“Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than the fear of failure. It is almost universal in leadership.” Thom Rainer
“Our visit to you was not a failure”
(I Thessalonians 2:1)
I admit is was stunned as I read this in Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica. I have dealt with the issue of failure often in forty years of ministry. Reality is, most (all) leaders do. So, as I read through I Thessalonians multiple times in preparation to fulfill a bucket list dream, visiting Biblical sites in Greece, I kept stalling at this statement. How could Paul say this? After all, according to Luke in Acts 17, he only stayed in Thessalonica three weeks before he got chased out of town by a group of “rabble rousers” organized by jealous religious leaders. That could look a lot like failure to me – in only three weeks of ministry, he made so many enemies that he had to hide and escape in the middle of the night.
Of course, Luke makes the point in Acts that there was some numerical success in Thessalonica. There were “some who were persuaded” including “many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” Maybe Paul looked at the numbers and noting some success felt free to say his visit was not a failure. Maybe his metrics were not all that different from most in today’s western culture – all that matters is the bottom line. However, he doesn’t go there in the letter to the Thessalonians. What follows Paul’s declaration that his visit was not a failure is not a reference to the number of people who were persuaded.
So, what is the Apostle Paul’s primary measurement in gauging success or failure? Here’s what I believe it is, he measures input before and over output. This perspective is stated most clearly in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, “I planted the seed (input), Apollos watered it (input), but God has been making it grow (output).” (I Corinthians 3:6). Paul focused on input before output. In fact, he says that output is not his primary responsibility, it is God’s!
As I read through the rest of I Thessalonians chapter 2, Paul makes it clear that his reason for boldly stating that his visit was not a failure is that his input was solid. He looked at his words and his message was clear; “I dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.” (vs. 2). He looked at his heart and his motives were pure; “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives” (vs 3). He looks at how he did things, and his methods were upright and servant like; “We toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to you. You yourselves are our witness – and so is God- that we were devout and honest and faultless toward all you believers. (vs 9,10)”.
Maybe if we would spend more time and effort focusing on and measuring input goals for our ministries, we’d spend less time worrying about failure.