When I first began leading and sharing in ministry responsibilities, I was full of vision and optimism. I truly believed that if I just prayed enough, followed up on every name I received, encouraged and lived out evangelism, and talked about the values that come out of the Scripture, then I could be successful at any ministry task.
Actually, this is an understatement. I had a vision of my sophomore year Bible study becoming the hub of campus renewal that would flow out to the ends of the earth—but let’s just call that hopeful naiveté.
That Bible study was just a little better than a complete flop, but what ended up challenging my philosophy of ministry even more was a new assignment: working with students at the large commuter school down the street. As an alumna of a big, residential state school, I believed I was well-equipped for the task. (Clearly, singing my alma mater’s fight song over and over as an undergraduate, proclaiming us to be “the leaders and the best,” had worked itself into my heart and soul.) Unfortunately, when I came on the scene in 2002, the group was down to three leaders and no additional members.
It is by no coincidence that 2002 is the year I became a realist.
Two years later, after trying all the things I had been taught—the prayer, the evangelism, the Bible study, the strategy, and a few new tricks along the way—the group had grown to about fifteen people. We met weekly in a basement lounge in a dingy dorm, chosen because of its location, not its appeal. The fifteen of us would sit in a semicircle around a dungeon-like fireplace, with a smashed TV where wood should have been. This was neither the vision I had for myself, nor the group, when I took the assignment. The only benefit was some comic relief as we surveyed our surroundings.
As I poured my energy into this campus and these students, I found that I quickly became worn down by the seemingly insurmountable challenges. We appeared to have almost every disadvantage a fellowship could have with very little improvement during my three years there. My student leaders were bright spots, but would they continue to commit to a sinking ship?
In meetings with my supervisor, Ann, she would nod her head in encouragement and say, “Well, we’re being faithful.” At the time, her words felt like added insult to my injured ego. Faithful? What good is faithful if it can’t result in successful? I thought.
The Goodness of Faithfulness
God taught me a lot in those three years. I learned that when I focus on success as an outcome, I bypass the blessing in being faithful. I tend to see my expectations as essential and miss the beauty of the faithfulness of others and of God. I can even forget that our Savior’s own faithfulness did not look like success but rather death on a cross.
Hebrews 12:2 provides even deeper insight into that cross, stating that Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” That means there must be a joy that comes from faithfulness in difficulty—perhaps an even deeper and more meaningful joy that cannot be understood when faithfulness and success go hand in hand. Think about the difficult situations that require faithfulness: perseverance in a rocky marriage, parenting the wayward teen, caring for aging relatives, dealing with family feuds, or the commitment that turns out to be less fulfilling than you hoped. It isn’t fun to dwell on these things, but I believe faithfulness in these types of circumstances produces something good.
As I look back, I’m thankful for Ann. I think often of the lessons that she taught me. It’s a testimony to her integrity that her ministry over the years has grown through her own simple acts of faithfulness, such as driving long distances to visit campuses with no staff support. Years later she would see those same campuses have a growing team of staff and students in place.
I also thank God for those first student leaders—for Sandra, Ellie, John, Cassidy, and Jessica. I trust God that their decision to choose faithfulness on campus in a hard situation has led them to more opportunities for faithfulness and growth, and that this has brought them joy.
I’ve come to realize that, though I would like to be successful in every area of my life, if I were really forced to choose, I’d rather be faithful. I would like to say at the end of my life that I have been a faithful spouse and faithful mother, faithful to the work I have been given, to the relationships in my life, to my neighbors, to the poor, and, ultimately, to my relationship with Jesus.
The Faithfulness of God
It’s no wonder that faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit. It’s the very essence of God’s character. The Scripture says, “If we are disloyal, he will stay faithful because he cannot be anything else than what he is” (2 Timothy 2:13 CEB). Only the Spirit could transform us so that we emulate God’s faithfulness in a situation where our human tendency is toward selfishness, escapism, or easy pleasures. Only the Spirit could give us forward-looking joy when our faithfulness requires both perseverance and sacrifice. We cannot produce faithfulness on our own.
We can, however, posture ourselves for growth in faithfulness with a few simple steps:
1. Find a mentor who has perspective beyond your naiveté or cynicism.
2. Find some people to walk with you in community (and laugh with you from time to time).
3. Invite the Spirit’s work in your life.
There will always be difficult situations. There will always be temptations that test our loyalty. But there will always be Christ’s faithfulness to us because of his faithfulness to himself. Praise God that he has given us the Spirit to make us more like him.