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Meaningfully Making a Difference?

by on January 21, 2016

Tonight in conversation with a friend I was able to finally articulate an angle on the restlessness in my spirit of late. It is the distinction between “making a difference” and “being meaningful.”

I have no doubt that my service to the church is “meaningful” to those who encounter it. I receive notes and calls and comments that prove this beyond doubt. What I offer in sermons and writings “means” something, sometimes even something transformative, to those who receive them. For this I am grateful and gratified.

But what difference is my ministry making? That is the question which, at heart, I long to have answered. Mathematically speaking, “difference” refers to “change.” When we ask what the difference is between 10 and 15, we are asking what has changed. And the answer, of course, is that 5 has been added to 10 to make 15. Both numbers have meaning, but there is a difference to be seen between 10 and 15.

In congregational life, there are only a few “hard” metrics, that is, a few measurements that concretely indicate differences. Some of these are worship attendance, financial contributions, baptisms, and people discerning vocational clarity.

Year end statistics show that attendance in my congregation is down, but financial contributions are up. This is the second year of this trend, and what it suggests is that the decreasing number of people who attend worship are increasingly committed financially.

I am grateful for the notes and calls I receive about how meaningful my ministry is to people. And it is deeply gratifying that these same people want to invest more in our ministry together–and the investment is not just financial. We have also seen an increase in volunteer hours both within and beyond the church. These hours reflect another measurement I mentioned above–discerning vocational clarity, that is, finding ways to serve others.

In addition to being meaningful, I also want to know I’m making a difference. People can have meaningful experiences in church their whole lives long and never actually grow spiritually. They have confused personal experience with intimacy with God. And many times it’s not their fault. It’s the church’s fault. It’s the pastor’s fault for being satisfied with having a meaningful ministry and not paying attention to whether it makes a difference.

So that’s the question disturbing my spirit: Am I making a difference, and how would I know? Part of the answer to the second half of the question is the increased giving, both in terms of money and hours. I can surmise an answer in part from our increasing budget, but even better from meeting the people our volunteers are serving. I would experience how our ministry is making a difference in the lives of our volunteers and those they serve.

With these observations included in the equation, perhaps the answer to the first half of the question will be an unqualified yes: I am making a difference. And that would be a very welcome conclusion, because I am less and less satisfied with being meaningful but not feeling like it makes a difference.

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