Editor’s Note: The author penned this article following a particularly difficult season opener, after which he realized that he himself had lost focus, fallen into the comparison trap, and began blaming students for a perceived lack of progress. The reminder that we exist for them, not the other way around, was humbling and refreshing at the same time.
My job isn’t to build the best ministry; it’s to build disciples who build disciples.
Read that to yourself one more time; maybe write it down on a piece of paper. It’s an important piece to remember and an easy piece to forget. In the race to start each semester well, we often push that truth aside as we press hard, burning time, energy and resources at a pace that will not be matched anytime else on the calendar, to make gains we hope will set us up for a successful year (or semester). The stress, pressure, and competitive environment of the campus make it easy for us to lose focus. In the process, we begin to gauge our progress not on how well we are making disciples, but on how well we are doing compared to others. We play numbers games in our heads, and it isn’t healthy.
The Trouble with Gauging Success by Comparison
Leaders aren’t exempt from temptations, and one of the most insidious of them is the temptation to compare and gauge success by comparison—especially at the beginning of a school year when everyone is working double and triple overtime to reach the campus. Less so at the beginning of the spring semester, but the temptation is still there. We compare ourselves to our own seasons past, to what we see happening in the other ministries on our campus or in the churches around us, and to what we see our denominational brethren doing on other campuses around the state and country. Then we start bleeding ego.
Oh no, we’re failing! Time to double down and work harder.
Oh yes, we’re killing it! Time to pop the cork and celebrate our own goodness.
There are at least three problems with that.
Success by Comparison is Idolatry
Defining our success by comparing ourselves to other ministries is nothing short of idolatry. When we look at others, even our own past selves, instead of God as the basis for our ministry success, we have placed ourselves at the center of the universe. We’ve taken God—including His plan, principles and purposes—out of the equation in favor of our own. It’s horizontal thinking, not vertical. Ouch!
Success by Comparison is Demeaning
Using other ministries as a benchmark for our own is actually demeaning to them. Comparison is by nature a double-edged sword. You can’t judge yourself against someone else without also judging them. For them to be your standard (whether good or bad), you must create in your head a false image or opinion of them and their ministry based on your own faulty process of evaluation. You don’t know their goals, their resources, the circumstances they’re working through, or the burdens they have been asked to shoulder, let alone what God has put in their heart to do, yet you dare to label their efforts? Viewed in that light, it’s a ridiculous game… and yet we play (add arrogance to the list of problems. Call it a nasty bonus). By judging their work—and ultimately, judging the work of the God who makes the fruit grow—we minimize it when we should be praising God for it."Comparison is by nature a double-edged sword. You can't judge yourself against someone else without also judging them. " -Jon Smith #collegiatedisciplemaker Gauge Progress by Faithfulness, Not Success by Comparison Click To Tweet
Success by Comparison is Unfair
Perhaps most importantly, it is patently unfair to the students with whom God has blessed us to work to compare them and their fruit to others’. We exist to make them better, but when we fall into the comparison trap, our focus shifts to ourselves, and the roles are reversed. We burden them, judge them, and place unfair value on their performance, effectively holding them responsible for whatever results we achieve—and as you might imagine, those results are rarely positive. Write this one down, too:
Your students don’t exist to make you look good.
They are not the cause of your success or failure. They are not the reason your ministry seems grand or dismal. They are just there, like sheep without a shepherd, waiting to be led. Be the leader they need, and stop looking around at everyone else for approval.
Gauging Progress by Faithfulness
The truth is that to do our jobs well, we do need to gauge our progress. We need to identify where we are, where we want to be, and how we are going to get there. That need is real and relevant. How we go about meeting that need, however, is also important. Comparison is not the way. Faithfulness is.
Instead of gauging your success by comparison, gauge your progress by faithfulness.
Compare Your Direction
Try setting goals for your ministry. If you need to compare to something, refer to the goals you set. Make a discipleship plan and hold yourself accountable to following that. Let that be a measure of progress, not a definer of success. Think of the goals and plan as a compass to assess if your ministry is going in the right direction rather than a measuring stick to define your success.
Consider Your Faithfulness
Ask yourself, “Am I where I am supposed to be? Am I doing what I am supposed to do?” If the answer is yes, you’re doing okay. Measure your success by the standards God gave you, not what He’s doing with others.
Cherish Your Ministry
Cherish the ministry you have; don’t pine for the one you want. The students with whom God has blessed you to work deserve someone who appreciates their presence. Be thankful for them. Rejoice over them. Let God be the ultimate judge. If you’re focused on him, everything else will be just fine.
Now, do your job and go make disciples who make disciples.