The story is all too common. Someone has a vision for their ministry, their church or their community group and somewhere along the way they find they are no longer moving toward their initial goal. Unknowingly, their attention has shifted and their path has diverged from its original direction. I am not talking about someone committing an egregious sin which disqualifies them from ministry, although that can certainly have a derailing effect. This isn't about the person who falls into sin, but more about the person who gets distracted and realizes they are no longer heading toward their goal.
We set out to pursue a great aim, and along the way, we get caught up in pursuing intermediary goals -what was intended to be a step along the path becomes a perch on which we sit. Stuck on a ridge, we fail to see the precipice we had set out to climb because these intermediary goals actually begin to undermine the true goal. This is never intentional and often goes unnoticed.
When intermediate goals undermine THE goal
When intermediary goals become THE goal, our tactics can begin to undermine the ultimate goal we originally set out to accomplish. The potential scenarios are innumerable, but allow me to illustrate a few.
If we want to help more and more people become mature followers of Jesus, we might set an intermediate goal of getting people into our church building. This is based on the conviction that true Christian fellowship is an important way God draws people to Himself. Eventually, we might work so hard to get people into the building, the strategies we use to accomplish that goal undermines the true goal of creating mature followers of Jesus.
Here is another scenario. We want to expand our ministry in order to bring glory to God and help others grow, so we set an intermediary goal of developing a social media presence. We begin to post, share, like and more, but eventually, the intermediary goal of getting more followers becomes THE goal, and along the way the strategies we employ undermine the ultimate goal of growing our ministry in order to bring glory to God.
A third example comes when we want to know God more, so we endeavor to increase our Bible reading. The goal of reading our Bible more is in the interest of the greater aim, knowing God more. In order to do that, we develop a plan designed to help us read more. Along the way, we become a slave to the plan. Our goal has become checking off the box more than knowing God. There is no discernible fruit produced or joy experienced. The true aim of knowing God was undermined by our slavery to the plan.
Safeguard the true goal
You have likely experienced or observed one of the three examples used to illustrate the problem. You might be in the middle of one right now. Here are five ways you can safeguard the true goal from being held captive by the intermediate goal.
1. Remind yourself of the true goal
Simple. Have a clearly stated vision and then remind yourself often. When considering church ministry, we really all have the same goal - to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them (Mt 28:19-20). Like Paul, we want to present our people mature in Christ (Col 1:28). As we toil after this aim, we must always continue to remind ourselves of that primary goal. We might state the goal differently, we might bring our own contextual nuance to how we communicate this aim, but every church should have the same ultimate goal. In the interest of not being led astray by the mile markers on the way to our destination, we must always continue to remind ourselves of the ultimate aim.
2. Ensure intermediary goals align
Like markers on the bowling lane, our intermediate goals need to be aligned with the final aim. If they are not going to serve the ultimate purpose, then we should not allow these short-term goals to get in the way. Ask yourself, does this actually move me forward in the direction I want to go? If so, how? Further, we need to be aware of how our intermediate goals can get us off the rails. Where are the potential pitfalls? If we want to always be moving toward the true aim of making mature disciples, then we need to ensure that everything we do serves that ultimate goal.
3. Don't fall prey to analysis paralysis
In an effort to develop the most sophisticated strategies and ministry plans, we can bury ourselves under a mountain of complexity. As we over analyze, we can paralyze our work and limit our momentum. Planning is good. Intentionality is good. Strategy and models and analytics are all great, but only when they are actually serving the goal. Don't fall prey to analysis paralysis.
4. Don't fix the problem with the same problem
Commonly, we fix problems using the same strategies that got us into trouble in the first place. When you become aware of how you might have gotten sidetracked with some of your intermediate goals, don't try to remedy the problem with a quick fix. You may find yourself in the same place six months later. Rarely do quick fixes and easy solutions make a situation better. Step back and do it right. Patiently pursue the true goal.
5. Remember who actually accomplishes the goal
In the end, we need to know who is the author of our lives. You and I have the great privilege of participating in God's mission to draw worshipers to Himself, but we need to remember that we are participants, and he is the great mission-accomplisher. Rather than begin with your own plans, begin with prayer. Acknowledge that God is in control. God accomplishes the mission. We get to participate. Once we get that correct in our heads and hearts, then we can pursue our work with excellence, remembering that it is all done by God's poet and for God's glory.