Define success for yourself

I went to junior high and high school at an academically and socially intense college prep academy. The deal my parents and I struck was that they would pay for this not-cheap education if I would be responsible for earning my way through college. That seemed more than fair to me.

During those six years a certain notion of success was drilled into my noggin: enrollment in a prestigious university. An “important,” high-paying career. A family (in the heteronormative sense, of course), complete with kids in smocked clothing. Membership in the Junior League and other part-sorority, part-community service organizations. This vision was imparted in a variety of direct and indirect ways, like advertising the dollar amount of merit scholarships each graduating senior had been awarded and featuring alumnae who checked all of the boxes in the school magazine.

Well, I studied my tookus off and was admitted to several state and private universities offering varying levels of scholarship incentives. And after visiting probably over 100 colleges over the course of my high school years, I proudly and confidently enrolled in the main campus of my state’s university system: the University of Tennessee. I didn’t choose UT-Knoxville because my parents had gone there or because my closet was already full of Volunteer orange. (Neither was the case.) I didn’t even choose it because they made me a full scholarship offer I couldn’t refuse. I chose it because when I made my visit, it felt right. I chose it because of the broad range of course offerings, majors, and other opportunities. I chose it because I could see myself thriving in a bigger, more diverse environment after six years in a school of fewer than 500 students. I chose it because it was close enough to home that I could visit my family regularly.

I notified my current school of my college selection as was required, because college enrollment was a foregone conclusion for students. The upper school principal snarled at me and said, “Get on the bus with the rest of them.” (There’s all kinds of wrong with this statement.) I was third in my class. Students ranked ahead of and behind me were headed to Princeton, Penn, Northwestern, Brown, Stanford, Harvard, and many other big-name universities. And I was going the University of Tennessee. The implication was clear: my pricey college-prep education was wasted on me. Gone were my (ahem, their) hopes of a big alumna donation, smocked children, and Junior League membership.

That was the beginning of a long process of separating out what others thought success looked like and what success would be for me. Because, somewhat surprisingly for an impressionable seventeen-year-old, the snarl and insult did not lead to any second-guessing on my part. It only made me more eager to get the heck out of an oppressive atmosphere. I went on to receive an excellent education at UT. I studied abroad, and I designed my own major tied up with a thesis that won a national honors project competition. And thanks to the scholarship, I graduated with no educational debt. UT prepared me well for seminary, where I again was fully scholarshipped. Nopity nope, no regrets here. (Please know that I recognize the privilege that set me up for this daisy chain of no educational debt, and each day I work to accept the responsibility it entails.)

Still, many years of messaging meant my subconscious had an upwardly-mobile idea of what my professional life would look like. Begin my ministry as an associate pastor, stay there five-ish years, then step into a solo/senior pastorate. From the beginning, it didn’t work that way. I left my first call as an associate at a wonderful church in North Carolina about a year-and-a-half in because I wanted to marry my seminary sweetheart, whose ordination status and indentured servitude to the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church made him less geographically mobile. As a progressive Baptist in Alabama and as the spouse of an itinerant (read: go where the bishop says) minister, I struggled to find my vocational place for a long time. I was a traditional interim solo minister. Then I worked in a non-profit. Then I did piecemeal ministry as a chaplain and designer of pastoral education programs and guest preacher. Then I was a children’s minister.

It was in the ashes of the dumpster fire that was my brief tenure as a children’s minister that I found my footing. Suddenly, my call was clear: promote well-being in congregations and their leaders so that no clergyperson would have to endure what I just had and so that churches could focus on their real work of discipleship and relationship-building. I became an intentional interim minister. I was trained as a consultant and then as a coach. And suddenly all of my divergent experiences coalesced into a vocation I love, with room to experiment and create and grow and with the flexibility to be mom. My career is not what I thought it would be. It’s more “me.” I believe it’s faithful to what God wants for and from me. My salary is not what it could be. (Again, I acknowledge there’s a lot of privilege in not having to be at a certain earning level.) But my quality of life is so much better than it would be if I had held tight to others’ visions of success.

In the church we know the standard metrics no longer mean much: average worship attendance, weekly offering, etc. They don’t tell the full story of a congregation’s impact on its members and the world. So why do we hold to outdated (if they were ever relevant) metrics about what our personal success involves? Let’s question those notions of success just like we press on the whole nickels and noses approach in our churches. My generation and younger will likely not be as well off as our parents were. Full-time ministry opportunities are shrinking. As long as upward mobility in terms of salary and church size is our measuring stick, we’ll come up short. We need to define what success and faithfulness look like for us, and we need to own our impact wherever we serve.

Now let me be clear that this is not to say that we should not do what we can to make inroads as leaders and seek respect and appropriate pay. I am all in for getting more women into larger spheres of influence and making sure they are compensated as well as (or better than!) anyone else. Lord knows the world really needs the innovative, passionate, and compassionate voices of women now more than ever. But may we do so with discernment, making sure our reasons for doing so are healthy, helpful, and fit with our gifts and call.

Photo by Juan Jose on Unsplash.

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