Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

"Success or Significance"


Sermon by Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr. , Orders Meeting – August 16, 2011, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City

Scripture: Philippians 1: 1-11: “Paul and Timothy, both of us committed servants of Christ Jesus, write this letter to all the Christians in Philippi, pastors and ministers included. We greet you with the grace and peace that comes from God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ. … Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears. … It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hope have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does! … So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus would be proud of:  bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.”


Message: Jim Noble is a pastor and a renowned chef living in High Point, N.C. He owns four very exclusive restaurants in the Charlotte (N.C.) area. By every definition we choose to use, Jim Noble is a very successful person. Almost two years ago, he decided to open a nonprofit restaurant called The King’s Kitchen. One-hundred percent of the proceeds from the meals served in that establishment go to feed the poor of Charlotte. Last year he donated over $50,000 to projects that support food banks and social service agencies. In that same facility, he provides job training and a number of other programs that help people get back on their feet. CNN decided to interview Jim Noble, to do a story on this ministry that nourishes the soul; you can see the interview on YouTube.


When asked why he opened a restaurant where everything he took in would go to feed poor people, his reply was, “At some point, you have to make a distinction between success and significance.”


When I heard him say that, I jumped out of my seat and shouted, “My God, that man has found a great secret to life; he has discovered the essence of living!” (I also said, “There’s my sermon for Orders meeting!”) I can’t think of two better words that identify our common struggle as pastors and co-laborers with God in the ministry of Jesus Christ. And so today let me speak to you on the subject “Success or Significance.”


Success or significance? From the moment we are brought into this world, we are programmed to be successful. Parents want to proclaim our genius by teaching us to read before we can talk. They will stand in long lines for hours or pay exorbitant fees to enroll us in the best schools. Proud fathers will sign fantasy football or baseball contracts before their sons are 10 years old, and immodest mothers will do everything to have their daughters become the essence of grace and charm at a far too early age. It’s a way of life—we are taught that the purpose of life is to be successful, and throughout our lives the road to success is paved with high expectations and intense pressure to be first and best in everything we do. Success is the goal and, whatever it takes to get us there, our society is willing to pay.


But success is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s truly an elusive thing. The road that leads to it is full of hazards and unforeseen consequences. Some people are so driven by it that they abandon all ethical, moral, and social conduct to get where they want to be. Others will not mind stepping on you or over you in their quest to achieve. And yet, when many arrive at the pinnacle of accomplishment, they encounter an empty, haunting feeling. They ask themselves, “Where do I go from here?” In Japan, at the end of every school year, hundreds of high school kids commit suicide because they fail to achieve the expectations of their parents and peers as they seek to enter college. Here in our own country, being Number One has become the most prized obsession for countless millions.


Unfortunately, this mindset has found a place in ministry as well.


I have always believed that, as pastors, we are engaged in one of the most competitive and stress-filled vocations you will find. Our success is measured out in ways that other professions are not. Some of us—if not most of us—seem to gauge how successful we are as pastors by the size of the church we serve or the height of the steeple or how many people sit in the pews on Sundays. Even the sermons we preach from week to week have so much to do with how successful we feel about ourselves and our ministry.


How many of us here have had those Sundays when what we thought was a good or decent sermon just didn’t get off the ground? We have all experienced those times when it just didn’t happen from the pulpit. I don’t know about you, but it takes me several days to get the feeling of a regretful sermon out of my system. It’s like a bad taste in my mouth that I just can’t rinse out. It usually takes me until Thursday to get over it, and by that time I’m raring to get back at it so I can make up for the disappointment on Sunday.


Following a sermon that doesn’t connect, it’s so amusing to hear the comments of the parishioners as they meet you on their way out. They say, “Preacher, you gave a good talk today!” Or they say things such as, “Pastor, you almost got me there this morning.” Or they don’t say anything at all, which is almost as bad, because the silence is deafening.


The other side of this issue is when you think it was a good sermon and something must be wrong with the people!


One of the most treasured illustrations I’ve come across in the last few years has to do with Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), who was a powerful, dynamic preacher, nationally known in his day. It is written that Beecher, one night in the Midwest, decided to attend a revival service in a town. At the church, the young, self-assured pastor and the entire congregation recognized Beecher. Surrounded by a group of people, the pastor asked, “Dr. Beecher, how did you like my sermon? Did you get anything out of my sermon?” 


“I did,” Beecher confessed. “Three weeks ago I heard Phillips Brooks preach, and his message was so powerful I went away vowing never to preach again. But after hearing you, I have changed my mind.”


Success for us often can be measured one sermon at a time, and when we view ourselves from the world’s perspective of having to be better than everyone, so often we come up disappointed in ourselves and our ministry.


But today I want to suggest to you that there is a choice you can make. You can jog along on the treadmill marked “success” that doesn’t really take you anywhere—or you can choose to be significant.


Significance is what happens when you forget about trying to be successful and you step out in faith to make a difference in the lives of people around you. That’s what Jim Noble meant when he said at some point you have to make the distinction. What better time than now for us to ask ourselves this question! Do we want to be successful, or do we want to be significant?


It’s a legitimate question that begs for an answer from each and every person in this sanctuary. It’s also the message Jesus spoke in so many places throughout the New Testament. If anyone knew about the human desire to be first, to win at all costs, it was Jesus. His words of warning, “The first shall be last and the last first,” ring in our ears. “He who humbles himself will be exalted, and he who exalts himself will be brought down” shows where Jesus stood.


Significance is what he preached in so many places, and it is something all of us can achieve. It doesn’t have to be voted on by an Administrative Board; the Trustees don’t have to approve it. Significance is doing something that makes a measurable difference in the lives of people. It is the art of meeting the needs of people wherever and whenever those needs happen to be.


I marvel at pastors who say to me, “My church doesn’t want to go on mission trips or pay Apportionments.” I scratch my head and I say, “What about you?”


If no one in your church wants to go on a mission trip, you go! And when you return, tell them what you saw and what you experienced. If you do it often enough, someone will go just to see if you’re telling the truth! If no one wants to pay Apportionments in your church, you tithe your salary to an apportioned item, and I can assure you that will send a clear signal to your members. If no one wants to go to summer camp, you go as a counselor whether or not you have someone in your church going! Be significant and you will feel so much better about yourself and your ministry.


All across this Oklahoma Conference, I find pastors who demonstrate each and every day the principle of significance over success. It exists when a church decides to purchase over 22,000 Bibles, or package over 140,000 meals for hungry people, or develop a food pantry for a needy community. In these places some of our churches have chosen to be significant, and I pray that will happen more and more.


More recently I saw it happen just northwest of Oklahoma City in the community of Piedmont, where a tornado struck. It’s noteworthy to mention that Pastor Sam Powers was not content to say he was blessed to be spared by the tornado that just missed his church. Instead, he immediately got up and was a visible presence on the scene, helping others whose lives had been adversely affected by the storm. That’s significance!


As your bishop, I suggest that in the future, as we gather for our Annual Conference, we spend less time mulling over reports and socializing and do something each year that has meaning and purpose in the lives of people who are in need—whether or not they are United Methodists! At the recent World Methodist Council, each day teams of volunteers gathered to prepare meal packages for starving children throughout Africa. The people who participated in that campaign returned home celebrating how good they felt to be part of something so meaningful. Why can’t we do something like that? Why can’t we expand on collecting flood buckets and also go out into the community and work together on one or several projects? I believe such action will send a clear signal that we choose to be significant and will be a contribution that shows who we are and where we place our priorities!


Did you notice how the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi? In the very first sentence, he states that this letter is written especially to pastors and ministers. He commends them for being faithful to their calling, and he prays that they will flourish in their love, not only loving much but also well. He goes on to say, “Live a life Jesus would be proud of, bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.”


There is another wonderful Gospel scene, when Peter reminds Christ that the disciples left everything they owned to follow him. “Yes,” Jesus says, “and you won’t regret it.” Allow me to paraphrase his words: “No one who has shunned success and left everything will lose! It will all come back to you, multiplied many times over!”


That brings me to the point I want to make to each and every one of you: If you choose to be significant, if you decide to go out from this place to be a measurable difference in the people of your church and community, success will not be far behind! The principle is this: Success follows significance! But it must come in that order. You can have both, because of the feeling you receive when the Spirit of the Lord is upon you to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and set the captives free. That feeling, my brothers and sisters, is priceless—and by every definition of the word you will be successful, regardless of the size of your church, or how high the steeple, or how many people sit in the pews! Significance will even undo a sermon gone bad!


The name Rachel Beckwith has been in the news. She was a 9-year-old who recently died in a car accident near Seattle. When she was very young, she learned there were children with cancer who lost their hair while being treated. At the age of 5, she decided to have her hair cut and donate it to Locks of Love, a charity that makes wigs for children. A few years later, her church started raising money for a group that digs wells in developing nations to provide clean sources of water. So she decided to turn her ninth birthday into a fundraiser. She wrote, “On June 12, I am turning 9. I found out that millions of people don’t live to see their fifth birthday. And why? Because they don’t have access to clean, safe water.” She asked people to donate money to this cause instead of giving her birthday presents. She set a goal of $300; she was disappointed when she raised only $200.


On July 20, Rachel, her mother, and younger sister were involved in a terrible car crash on a highway near Seattle. Her spinal cord was severed, and she died three days later.


News went viral about her campaign to raise money for clean water for people who don’t have access to it and, as of today, more than $1 million has been raised in her name. Her pastor, Ryan Meeks, said about Rachel: “For a 9-year-old kid to say, ‘Hey, for my birthday I don’t want anything. Give to those who are in greater need’ …. Not everyone is that mature at age 90. Rachel is modeling for us at the age of 9 how to live that kind of life.”


After she died, her parents fittingly had her hair cut and given to Locks of Love, and her organs were donated to children in need. The money being donated in her name will provide water for more people than she ever could have imagined.


Most people would say there was no way Rachel could be successful at that young age. But I say that in her young life she was far more significant, and the success of touching countless thousands of lives will live on for years to come.


Her pastor concluded, “Life is coming out of death with Rachel’s generosity.” 


As people of the Word of God, should we not know something about life coming out of death? Jesus said you will not regret it if you forget about yourself and give up everything for His sake. You will get everything back and more—even eternal life! Today the choice is yours. You can have success, or you can have significance. Choose significance, for if you do, success is guaranteed.

(Note: Twice a year, the clergy members under appointment in the Oklahoma Conference meet for a one-day event called Orders Meeting. They gather for worship, Holy Communion, and education. This sermon is made available online after a high number of clergy requests for it. --- from the Department of Communications)


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