In her typically poignant way, Mother Teresa said: "We are not called to be successful, but faithful."
That's powerful stuff, but when I hear that from her I want to say, "Ok, Mama T, that's good and all, but you still ended up being a pretty dang big deal. Even though you might say you weren't successful because Calcutta is still in rough shape and all, you have personally been canonized as a saint and are a global celebrity. I'd call that pretty darn successful."
I have all the love in the world for Mama T, but this quote meant more to me when I heard it restated by a ninety year old pastor who had ministered in obscurity among the poor of Bryan, Texas his whole life, at times preaching to no one but his wife and kids on Sunday mornings. Speaking about himself, he admitted that, "I am called not to be great, nor to be successful, but faithful."
Honestly, that's the harder piece for me. I can accept that I may not be successful in accomplishing my goals (eradicating all pain and injustice is honestly a bit out of my pay grade), but so long as people know who I am and think I'm awesome I would be fine. Being thought of as great is all the success I need. At least that's what insecure Nathan thinks. And unfortunately I'm not that unique.
We live in a world where from the time we're a baby (see picture) we are told that not succeeding is failing and if you're failing you're worthless. If the company's profit margin doesn't expand you're out of a job. If the nonprofit doesn't have huge numbers to show the funding dries up. If the church doesn't grow the doors might as well close. If you're single you're obsolete. If your kids don't get A's you must be a terrible parent. And in these and too many other ways our culture shames us.
One of the problems with a focus on success is that it tends to grow out of a need to appear impressive. We are constantly comparing ourselves to the next person and terrified they won't think we are special.
My fiancée went to Yale where she made some VERY impressive friends, by most any standard. They work everywhere from Wall Street to Capital Hill, and honestly do some awesome stuff. Every time we are about to meet one of her friends, I'm terrified. I go into Mr. Inadequate mode and start stacking myself up against them: grew up in small town Nowheresville, went to a state school, grades were only so-so, haven't worked anywhere anyone's ever heard of, broke, etc. These folks are consistently as sweet as could be, but because American culture tells me they have been more successful than me, I usually just want to crawl in a hole.
Worthiness--that sense of deep acceptance and love for one's self--is a precious commodity in our culture. Few of us have it and most are fighting to attain it through the misconceived notion that it lies "out there" somewhere. But it doesn't. It is right here, present in the beauty of who God created us to be and in the unconditional, unshakable love he has for us. We are already worthy but are terrified to live into it, wounded too many times by those around us who can't see this glorious reality.
It's not hard to see why leadership gets messed up when we're constantly on the lookout for our next best shot at feeling worthy. Steven Covey said great public leadership begins with the intentional leadership of one's own life. A life led by insecurity, always driven to gain acceptance, be enough, fit in, and gain respect or love simply can't discern the correct decisions that will provide long term benefit for others. If we want to lead toward shalom, we have to accept the paradoxical truth that success is not our goal. Following Jesus is.
The cross--God's strange strategy to allow his own murder so that the world he so loved would be saved--is the greatest critique ever leveled at a life strategy aimed at greatness or success. Read the opening verses of Philippians 2 again and think about how success as our culture defines it jives with the example of Jesus:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I'll conclude by throwing a few quotes your way from Father Greg Boyle*, a man who continues to walk through life alongside gang members in LA:
"Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever's sitting in front of you...If you surrender your need for results and outcome, success becomes God's business."
"Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidence-based outcomes)--that didn't end in the Cross--but he couldn't find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced."
"Sr. Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother's House in New York, was asked, 'How do you work with the poor?' She answered, 'You don't. You share your life with the poor.' It's as basic as crying together. It is about 'casting your lot' before it ever becomes about 'changing their lot.' Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified--whichever came first."
*quotes from Tattoos on the Heart