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Success, faithfulness and failure

I love being a ministry coach because I get to be present for people’s aha! moments. Sometimes, the things I say or a question I ask helps bring the epiphanies about; much of the time though, I am simply a witness to them.

A couple years ago, I coached a pastor who served a small congregation. Aaron (not his real name) had labored long and well to lead this tiny band of scrappy, social-justice-oriented folks in a medium-sized town in the Bible Belt. Over the years he’d seen evangelical churches flourish all around him, while his small flock continued to quietly do its thing, faithfully but without a lot of glitz or fanfare — and without much growth either. In fact, like so many mainline churches, their numbers were declining year by year, the financial coffers were depleted and Aaron was bone tired.

The conversation turned to that famous quote from Mother Theresa, that we are called not to be successful, but to be faithful. Aaron thought for a moment, then said: “I remember learning that in seminary, and hearing variations of it in ministry circles ever since. But there’s an unspoken part of it, which is that if you are faithful, you will be successful. You can’t be in it for the ‘success,’ however you define it. But it will come if you do it right. It’s like we’re all captive to this unspoken equation: so long as you follow God properly, you will be blessed with fruitfulness — vibrant ministry, maybe even increased numbers. And it’s a lie. It’s just a lie.”

Yes, it is. I fell captive to the lie a number of times when I was serving as a pastor. And I know so many ministers who labor under that same delusion. I won’t say it’s uniquely American, but it’s rampant in American Christianity — indeed, in American culture: We can do anything if we put our minds to it. We are the authors of our fates. Input ABC, output XYZ. The pandemic has only heightened the fiction: If I provide seamless virtual worship and abundant online programs, our church will weather this season unscathed.

But the reality is much more complicated. We can do everything “right” and things still may not work out as we’d like. Aaron helped expose a grim truth: we grind it out and cling to the myth of inexorable progress and call that “hope,” but it’s anything but. That kind of hope falls short when things are bleak — which is when we need hope the most. Sometimes the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend toward justice.

So how do we cultivate hope to face each day, even when our efforts don’t bear fruit? How do people like Aaron and the congregation he serves find the energy to face each day, knowing that maybe their faithfulness won’t end in success, but in a slow numerical decline and an eventual closure? (For that matter, how do we do the work of antiracism, knowing that the job is way larger than any of us?)

These are the questions I’ve been considering for some time now. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it will be a more durable hope than the one we often rely on. I’m excited to see how theologians of color might guide us. After Jacob Blake was shot in Wisconsin, Austin Channing Brown tweeted that when talking about race in America, she gets asked about hope. She wrote that white folks usually mean, “Are you optimistic?” However, “Black folks connect hope to duty, legacy, the good fight. … The freedom movement can’t survive on optimism; there’s too much to mourn.”

You’ve probably seen the line emblazoned on posters and paperweights: What would you do if you knew you could not fail? When the world’s on fire, a better question may be: What is worth doing even if you think you will fail?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor, speaker and coach living in Virginia. She is author of “Sabbath in the Suburbs” and “God, Improv, and the Art of Living.”

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