Flexibility with “Success”

  • Approximate Time Commitment: 10 minutes

Sustainable Resilience gives you tools for understanding what resilience looks like in life and ministry. This excerpt by Laura Mae Gardner is one element from the online course Sustainable Resilience. Knowing about resilience is not enough. We all need to engage as faithful and courageous soldiers. How are you doing?

Dive in to find a constructive relationship between faithful fulfillment of calling and faithful stewardship of self, and understand that these two in no way stand in contrast to each other. If you want to look deeper into a life of full surrender and resilience, Sustainable Resilience might be the course for you!

For more information about the Sustainable Resilience course and to register, visit here: www.grow2serve.com/sr

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Resource Description

Are you willing to relinquish control to God?


It is part of the process of making the cognitive shift that Southwick and Charney refer to in their resilience factor #9, Cognitive and Emotional Flexibility. One example may be your perception of success. Possibly your whole definition of success may need to experience some significant shift…

The list does not stop with success. Undoubtedly there are dozens of values and beliefs, enculturated into us from infanthood, that will come due for re-evaluation during the first few years of earnest, cross-cultural ministry. Some on the list may be safety/security, definition of family, leadership and power, orderliness and beauty, communication norms…

Keep in mind that in this activity we are using success as a case-study for a broader concept of releasing to God our control of life and ministry.  

Read this excerpt from Laura Mae Gardner’s book Healthy, Resilient, & Effective in Cross-Cultural Ministry about flexibility with success.

What is success? 

Western society is still counting, and assuming success by high resulting numbers. Is that bad? Not entirely, if it stems from a desire to be an accountable steward with people and funds. Churches and donors want to know their worker is doing what they sent him out to do, and doing it well. This may result in an annual report form from the church in which the developers of the form count things:


  • How many tracts were handed out this last year?
  • How many people were baptized?
  • How many churches were planted?


These questions reflect a preoccupation with task and achievement.

Some donors in the Bible translation movement want to know: how much does a Bible translation cost? How much does it cost to translate one verse? And similar questions.

These questions reflect a preoccupation with funds. Both of these perspectives reflect a Western task orientation rather than a relationship orientation. Lingenfelter and Mayers in their book, Ministering Cross-Culturally discuss this matter:

 Another problem is that success in ministry is difficult to define. Since task-oriented people with high academic credentials are often the leaders in church and mission organizations, success is often defined in terms of objective goals. The person-oriented members of their organizations often fall short of such goals yet may have excellent relationships and a strong personal ministry. Sometimes leaders exert great pressure on person-oriented coworkers to conform to the expected pattern and may even view them as having a spiritual problem of resisting authority. It should be apparent that we need to offer more encouragement to those among us who by nature are person-oriented. They bring a special gift to ministry that others must struggle to learn (p. 81).

Lingenfelter and Mayers use their own experience in Micronesia, which is a relationship-oriented culture, to illustrate the contrast between our Western task orientation and most of the world’s orientation to relationships. They go on to point out that we task-oriented thinkers “fail to see the same pattern in the New Testament, even though it occurs there repeatedly. [We] have been blinded by our own cultural values” (p. 80).

At a memorial service for one of our colleagues, a man who was much loved by everyone, someone from the indigenous field where this worker spent many years said, “Clyde was a gringo who was one of us.” No wonder he was so effective in this relational culture! I believe we must begin this chapter by a sober look at a definition of success, focusing on success in cross-cultural ministry.

The motive (a desire to be accountable as faithful stewards of God’s resources) is laudable. The process is often deplorable. Those elements that are subjective must not be treated as if they have no part of one’s ministry.


  • What about language learning and degree of fluency attained?
  • What about relationships built with speakers of the language?
  • What about mentoring new young believers?
  • What about faithfully fulfilling those support tasks such as secretarial work, administrative assistant, grounds keeper, mechanic, administrator and leader, school teacher, artist, computer specialist, records keeper, trainer?
  • What about a lifetime of service?
  • What about faithfully fulfilling one’s assignment year after year?
  • What about care for one’s own family? Nurturing one’s spouse? Preserving the family, training one’s children in God’s way?
  • What about personal satisfaction and thriving in the ministry?

Do these things count?


I believe so. But they are hard to measure.

I am defining success as having an effective ministry in a given location and assignment while recognizing that a worker can be faithful and effective as a (e.g.) pilot/accountant/leader when they and others feel they have done their job well and done it to the glory of God. I believe success includes faithfully filling the responsibilities that attend their role in life and family. Success in task is meaningless without success in the receptor community. Workers must be able to build strong relationships with local people, valuing time spent in friendship-building and sharing life with them. How else will they know what a Christian life looks like? Do we not want these people groups to know the One who is all important to us?

Success is more than these things, though. Workers in Christian ministry may appear to be very successful when their ministry is moving forward and everyone loves and appreciates them—and be flawed in their heart. True success and an effective ministry is demonstrated when a person determines in his heart and mind to follow God’s Word in his personal life as well as in his ministry, who maintains accountability relationships, who regularly studies the Scriptures, maintains a vigorous prayer life, and engages in the spiritual disciplines. In other words, success is a whole life matter of obedience to God and to one’s calling, one’s responsibilities, and one’s opportunities. Ideally such a person has found his place in life, the place where his gifts are recognized and used for God’s glory, and he or she thrives as a result. This is success.

Success is a whole life matter of obedience to God and to one’s calling, one’s responsibilities, and one’s opportunities.

Even if this definition of success in ministry is somewhat nebulous, there are skills and attitudes that enhance the likelihood of a successful cross-cultural ministry. I am inserting the excellent work, slightly adapted, of my colleague, Dr. Bruce Swanson, in his article, “Five invisible skills (attitudes) that make or break cross-cultural ministry workers.” This article is based on field research conducted in 2006 and 2007 in Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. Dr. Swanson is a researcher and educator by education and giftedness, and his observations are helpful.

In his field research Dr. Swanson set out to find answers to the following pressing questions:


  • What are the causes that most frequently send people home from the field prematurely?
  • What characteristics—attitudes, skills, or knowledge—are most critical to the worker’s success?
  • Which of these critical characteristics are “invisible”, i.e., they are difficult to detect until tested in a real field setting?


As a result he made two key discoveries:

First, The most critical factors—the ones that resulted in early attrition the fastest—were attitudes, not technical skills, even though language development projects require considerable academic and technical expertise. Second, These attitudes are extremely difficult to detect, and are often missed in new candidates during their pre-field preparation. Often the surprise will come after the worker arrives on the field, so you could call them “invisible.”

Five invisible attitudes/skills/knowledge (ASKs) that make or break cross-cultural ministry workers


  1. Flexibility. This is defined as “Ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements” (Merriam Webster). This means having expectations that include the strong possibility that the work you start with won’t match your training, or that the imagery set up in your mind for the work setting doesn’t match the reality when you hit the ground in the field.
  2. Cross-Cultural Sensitivity. Understanding, adjusting for and adapting to the customary beliefs, social forms, goals, values and world view of a people group affecting every aspect of life: for example, relationships, education, money issues, history, work environment, religion, and family.
  3. Spiritual Maturity/Ability to use God’s Word to engage with evil spiritual forces. Depth of relationship with God that produces strength and reliability, steadfastness, battle-readiness in the face of difficulties of all kinds, especially direct spiritual attacks.
  4. Servant’s Heart and Attitude, A sensitivity and willingness to respond to the needs and interests of others, placing them before one’s own interests. Empathy for others and humble responsive action to see that their needs are met.
  5. Teaming and Partnering Ability. Attitude and understanding leading toward effective collaboration with other individuals and agencies working together toward a common goal. Capability for forging and maintaining a productive working relationship with colleagues from other cultural backgrounds as well as from one’s own culture.


Gardner, Laura Mae. Healthy, Resilient, & Effective in Cross-Cultural Ministry: Electronic Version (pp. 59-63). Condeo Press. Kindle Edition.


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