G.K. Chesterton’s All Things Considered is a collection of short columns written for the London Daily News in the years prior to World War I. One of the articles entitled “The Fallacy of Success” challenges the letter and the spirit of the how-to books Chesterton was finding on the shelves of his local book store. It is worth quoting at length –
“There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are much more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success.
On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books… It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success. Especially you cannot want a book about Success such as those which you can now find scattered by the hundred about the book-market. You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners (via www.gutenberg.org, emphasis mine).”
We can all agree with Chesterton that there is a difference between good, honest, hard work and cheating, yet there are times we consciously or unconsciously blur the lines between the two for the sake of “success.” In every aspect of our lives, including ministry, when the ends justify the means, cheating, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, sneaks in a viable strategy for success.
In a few rare cases, cheating manifests itself in outright deception. We’ll leave those instances for someone else to comment on. For most of us, we “cheat” by cutting corners, pushing things through in a rush, and delivering less than our best, invested and thoughtful work. The wisps we pursue are efficiency and productivity. Our means betray a greater end.
The Problem with “Good Enough”
Growing up in rural Virginia, I was active in our county’s 4-H program. When I was sixteen I volunteered to be a counselor for a woodworking day camp. The task was simple enough; help middle school-aged kids build birdhouses and tool boxes. As long as everyone went home with all of their fingers and a nicely painted project, the week was a success – or so I thought.
There was one complicating factor, though, the woodworking camp was held at the local high school and the shop teacher at that high school was my father. Midway through the week, our campers reached a critical juncture in their projects. Their materials had been measured, cut and assembled. As the projects took shape, the campers began to look forward to painting – putting a nice shiny coat of color over their wooden works of art. Only one thing stood in their way: sanding.
If you’ve ever worked with wood before, you know how important sanding is to the finishing process. As soon as you paint or stain the wood every scratch, scrape and nick that wasn’t sanded out is highlighted. Good sanding takes time, attention, energy and patience. You can’t rush it. Energy – middle schoolers have. Attention and patience – not so much.
Each camper quickly scratched the sand paper over the surface of their projects and then asked for paint and brushes to move on to the next step in the process. I checked their work, pointed out some spots to sand out, and encouraged them to take their time and do it well. But eventually my patience wore out, too. One by one, frustrated campers would bring their work to me, I would ask them if they were done, they’d say yes, and I would send them off to the painting station.
That’s when my father intervened. He asked me why I was sending projects to the painting station that weren’t ready for paint. I answered “because they’re done.” He asked, “Are they?” In typical teenage fashion I responded, “Look, the kids are bored and tired. If they are happy with what they have, then it’s good enough. What is the problem?” To which my father responded, “How will they know what it takes to do it right, if they stop when it is good enough?”
Good enough is a form of cheating.
Good enough happens when we run out of energy, patience, attention and ultimately care.
One can read a hundred books about how to succeed in woodworking, but none of the pointers or principles will prevent you from having to take the time, attention, energy and patience to sand.
The same could be said for ministry.
Cheating at Disciple Making
In my work with collegiate and young adult ministries, there is always the temptation to cheat. I can slap a nice coat of storytelling fluff paint over my work with some young adult communities and call it a success, but that would serve no one but me. Good enough work is completely self-serving work. How can I look good, or at least not look bad? In the context of the Christian community, discipleship is the attentive and patient equivalent of sanding.
In his book, Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus, Tex Sample connects the craft tradition found in the working-class life and Christian mission and ministry to understand discipleship as apprenticeship. Sample writes that in apprenticeship in the craft tradition, “the stress is not on knowing as knowing but rather on knowing how to do things.” (pg.90)
There is a difference between understanding an engineer’s drawing and actually knowing how to lay a pipeline. One can know clearly from one illustration all of the parts of a clutch and still not know how to replace the clutch like the mechanic knows how to do. The process of knowing “how-to” is practice, and practice begins with apprenticeship.
“How to know” vs. “How to do”
One of the ways we cheat in ministry is by teaching disciples how to know, rather than how to do. We teach them how to read the engineer’s drawing, instead of teaching them how to lay the pipe. It is easier to teach them with a one page handout all of the parts of the clutch, than to take the time and get our hands dirty by helping them take the clutch apart and put it back together. In our pursuit of efficiency and productivity, we grow impatient and tired with this type of directed discipleship and yet without it our ministries are pretty paint over unprepared wood.
If we take Chesterton’s point to be true, “there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating” then we have to know what good work looks like and for that we have to know what success looks like. To know that we have to be taught; we have to be apprenticed and actively apprenticing others. Good enough is not good enough.
How are you measuring “success” in your ministry? How are your priorities, practices, processes and programs oriented towards these goals?
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