I’m a consummate goal setter. One of my sabbatical goals in 2021 was to read all of my journals since my last sabbatical in 2010. After reading three years of journals I put them aside. I was discouraged by the number of goals I set that were left undone.
In reading these journals I discovered that about every four months I set new goals or revised old ones. I was struck at how few goals were ever accomplished; maybe 50% were left uncompleted. At the same time a certain tension emerged.
Life in my sixties (not the 1960s but my age of sixty+ — the period of these journals) was the most “prolific” and enjoyable years of my ministry career. Every year opened new God-given opportunities. I had a “dream” team of staff that made ministry fun. Our ministry funding was at an all-time high. Churches were clamoring for help. God was using my book The Ways of Alongsider in ways never imagined. This was a taste of the abundant life but so many goals were unmet.
What can I learn from this tension between unmet goals and fruitful ministry?
One constant thread ran through all these journals: the thread of embracing God’s vision for my life. I’m also a restless re-writer of life and ministry vision statements. However, as I read one vision statement after another, I discovered that the essence of God’s calling remained the same just the adjectives around it changed.
The arc of my life was always about walking with God, loving family and friends, making disciples. Even though specific goals came and went, His vision for my life stayed constant.
In the first weeks of my sabbatical, a passage from Acts jumped off the page to me: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep” (Acts 13:36). I’m not going to get melodramatic about the “falling asleep” part of this verse; I’m choosing to focus on David’s faithfulness to serve.
Like David, the Lord gave me the tenacity and encouragement to pursue His purpose. The fruit of this decade was largely unplanned and had little to do with my written goals but had everything to do with His vision for my life.
What struck me about so many of my goals was an emphasis to initiate or accomplish things. They were like a “wish list” for God. I discovered that the Lord usually had something else in mind besides my wish list. My “accomplishments” were unrelated to my goals: I never set a goal to lead a team of talented staff, to invest in a major denomination, or write a book with a worldwide influence. These were happy surprises that God did.
I think there’s a serendipitous — a happy surprise — nature to God’s will. As I surveyed my unfulfilled goals, I observed that the surprising ministry opportunities that led to such a “productive” decade followed my arc of vision not my written goals.
God’s lesson for me was that goals may not initiate His work but they’re essential in stewarding His work. Goals did not open doors of opportunity but guided me when the doors opened — doors I had not planned to go through.
Goals encourage faithfulness to the opportunities behind open doors; they focus my attention, my prayer, my thoughtfulness, my schedule. When God’s vision is clear then doors will open. Open doors require faithfulness and faithfulness happens as I set goals.
Embracing the serendipitous nature of God helps me realize that that I live a “given” life. Whatever I have is initiated and given by God (1 Corinthians 4:7). How can I claim credit for a gift? I’m left with gratitude and glory. I rest in God’s generous initiative not the accomplishment of my goals.
We’re entering a new year with expected and unexpected challenges; temptations to drive us off the road of God’s vision. I’m reminded of the example of Jesus in Mark 1. Our Lord experienced what leaders dream about. An entire city was gathered at His door (1:33) as He stayed up late teaching and healing (1:34). Talk about success!
After an action-packed day, Jesus rose early to pray alone (1:35). The disciples found him and excitedly told him that “everyone is looking for you” (1:37) implying that he needed to return to the crowds. Who wouldn’t go back to such a successful ministry? But Jesus had a different response: “Let’s go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (1:38).
You can almost picture the faces of the disciples as their excitement turned to disappointment. “Why would the Master turn down this opportunity? Why leave when ministry is so successful?” The clarity of His vision moved Jesus forward to the next towns.
As we face the new year, let’s not focus on setting new goals. Let’s focus on God’s direction, His passion placed in our hearts, His vision for our lives. Do you have a clear direction, a path forward for living out his purposes in your life?
What happy surprises has the Lord placed in your life right now? What are some current open doors of service? Set your goals to faithfully steward these opportunities. You will probably find more than enough opportunities without orchestrating new ones. May you echo the words of King David, “I have served the purpose of God in 2024.”