The ways of measuring success

Published 9:22 am Friday, November 14, 2014

Across the Pastor’s Desk by Tom Biatek

At a recent church meeting, we began talking about how we measure success. We were discussing our church staff and the congregation, and thinking about the future of the church in Albert Lea.

Tom Biatek

Tom Biatek

What does it mean to be a successful minster? Committee? Employee? Church?

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Some on the committee were of the opinion that we could easily measure our success by counting the number of people who join our church or attend worship. Some thought a good measure could be the budget and how much we give to missions or various programs. Still others thought we could somehow develop a form that we could use of a yearly review of our success.

How do you measure success in your world?

The business community often measures success with “the bottom line.” Did we turn a profit? Has our stock gone up? Are the investors getting their dividend? One simply has to look at the profit and loss column and see if there is something positive at the bottom of the column.

People often measure their success by their job performance. A promotion at work means that they have done good work and so are successful. A raise indicates that our boss is pleased with our performance. Maybe our sales figures are up for the quarter or we have landed some new accounts.

Again, it is a matter of counting something up — size of client lists or size of our bank account — and seeing if we have more.

By most measures, Jesus was not terribly successful. He owned no property. He did not hold down a steady job. He had some followers but, in the end, most abandoned him. He angered powerful people and so drew their ire more than their respect. If you counted up the money he had in his pocket, it could only have been a coin or two. He never ran a successful business. He never really seemed to settle down anywhere.

Yet … the world was changed by what he did.

In small ways, he changed lives through the personal encounters he had with ordinary people. In large ways, he opened up the world to new ways of understanding of faith. He challenged institutions that were crushing the souls of the people and bravely spoke the truth to the powerful.

When I list the people who I feel were a success, I find that list is populated by people who are not, in the typical measure, considered successful.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. McGoldrick, was never awarded a Nobel Prize or had a bulging bank account, but I remember her being a very kind woman who encouraged me to learn and grow.

I think of my grandmother who had very little in material wealth and yet could make remarkable bread and had a huge heart.

One of the most successful men I have ever known was Dr. Dennis Nyberg, who labored as a dedicated pastor well into his 90s. Dennis lived a very simple and humble life.

When I try to measure success, I try not to look at life in terms of numbers — by counting things or measuring the size of things. Life is far more comparable to art than it is to a check book or a profit and loss column.

The measure of art cannot be reduced to a number. Art is about creating something that has impact and it is measured by how it moves the soul. Success, through the eyes of an artist, is about changing perspectives, challenging assumptions and opening our eyes to see the beauty and wonder.

It is a communal experience between the creator, what is created and the world. Art is accessible to all and can be practiced in an infinite number of ways. If anything, art defies the measure of numbers as it aspires to the infinite.

That sounds pretty successful to me!


The Rev. Tom Biatek is the pastor at United Methodist Church of Albert Lea.