Performance is a positive word
Respectable employees, good leaders and those of us called into ministry all aspire to performance. Performance is defined as “the execution of action” or “something accomplished.”
Look through the pages of Scripture and you will find action-oriented men and women who accomplished amazing things for God. Noah’s performance built the first cruise ship for our animal planet. Joseph performed as Egypt’s CFO. Deborah performed by leading men who refused to fight without her at the helm. Joshua performed by conquering enemy nations. Mary performed by nurturing the only human being who was God and baby. Paul performed by catalyzing a world-wide church planting movement. We could list a thousand illustrations.
Few would argue against the importance of performance as an expression of work’s dignity. We work as people under divine mandate and as image bearers of God himself. Work is essential to our human-ness; in a sense, performance is holy.
But there is a reason we are called human beings and not human doings. In God’s economy, performance is a double-edged sword. Performance is essential to life, but it is not life’s essence. Your performance as a minister of Christ is very significant but it is penultimate. Who you are as a work of God will always be more important than your work for God. Perhaps the most striking reminder is Mary and Martha. Both are with Jesus. Martha was busy serving the Lord, but Mary was giving her full attention to the Lord’s presence. Martha is the ever-present reminder that our performance, even our diligent service to the Lord, can be a distraction to what matters most.
Something must be beyond performance. But what is it?
Have you ever considered how God will measure your life? How do you think your ultimate contribution will be weighed?
- Will God credit you for those extra hours in the church office?
- Will God give you an IQ test when you walk into heaven?
- Will God measure church attendance?
- Will God be impressed by your latest capital campaign results?
Something is more important than your performance, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget. Let’s consider four performance traps that line the path of daily ministry. I have listed these in order of increasing intensity or importance.
The Efficiency over Effectiveness Trap
The management guru, Peter Drucker, once noted that efficiency is about doing things right and effectiveness is about doing the right things. This distinction illuminates the first performance trap: focusing on activity that keeps improving and optimizing work that is not the best activity. Another way to say it is, not all activity is progress.
As a young pastor, I remember the feeling that every activity was good. From leader lunches to program launches, the hours of my days and the days of my weeks filled up. I was a spiritual guide for people in their messy lives. There was always a phone call to return, a need to meet, a visitor to greet, and a next study to teach. It felt as if ministry itself somehow baptized any and every activity as a sacred one. To be active in ministry is to be in the center of God’s will, right?
Over time we realize that the answer is no. All activity is not created equal. Some activity is low return, some is at out distraction. Just ask Martha. You might say, it is not enough to do your best. You must know the best thing to do and then do your best.
The Task over Relationship Trap
The second trap is overlooking the value of people and the priority of relationships in the course of getting things done. It probably doesn’t take much time to recall a person in your own work history who leaves bodies in their wake. In the end, all ministry is about relationships. We relate with God, with one another in the body of Christ, and with individuals in the world. Try to name a fruit of the Spirit that makes sense outside of the context of relationship.
I recently founded a ministry, Life Younique (YourLifeYourCall. com), that helps churches provide personal vision and life-planning to their people. One simple assessment we use is to select which “mode” each person works best in: people mode, ideas mode or things mode. Which mode is your sweet spot?
Because of these three options, many people are better at things or ideas than people. Not everyone is a people person. But in the end, all performance in ministry is about people and for people. People will live forever. Jesus died for people. In the great love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reminds church leaders that great feats performed without the guiding motive of love are worthless.
The Work over Rest Trap
Sometimes performing feels so good we get addicted to the adrenaline rush of doing, going, and winning. Have you ever deeply reflected on the fact that a God of infinite power and unlimited resource actually took time to rest? It’s called Sabbath and some of us in modern ministry forget that Sabbath is a command not a suggestion of a time gone by. Rest is a deeply rooted expectation–and opportunity– between God and his people. Time is the fist thing that God made holy. In doing so, he built a wonderful pattern in the universe of people and relationships. People need time to play, worship and replenish. And every seventh day we declare a beautiful time of rest. It’s the reminder that work is not the ultimate thing in life. It’s the reminder of eternity in time. It’s the time when we take God so seriously that we have no room to take our work too seriously.
But Sabbath is problematic for those of us in ministry. That’s the day we have special things to perform. Here is where I take a cue from Eugene Peterson, who brings a working definition to Sabbath rest. He teaches that Sabbath is a day where you don’t do anything you have to do. Armed with that definition, you can build a rhythm of rest on a different day than everyone else. What day do you really rest, even from performing your ministry responsibilities?
The Ambition over Contentment Trap
In Luke 4, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness before entering his public ministry. One of the temptations was to be given all of the authority and glory of the kingdoms of the world instantly. Satan offered them if Jesus would simply worship him. Jesus didn’t argue about the validity of the offer. But he does remind Satan that he will worship God only, in obedience to the Scripture.
What a fascinating temptation. Ultimately what the devil is offering is Jesus’ right. All things will be in submission to our Lord and Savior one day (Philippians 2:10-11). But Satan offers a short cut. What if Jesus can have all authority without having to suffer as a servant? This temptation, common to all humans, is to let the end justify the means. Satan was appealing to Jesus’ ambition. How much and how quickly can you accomplish?
Our unholy ambition can lead us to treasure performance in unhealthy ways. One way I like to name this problem, which I have experienced in my own life, is career idolatry. An idol is anything we need to add to Jesus to make life work. And sometimes, successful advancement becomes a necessary ingredient to feel okay about ourselves.
This occurs most commonly for pastors and ministry staff around church growth. Let’s say a pastor has a growing church for the first ten years of his ministry, On year 11, the church doesn’t grow. Then year 12 comes and still the attendance is flat. At this point I have seen more than a few leaders go into a dark time of depression and discouragement. The depth of the emotion is related to their identity. The lack of apparent success brings a discontent. Why? Their identity may have been partially defined by their status as a child of God. But to some degree their identity is de ned by their career success.
Performance in Perspective
The drive for efficiency, task-orientation, unceasing work and ambition all wage war against the things that matter most in the name of performance. So what does matter most? How do we live beyond performance? Let’s look at three reminders for putting performance in its proper place.
Let love guide the way
One word puts performance in its place: love. Love is the reminder that intimacy is the most important reality. In fact, it’s the center of reality. God himself is one being in three persons that experiences undiluted love and undiminished intimacy. Our salvation is an invitation and guarantee that we can and will know a love, not only beyond reason, but beyond performance. The beauty of God’s love for us, is that it can’t be earned. The beauty of our lives in ministry is that we can love others unconditionally. We can get o of a performance treadmill with God and we don’t have to require a performance treadmill in our personal relationships. Love is the answer to the task over relationship trap. And love is the starting point for avoiding all of the other traps.
God’s voice must call the day
The love of God opens the door to all of the secrets that follow. Once established by his love and in his love, God’s voice becomes the referee of sorts for our daily lives. How does God’s voice “call the day?”
First, we work with a clear identity as sons and daughters of the living God. This changes everything about our performance. A son or daughter works with a fundamentally different spirit than a slave. You are free. You are favored. Now, work with the smile of a loving Father in heaven shining down on you! Knowing your identity and working from your identity is the secret to overcoming the ambition trap. You can be content at your core. You have nothing to prove and nothing to lose as a child of God. Let his voice rule your day.
Second, we work as those called, with special gifts, talents and passions. Your work is not to do everything but to do what you can do best as a unique workmanship. Ephesians 2:10 may be translated, “For we are God’s masterpiece, He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”(NLT)
Knowing that you are uniquely gifted doesn’t automatically solve all of your work problems. But it can set you on a trajectory to overcome the efficiency over effectiveness trap. You must know what you can do most effectively to best steward your time. In others words, it helps you do the right things, not just do things right.
Lastly and closely related to knowing self is knowing the call of God in your ministry. Sixteen years ago, I started helping churches define their unique disciple-making mission and model of ministry. So many ministries focus on copying other ministries that they miss out on developing their own vision. Remember, God wants to do something cosmically significant and locally specific in your ministry. Ministry without clarity is insanity. And in the insanity, performance traps abound.
When God’s voice calls your day, it means you have a clear sense of identity personally. It means having a clear vision personally and organizationally. Then you will help rise above the common performance traps in ministry.
Don’t turn your back on play
The last reminder is the most fun. Playfulness is the ultimate litmus test that we are working from identity and calling; that we are living beyond performance. With the strength and peace of a well-ordered life we find room to laugh and we make time for what makes us human. How are you playing these days? Someone once said, rest until you feel like playing and play until you feel like resting. I think that’s good advice for those of us in ministry.