The gospel of Matthew tells the story of a man who entrusts a large amount of money to each of three servants and then goes on a journey. When he returns, he calls the servants for an accounting. Two of the servants have invested and made a profit. They are praised and rewarded. The third servant, motivated by fear, has buried the master’s money in the ground for safekeeping. This servant gets a scathing rebuke and is thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt.25:14–30, NRSV). What did this third servant do wrong? The story seems to say that he was judged harshly, not for losing the talent, but for failing to do anything with it. Fear of failure kept him from investing what belonged to the master for the master’s purposes. For this he was thrown into the outer darkness.
Many churches wither and die because their leaders are afraid of failing. Like the third servant in the parable, they refuse to take the risks necessary to do the master’s will. Investing in new ministries may call for a significant outlay of money without any guarantee of return. Leaders who are addicted to success cannot accept the possibility of failure. Rather than risk losing what God has given to the church, they turn into guardians of a building, a balanced budget, a tradition, or an endowment.
If we look to the life of Jesus for a picture of success, however, we see something very different. Jesus saw his ministry through the lens of faithfulness of God. This led him into risky places and finally to the cross. In his obedient death, a great failure and scandal in the eyes of his contemporaries, he reached ultimate success in faithfulness to God.
Effective spiritual leaders know that in the church, success is about faithfulness. Faithfulness sometimes requires taking risks. Because God calls us to walk by faith and not by sight, there are times when congregations must take risks. Sometimes a leap of faith is necessary to follow God’s will. In all this, if leaders are fearful and tense, the congregation will begin to see itself as fragile and in danger. Anxiety and insecurity are contagious. On the other hand, the session’s less-anxious presence in the midst of congregational anxiety calms fears and encourages the timid.
The PC(USA) Book of Order states “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life” (F-1.0301). There are times when faithfulness requires risking what God has given for the sake of doing God’s will. The risks may involve the church’s finances, the church’s buildings, or even the church’s reputation in the community. This can be a frightening call. But those who are willing, in faith, to take the risk will receive the commendation of the Master: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.