Redefining Success

blog Sep 07, 2023

By Greg Surratt

I got fired from my first three jobs in ministry. When I was in college, my dad hired me to be the youth pastor at his church, which was about 60 miles from where I was going to school. My little Honda got 50 miles to the gallon, and gas was only about 40 cents a gallon. I drove back and forth every weekend. My dad paid me $5 a week.

One Saturday night, I took a couple of the girls in the youth group to a movie—The Towering Inferno. Someone who went to the church was there and saw me, and he ratted me out to my dad before church the next morning. When the service was over, Dad called me into his office. He asked, “Son, did you go to a movie?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Did you take some girls?”

“Yes, sir. I did that too.”

Dad told me in no uncertain terms, “Greg, you can go to hell if you want to, but you’re not going to corrupt the morals of girls in our church. You’re fired.” That was number one.

After graduation, my grandfather asked me to join him in California as the youth pastor at his church in Santa Monica. He neglected to tell me that the church was in the middle of a split. He hoped my presence would somehow change the atmosphere. It didn’t. About two months after I arrived, it all blew up.

During the service, people got up and yelled nasty accusations at each other. A man sitting next to me got up and said some very ugly things. I was a wrestler in high school, and I was just about to put a hammer lock on him and throw him to the ground. Thankfully, I didn’t do that, or I might have been arrested.

My grandfather called the District Superintendent to come for a church business meeting, and at the meeting, both of us were fired. They gave us both $500 as a severance, which made me feel like a millionaire. I got a flight back to Colorado. That’s number two, but in that case, it wasn’t really my fault. The experience made a big impact on me, and I avoided church for a while.

I went to work for Hewlett-Packard, married my wife, Debbie, and settled into a fairly comfortable life. In fact, the company offered me a very substantial package of a raise and bonuses to open a new plant in Corvallis, Oregon. At that point, Debbie and I were living large.

Before we left Colorado, we had started attending a little Assemblies of God church. The pastor asked me to have breakfast with him one morning, and he asked me to join his staff team. He offered me $6,500 … per year, not per month. He wanted Debbie to join the team, too.

We sensed this was what God wanted us to do, so we traded our new sports car for an old beater, and we moved out of our nice apartment into government housing. I had no idea what I was getting into. The church was building a new facility, and the pastor was the general contractor. He put me to work in construction Monday through Friday and half a day on Saturday. He told me that Sunday was my day off, but I led worship in the morning service, the youth group in the afternoon and worship again for the evening service—on my day off.

After a year, he fired me and said, “You need to go back to Hewlett-Packard because you’re never going to make it in ministry.” I wanted to say, “But this isn’t ministry. It’s construction,” but I didn’t say that. That’s number three.

Debbie and I loaded up a little trailer and drove to St. Louis where we moved into my parents’ basement. My uncle was a district official in Illinois, and he asked me if I wanted to be a candidate for a church of nine people. Debbie and I drove to the little town with our newborn in tow. I was scheduled to teach Sunday school, preach on Sunday morning and speak again on Sunday night before the vote. After the morning service, they told me not to bother coming back that night. They weren’t interested in me being their pastor.

I was discouraged, but Debbie was relieved. When I told my uncle what had happened, he said, “That’s OK. I have another church where you can try out. It’s substantially bigger—13 people.” The next Sunday, we drove to Freeport, Illinois. I preached my only three prepared sermons on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. I got eleven votes, so I was the new pastor. But I had a problem: after those three sermons, my folder was bare.

A few weeks into this role, the “blizzard of ’79” hit the Midwest. Feet of snow blanketed the area, and the temperature didn’t rise above freezing for months. The stress of the job and the dismal weather got to me. For the first time in my life, I was depressed, so depressed that I didn’t get out of bed each day unless I absolutely had to.

For six months, my dad sent me the notes for his sermons. I’m sure his messages were really good, but my versions of them were horrible. I was at the end. We drove down to see my parents, and on the way I told Debbie, “I can’t do this. Obviously, I misunderstood God’s call. Let’s turn on I-70 and go to Colorado. I can get my old job at Hewlett-Packard.”  Debbie and my dad encouraged me to keep going. I didn’t want to, but I did.

At about that time, I found a book, Telling Yourself the Truth, by William Backus. The principles I learned about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones saved my ministry. Later, I learned the book is based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, which correlates very well with biblical models of life change.

In 1988, we launched Seacoast, and on that first Sunday, on Easter, we had 340 people. I was so excited. I called a friend in Denver and said, “You’d better get down here and help me! God is doing something amazing at our church plant! A revival is breaking out!” Nobody had told me that a lot of people who attend on the first Sunday don’t come back for the second one. Yes, we had a revival, but it was “a Gideon revival”—for three years our attendance declined.

My excitement after the launch date quickly devolved into deep discouragement. I went to the elders of the church that sponsored our plant and told them, “Let’s end it right here. This was a swing and a miss.” I tried to convince them three times to let me resign. They kept encouraging me to hang in there.

It took five years for our average attendance to go back to what we had on that first Sunday. When we finally got some momentum, no one was more surprised than I was. I call Seacoast “the slowest growing megachurch in the history of the world.” Our story has been a comfort for a lot of church planters who had dreams of rapid growth and were disappointed when it didn’t happen like they hoped.

When a friend heard me tell the saga of being fired three times, being depressed during a blizzard and planting a church that refused to grow for years, he asked, “What did you learn from all that?”

“Good question,” I answered. “First, I’d say that I didn’t learn anything like it’s past tense.”

I’m still learning that it’s important to tell myself the right story. For instance, when someone would leave our church, for years I took it as personal rejection. I’ve been learning to tell myself a different story: Maybe it’s not personal at all; maybe the Lord led them to harvest in another field, or maybe they had a change of career or family situation.

I’m a first-class catastrophizer. If something is a little bad, I can blow it up into a genuine disaster. I imagine the worst, I think of all the horrible things people are probably saying about me and I don’t see any hopeful outcome. That’s why I need to change the story.

Three important factors are important in my story: identity, calling and assignment. The first one, my identity, rests on the foundation of God’s grace, love and strength. God created Adam and Eve in His image; they were “image bearers,” and so am I. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was the accurate reflection of God’s image, but you and I have the privilege of representing Him to everyone around us. How did this happen? It’s only and always based on the grace of God. We were hopelessly lost and deserving of eternal punishment for our sins, but Jesus took our place to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

In Paul’s letters, he uses a particular shorthand to describe the elements of our identity. He says we’re “in Christ” or “in Him.” We’re “in Him” in His death, so all of our sins are completely forgiven; we’re “in Him” in His resurrection, so we have new life and a new connection with God; we’re “in Him” in His life, so the righteousness of Jesus has been credited to our account; and we’re “in Him” in the ascension, so we’re seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father.

Those are legal, forensic truths that amaze us, but God goes to great lengths to convince us that the legal facts in the courtroom are only the beginning of a rich, vibrant, intimate relationship with Him. For instance, in Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2, we’re called “a special possession,” a term that means treasure. God considers you and me to be His treasure!

In Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1, he writes, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the boundless greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

“Know” is more than head knowledge, gnosis; it’s epignosis, heart-felt experience. He wants his readers to feel the warmth of their identity described in the first verses of the chapter, the hope of our calling: we’re chosen, loved, forgiven and sealed by the Holy Spirit. He wants us to feel the wonder that God considers himself to be rich because He has us, and he wants us to live in the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power.

Justification is the bedrock of our faith, but the doctrine of adoption carries us to the heart of God. The late author and professor, J.I. Packer, explains, “Adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification. … To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.”1

We know these things. We preach them and teach them all the time. The problem is that it’s easy to understand them with gnosis but without epignosis. It’s like the difference between audio and video. When we listen to music or a podcast, it’s easy for our minds to wander, but when we’re looking at a video, the images on the screen capture us more completely. Far too often, God’s grace is on audio for us, and performance, metrics and reputations are on video.

How often do we need to reorient our focus on the video of grace? As often as it takes. The encouragement to “remember” is scattered throughout the Scriptures. Why? Because it’s so easy to forget. When we take communion, Paul tells us to remember the broken body and shed blood of Jesus: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

One ancient tradition says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” refers to every meal, not just communion. What would it mean to us if we intentionally reminded ourselves and each other far more often of Christ’s sacrifice? We’d be more regularly amazed that we were helpless and hopeless apart from Christ’s saving grace, but now we’re more valuable to Him than all the stars in the skies and all the jewels, gold and silver found in the earth.

And what does being immersed in grace do to us, for us and in us? Paul explains, “Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, NLT). When we’re blown away by grace, Christ’s love propels, directs and energizes everything we say and do.

My calling is the same as Adam and Eve’s—to bring the kingdom rule of God to every place on earth. As Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). What are the characteristics of God’s kingdom? The fruit of the Spirit, yes, caring for the poor, certainly, and putting kindness, righteousness and justice in the forefront of every thought, word, and action.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul paints this picture of a person committed to deepening and extending God’s kingdom: “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, being diligent to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

How can we know we’re in the right calling? I think about the scene in Chariots of Fire when Eric Liddell was training for the 1924 Olympics. His sister Jenny was sure that Eric’s true calling was to be a missionary, and he should give up the frivolous pursuit of representing Scotland in the Olympics. Eric turned to her and said, “Jenny, Jenny. God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

When do you and I feel God’s pleasure? When is there a strong sense that we’re in the sweet spot, doing what God has crafted us to do? That, perhaps as much as any other measurement or description, lets us know we’re following God’s call.

The first two factors, identity and calling, are constants; they never change. But my assignment may be different from one period of my life to another (and if I’m fired, the period may not last long!). I’ve had macro-assignments as a husband, father, being a youth pastor, working at Hewlett-Packard, leading a small church, at Seacoast, as the founder of a church-planting movement and now in a ministry to care for pastors.

But I’ve also had micro-assignments to live out my identity as God’s beloved child and my calling to help establish the kingdom rule of God by being kind to the barista at the coffee shop, stopping to help someone who dropped her groceries, and any of a zillion other moments that I represent the King of kings to the people whose path I cross each day. In all of these, my identity hasn’t budged an inch, and my calling has been consistent. I can be God’s beloved child and live for the kingdom wherever I go, whoever I’m with and whenever God leads me.

A number of people have asked, “Greg, how do you feel now that you’re not the lead pastor at Seacoast. You were a big deal then.”

I always reply, “I feel great!” That role was, in fact, wonderful, but leaving it didn’t affect my identity or my calling in the least. It only changed my assignment. Over the years, I had to learn that my identity didn’t center on my assignment. If and when it did, I became fixated on my performance, the metrics of the church and what others were saying about me. That’s not a stable place to be!

When pastors have their identity and calling right, they still have plenty of problems to overcome, but they rest on the bedrock of God’s love and purpose for them. When their sense of who they are, their value and their reputation come from externals—success and fame—they’re always looking over their shoulders, always worried about risks, and always checking out their social media accounts to see what people are saying about them. Their consuming goal becomes image management … it’s all about them, so people are valuable if they contribute positively to that image, and they’re threats if they don’t.

Comparison kills. I’ve had to fight all my life to retell my story so it’s all about Jesus and not all about me. That’s why I had to think, study and pray to come up with clarity about the three factors. With these insights, I could rest in my identity and calling and give everything I’ve got to the assignment God gives me, knowing that He defines success, not me or the people who are watching me.


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