silence and I am afraid of the uncertainty of simply being present with people and with God.
Sometimes I want to frame success in terms that I understand. Getting things done. The number in the pews. The number of Amen's uttered during the sermon. Sometimes I want to understand.
Success is faithfulness.