Pursuing Excellence in Obscurity
by Dan Chrystal, MBA on December 20th, 2021
There is an inner struggle leaders may face with attaining success in the ministry. There are conflicting ideas about what a successful ministry or church may look like. Some pastors and ministry leaders have been pushed into the limelight because of the positive affect they are having. Others who have not attained that level of defined success may even get discouraged, especially when they incorporate tactics and methodology employed by these limelight ministries with little to no impact. Success is a trap. How many young actors and actresses will never make it to the $20 million movie status? How many artists will never have their works of art displayed in a museum? How many ministry leaders will never have their sermons and presentations downloaded over a million times?
Art historian and critic, Sarah Lewis, gave a TED Talk in 2014 called “Embrace the Near Win.” An author and curator based out of New York, she has written a book entitled The Rise, which “analyzes the idea of failure, focusing on case studies that reveal how setbacks can become a tool enabling us to master our destinies” (http://www.ted.com/speakers/sarah_lewis). In her presentation, she gives the illustration of an archer on a varsity archery team. She stood behind one archer as she lined her sights aiming at the 10-ring 75 yards away. The 10-ring on a target at 75 yards looks like a matchstick tip held out at arms length. She witnessed the archer hit the 7, the 9, and then the 10-ring twice. The next arrow missed the target completely. This miss did not deter the archer from placing another arrow’s nock into the string of the bow, pulling, and releasing. The archer seemed to take the miss as a challenge and practiced for three straight hours until she was completely exhausted. Even though she hit the bulls-eye twice, she did not celebrate hitting the target and stop firing arrows; nor did she crumble under the failure to hit the target after hitting the 10-ring.
This example by Sarah Lewis is a snapshot of the difference between success and mastery. Success, as Sarah explains, is hitting the 10-ring, but mastery says success is nothing if you cannot hit it again and again and again. She goes on to say success is an event, a moment in time, reaching a goal. Mastery is not a commitment to a goal, but to a constant pursuit. To achieve mastery is to understand the value of the near win. Mastery is in the reaching, not in the arriving. Mastery is sacrificing for the craft not in crafting one’s career. Lewis continues to press that success motivates, but a near win propels us into an ongoing quest. When we become more proficient at something, the more we see the imperfections, flaws, and what we have yet to accomplish and know.
Compare this example and these words to typical ministries. The ministry of the Church is NEVER done. It is not something to be considered a success – an event or a moment in time. For example, local church ministry is a commitment to a constant pursuit. We will always be achieving a “near win” no matter how many people accept Christ and are baptized. What a pastor does every week can be seen as monotonous. They can experience years of striving and after those years ask, “What difference have I really made?” There are likely near wins of the people who have been touched with the hope of the gospel, individuals who have come for counsel, and yet, did not commit their lives to Christ to be discipled. It could include teenagers or children who have come through various ministries, but never engaged in a faith community as adults.
These situations can drive a ministry leader to the point where they wonder if their life has been any value to the kingdom – whether they have ever been successful in the ministry. The local church pastor writes sermons on a weekly basis. Not every sermon will hit the mark, but when it does, it doesn’t mean you stop preaching because you had one “successful” sermon. Not every service will be life-changing for those who attend, but when you do have a transformational service, you don’t close the doors because you have attained success just that one day. When you have been successful in encouraging someone because they were in need of a loving word or expression, you don’t stop encouraging people because you have been successful with one individual.
Success is finite. Mastery is infinite. Mastery within a ministry context means we never give up on the daily dedication and commitment that is required because that seemingly never-ending tediousness may one day produce a harvest. The more you learn in ministry, the more you can lean into the Lord, see your own imperfections in the outcome of what you do, driving you to improve, tweak, and change it in order to master the process.
Progress can be stalled in ministry when we find a program or attain a level of participation that feels like a sweet spot. When we see how a particular program or style of service begins to have a “successful” feel to it, we have a tendency to continue to do things the same way over and over. Logic would encourage you to keep on using the same program or methodology expecting the same results. This would make sense if it were not for the “archer’s paradox.”
If you take a look at a high speed video of an arrow as it is being released from a bow, you may be shocked to see that the arrow bends and vacillates due to the force of the string weight pushing it, the way the arrow was seated, and the angle the string was pulled back relative to the bow. There are so many other factors involved when an arrow is released from a bow. If you had the same stance, pull, and release, there is no guarantee the arrow will hit the bullseye at the same spot over and over. This is an elementary review of the archer’s paradox.
The same applies to ministry endeavors. You can try to repeat the same style, methodology, and program, but over time, may see that the results will change depending on the many other factors involved. Those other factors are external forces often beyond our control. A significant world event, the death of a loved one, the economy, sickness, immoral conduct from a leader, or circumstances in his/her family – all of these can play a role in missing the target. It is important to recognize we need to adapt as time and context change. We need to adjust as issues arise. We need to tweak part of the ministry when we see it losing effectiveness. We need to change it when it ceases to be effective at all.
This is the definition of mastering the craft of the ministry. We are not crafting a career in ministry. We are sacrificing for the craft of the ministry. Success for churches is often categorized as the larger church in town. It can be seen as how many people heard the gospel and raised their hand in response to receive Christ. Success can be defined as how many people were fed and cared for at a community event sponsored by the church. Mastery ministry is walking with someone or a group of people as they learn how to grow closer to Christ in relationship. Mastery is continually working on building healthy relationships with those in your church and community, even through the messiness of life. Mastery is going after those people who have accepted Christ and teaching them how to grow in their faith to one day come to a point where they do the same for others.
Mastery is understanding, and regardless of how many we influence for Christ, there are always more who need to hear and receive. This is why we should never give up. This is why we should continue to sharpen our knowledge, expand our faith, hone our leadership skills, spend time in prayer, exercise the spiritual disciplines, and deepen our understanding of Scripture. We do all of this to work toward mastery, NOT success.
Leadership summits are wonderful. No matter how many you attend, you can usually go away encouraged in your faith to dream bigger, to expand your horizons, and desire to see God do amazing things. The downside of these summits is that we usually hear from the leaders who have obtained a certain status in ministry. This is not a judgment on these individuals. They have more responsibility to work toward mastery and will be held accountable for so much more. We should continue to lift them up in prayer as God uses them. What we may not be hearing or learning during these summits is the cry of the ministry leader who works tirelessly day in and day out – some working another full-time job in order to fulfill their calling. The cry that often silently arises is, “I feel like I am on an endless pursuit of obscurity?”
What do we say to the one who has been faithful to God for years in their gifts and has done everything in their ability to share the love of Christ? It’s often the ministry leader who may never see the big numbers in his or her organization or church, but continues every day and week to be an example of Christ, urging those he or she leads toward a deeper relationship with God and more meaningful relationships with each other. It’s often the ministry leader who wakes in the morning and prays for each person they influence. It’s often the ministry leader who holds morning Bible studies, encourages learning in small groups, visits those in the hospital or nursing homes, and who shares the message of the gospel with the mailman, a grocery store cashier or a neighbor in the community.
As Sarah Lewis teaches us through her talk and book, it is rare to see a “profession any longer where someone needs to continually focus with doggedness on hitting the target over and over. What it means to align your body posture for three hours in order to hit a target, pursuing a kind of excellence in obscurity.” When the archer competes, those in the crowd do not see all the arrows the archer drew back in practice and fired at the target. They do not see the frustration and fierce resolve to master their craft. They only see the competition target and the result of their efforts under the pressure of lights, an audience, and judges.
In ministry settings, we need to pursue excellence in obscurity. We are not working for a reward, notoriety, money or status. We are working for a greater purpose. Ephesians 5:1 (NLT) says, “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.” Let us also be reminded of Philippians 2:1-8:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Lewis explains, “Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize there isn’t one. Mastery understands there is no end to what you do.” There will always be people who have not accepted Christ and need to hear of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. There will always be those who need to experience His amazing grace. Pursuing excellence in obscurity does not mean accepting a state of being where decline is acceptable. This pursuit is not about accepting that we may never hit the mark. It is about continually pursuing the mark over and over again whether we hit it or not.
Pursuing excellence in obscurity is taking on the very nature of a servant, and being obedient to God, even to the very last breath. We are, as Lewis puts it, “on a voracious unfinished path that always requires more.” We understand in the ministry that our work will never be fully completed. There is only ONE who can complete the work, and the work is not over until He says it is. We began by stating the inner struggle ministry leaders may face with attaining success. We end with the encouragement to pursue excellence in obscurity. In pursuing excellence in obscurity we place the credit and results in the hands of the One who has earned the right to receive it, Jesus. I leave you with the words of Paul from Colossians 3:16-17 (NLT), “Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.”
Dan Chrystal, MBA, is a husband, father, author, speaker, and life coach. He has over 28 years in executive leadership and relational coaching, including six years as an administrative officer of a large faith-based nonprofit organization and also served as the Director of Sponsorship and National Church Relations for Bayside Church in Roseville, CA. Dan is passionate about helping others love their neighbors as themselves, and is a dedicated life, career, and couples coach. He holds an MBA in Executive Leadership from Purdue Global University and is currently studying Law at Purdue Global University Law School. Dan’s ministry experience spans almost all pastoral positions. He is a committed student of “Relationship” and believes deep, meaningful relationships are God’s design for us. He is the author of Lost Art of Relationship and Discussions for Better Relationships. For more, see Dan Chrystal – Book Author – Discussions for Better Relationships | LinkedIn