Steven Pressfield

If You Were Successful, Would You Even Know It?

Living with Drama

I’ve got a friend who, not too long ago, experienced some difficult times with his family. Addiction. Co-dependency. A nightmare of family recriminations. For a couple of months, it seemed, he was on the phone every day with his family rehearsing some new sordid development.

He and I went out to breakfast one day, and I asked him how he was doing. He said that this family crisis seemed to consume him, and that he didn’t have any energy for anything else. Always some new wrinkle, some new situation requiring that he devote more time and energy.

“It’s like living in a soap opera. And the weird thing is, I feel almost like I’m addicted to it.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“At first it seemed interesting being involved in something important. I liked the phone calls and the meetings, thinking I was helping to make the situation better. Hours every day. But then I realized that I needed the adrenaline rush I got when some new twist appeared, and we were all on the phone about it. Now, it just feels like we talk endlessly and nothing really gets fixed. And I’m beginning to wonder if I’m hooked on the drama.”

“So why don’t you quit doing it?” I wondered.

“It’s not that easy. I want to quit, but we really are talking about some important things. On the other hand, whatever we’re doing isn’t really changing anything; it’s just making me constantly stressed out and preventing me from doing other things I need to do. I don’t know.”

Have you ever been around somebody who’s gotten hooked on drama? Everything in their lives revolves around “the thing.” They endlessly run conversations and scenarios in their head, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff war gaming the invasion at Normandy. There’s intrigue and subplots, betrayals and instances of sacrifice, great acts of courage and petty retributions.

I’ve been a part of congregations like that. Congregations get hooked on drama. Phone line marathons. Postmortems on the board meeting in the parking lot. Strategy sessions seated around conference tables, furiously poring over copies of the by-laws, now complete with marginalia and a cross-referencing apparatus.

The whole negative feedback loop of drama can start innocently enough. A personnel issue here, a budget problem there—and pretty soon you’re talking about Roberts Rules of Order over your cornflakes.

But the irony is that doing anything creative (or even constructive) is almost impossible once the drama takes hold. Reactivity reigns. You spend more time rehearsing what you “should have said” at the meeting than imagining what kind of action could allow you to realize a faithful vision of the future.

“So, how do we stop it?”

It would be easy for me to be glib, coming off like I have all the answers about how to disrupt the drama enough to get purchase on a healthier way of being. The truth of the matter is I don’t have any magic elixir I can dispense.

But let me get back to that in a minute.

If You Were Successful Would You Know It?

I was driving the other day, and this phrase popped into my head: If your congregation were ever successful, would you recognize it?

That’s a lot to unpack, right? Most of which has to do with how you define “success.” That’s problematic, as I’ve argued before, since congregations tend to have standards of success that are largely impossible to achieve, having to do with a variety of complex factors mostly out of any congregation’s control. Because of the culture we live in, we have a pretty good idea of what “successful” congregations are supposed to look like. They’re the one’s getting all the attention, the one’s reporters turn to to get a comment on breaking news, the one’s highlighted in denominational P.R. materials.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that success has more than just one face—past which we all too quickly walk. There are successful congregations—congregations that are living faithfully their calling to embody the reign of God—which, because they don’t look that great according to the ways we’ve been taught to keep score, are always in jeopardy of despair—always in danger of succumbing to the temptation of drama.

These churches limp along on budgets that rarely seem to cover all the costs. They don’t have huge numbers of transfers. They can no longer support a graded Sunday School program. By all popular ecclesiastical accounting measures, they’re failures.

And it would be one thing if they failed courageously, but for the most part their failures are pedestrian, unexceptional, ho-hum.

Decline. Attrition. Death. Not with a bang but a whimper.

But what if there were some congregations, congregations that had no business calling themselves successful, that were actually doing something huge, enormous, earth-shattering? Because of the ways we’ve trained ourselves to think about success, would these churches even know they were setting the world on fire—and if not the world, then at least the worlds they occupy?

“So, where are you going with this?”

Let me try to weave two separate strands together.

The Tsunamis of Drama that Keep Us Preoccupied with Our Inadequacies

Congregations, like the enablers addicts require to feed their addictions, often get caught up in the self-destructive cycle of drama. They move from one catastrophe to another, always convinced that they’re in a life and death struggle. Three hour board meetings, frantic phone calls, endless email threads exegeting each passive-aggressive line of text.

The handwringing is exquisite in its enjoyment of self-inflicted pain, like the ever darting tongue rolling over a canker sore. Drama gives satisfaction, just to the extent that it allows its participants to feel the same apprehension and foreboding felt by people who really are facing cataclysms. Life seems so much more significant when infused with the adrenaline of anxiety.

But here’s the problem I see: Congregations addicted to drama are virtually incapable of doing the kind of reflection necessary to recognize when they’re doing something right. The lizard brain takes over, reactivity sets in, and every external stimulus gets read as a threat requiring all the energy and resources of the body.

What if you were doing something outrageously important, but because it didn’t fit whatever model of success sold to you by a cynical culture you continued to cling to the familiar fears you associated with your inadequacies?

What if caring for that group of aging CWF women was the very thing God put you on the earth to do?

What if as God is busy drawing up the blueprint, your congregation’s role in helping usher in the God’s reign is handing out backpacks and haircuts to the children of migrant field workers?

What if what you have to offer for the cause is a van and a couple of folks willing to go to the wrong side of town to pick up a few kids who’ll never swell anybody’s bottom line?

What if God is busy saving the world with the very resources you discount because you’re so addicted to the drama, so afraid your resources can’t possibly be enough that you don’t even realize it?

In The War of Art, a book about writing and the pursuit of creative passion, Steven Pressfield gets at the crux of the issue:

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
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You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Don’t let the drama suck your soul and steal your passion for the very thing God is depending on you to do.

What Do We Get Out of It? Why Ministry So Often Sucks

Aristotle and the Reason Why Churches So Often Get It Wrong

Aristotle said that there are two kinds of moral action—those acts that are intrinsically good (i.e., “good in themselves”) and those acts that are instrumentally good.[1]

“Oh crap, here he goes again.”

Just hang with me a minute. An act is intrinsically good if it can’t be said to be done for any reason external to it. An act is instrumentally good if it can be said to be done in the service of something else.

“Kill me, please.”

No, wait. All right. I tell my kids to do their homework. So, they do their homework. Why?

“Because you told them to do it.”

And they might do it because they want to please me, or because they fear displeasing me.

“Exactly.”

Are there any other reasons why they might do their homework, totally unrelated to me?

“They might do their homework because they want to succeed and go to college, or perhaps because they don’t want to fail and risk not being able to go to college.”

True enough. Any other reason?

“They like it?”

Exactly! Maybe they do it because it brings them pleasure. Maybe they do it because the work itself is satisfying, because it offers them the chance not only to practice and learn, but because the practice and learning offer something good they can’t find anywhere else but in the work itself.[2]

Steven Pressfield notes one of the central truths of the Bhagavad Gita:

The laborer is entitled only to her labor, not to its fruits.

In other words, what you do should be its own reward. You have to learn to love what you do for its own sake, not for what it can bring you in the way of reward or applause (or in the church’s case—young families, a bigger operating budget, inflated membership roles, etc.).

Please understand, I’m not saying that the fruit of your labor is necessarily bad. I’m just saying that seeking first the fruit makes your labor only instrumentally good. That is to say, you do what you do—homework, your job, macrame, or ministry—only because you get something in exchange for it, something out of it. You need to do what you’ve been called to do, whether or not you ever realize any benefit from it.

“Why?”

Because you need to spend your time, your resources, your passion, your life on something, the value of which is intrinsic to it. One of the sad realities of Capitalism is that it teaches us to determine the value of a thing instrumentally—by what it’s worth on the open market. (This is why science and math, for instance, suck all the oxygen out of the academic atmosphere. Humanities—art, literature, music, philosophy, religion—are notoriously difficult to monetize.)

What Do We Get Out of It?

So, here’s the thing: Churches have a bad habit of asking this question first.

The answer to the question, “Why should we invest in this ministry?” if it is to be intrinsically and not instrumentally good is: “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Regardless of whether we ever realize any benefit from the costly investments of time and resources required by ministry, we do what we do because God wants it done. We take pleasure in the labor, not in its fruits.

Cost-benefit analysis, whether it’s a good way to assess the value of investing in Facebook stock, isn’t necessarily the best way to appraise the value of a soup kitchen, or a latch-key program, or an AIDS ministry.

Then again, anyone who follows a man executed by the state in the name of preserving good order should be trained to question the pursuit of purely instrumental goods.


  1. This is going to be grossly simplified, so don’t don’t email me.  ↩
  2. I will concede that this may very well be only a theoretical, if not a practical option.  ↩