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Successful or Fruitful?

In this guest article, veteran Christian leader Dan Reiland asks: Are we measuring success in ministry the wrong way?

In our fast-paced, high demands, pressure-packed ministries—sometimes the lines of successfulness and fruitfulness can become blurred. Read and reflect on these thoughts and see what the Spirit stirs within you.

Image: Elizabeth Lies.

Power ties and power lunches have given way to Starbucks and business casual in jeans but the desire for success hasn’t changed. Leadership success isn’t as bold and brash as it once was. Red neckties have been replaced with colored wrist bands about things we care about, but we are still sending messages. We still want success. In thousands of conversations with pastors, I can’t remember a time when even one said to me: “Dan, my dream is to be a failure. Yup, that’s me. I just want to fail.”

I don’t want to fail either, I want to be successful like you do. But the longer I lead the more I reflect on the idea of success. I’ve come to believe that it’s more complicated than simply the difference between numbers and heart. Success requires honesty about the numbers and full engagement of the heart. It’s not one or the other. I think what’s on my mind is more about the fact that success, as commonly defined, doesn’t last.

Fruit that lasts may be more about a young pastor who is unsure about his leadership who gets honest before God and the people he leads.

Kingdoms crumble, empires fall, and churches close. Revivals and movements have their time and they are done. Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing results from these things, but what we ultimately aim for makes a huge difference. Who we are on the inside shapes the success we target on the outside.

Let me say again, success is a good thing. There are more than two dozen references specifically to success or successful in scripture (NIV). And dozens more implied. I love the passage in Joshua 1.

1 After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: 2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Great Sea on the west. 5 No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7 Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.

Photo of Henri Nouwen by Frank Hamilton.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

But continuing with the question of success or fruit, let me quote the late Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) from his devotional book, Bread for the Journey.

“A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds.”

I don’t know where Nouwen might have taken this thought had he developed it further. But my mind and heart connects it to the fruit of the Spirit and a reminder for all of us who are church leaders about keeping our aim on biblical success.

The list of fruit in Galatians 5 and the imagery in John 15 are clear. John 15:16-17 is a great summary:

16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

What will last? The fruit of changed lives.

Metaphors often break down if you push them too hard or too long. They aren’t meant to stand a courtroom trial, only to open a window or picture of insight. So perhaps we don’t need to wrestle with the perishable nature of fruit—back again to things that don’t last. But if you will allow me a little creative license, I think the idea still holds together. It’s true that fruit doesn’t last, it will spoil, even rot and be wasted. Unless, it is used for its intended purpose. Then the delicate, nurturing, short-lived, appealing, fragile, easily bruised and refreshing food becomes life-sustaining.

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About the Author: Dan Reiland is executive pastor of 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He is the author of Amplified Leadership: 5 Practices to Establish Influence, Build People, and Impact Others for a Lifetime (Charisma House, 2012), Shoulder To Shoulder Strengthening Your Church By Supporting Your Pastor (Thomas Nelson, 1997), and From a Father's Heart: Letters of Encouragement to Children and Grandchildren (Thomas Nelson, 1999). Twitter: @DanReiland

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