Successful or Useful?

Successful or Useful?

Success is attractive. It is a “suitcase” word which is packed with different content by those who use it but its general use is with a reference to us – how others and society perceive us.

As the job of theological educator has become professionalised, so has the temptation to think about personal success. With the training colleges drawing closer to academia in society and often gaining accreditation, our colleges are increasingly looking like two storey houses, with the bottom floor the old Christian training college and the top floor, built on more recently, of secular higher education architecture. And it is the top floor which is increasingly setting the attitudes for those living and working in the house. Professionalism is fine as a commitment to skilful work, but when it holds out to us a “career” in which we can succeed or the status of a social class to which we can belong – success in the world – then it is a far cry from the apostles who were happy to be counted as the “scum of the earth” so long as they were useful.

Usefulness has a different focus, outside of ourselves, on others – not what they think of us but how they benefit from us.

I know the argument that the desire for usefulness is also selfish because it imparts significance to our lives. This is often present when we try to be useful but all our actions arise from a bundle of motives and our job is to keep the right ones on top. The fact remains that the desire for success has a focus primarily for ourselves and usefulness primarily for others.

For the theological teacher, usefulness is an ellipse, formed around two foci – usefulness to God and usefulness to our students. If this sounds too individual, we can add usefulness to the college but it is the duty of leadership to ensure that usefulness to God and the students coincides with usefulness to the college. If it manifestly does not, it is hard to keep a happy staff. To be useful to God is to ensure that our calling is exercised in such a way that it is of maximum impact for the kingdom. This involves a number of careful decisions as to how and where we exercise our ministry of teaching, which we may not yet have consciously taken.

To be useful to our students is also not a straightforward matter. It is certainly more than giving them good information about theologians and their views so they can pass exams. At its best, it is teaching them how to live as Christian human beings and as ministers of the gospel in a complicated world – by word, example and humble companionship.

I hope you found this useful.

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4 Comments on “Successful or Useful?”

  1. Perry Shaw Says:

    A powerful challenge. We are all tempted by the sin of Adam and Babel – to make a name for ourselves – and it took the Cross and Resurrection to teach the disciples the mean of kenotic leadership. To find a heart of service in the competitiveness of academia is a huge challenge. Thank you for this timely reminder Graham.

  2. Campbell Hamilton Says:

    As usual Graham you are both succesful, in terms of communicating trends and potential, and useful in terms of stimulating thought on the whole endeavour that has come to be known as theological education.

    Yet again you sharpen our fous with practically the last thing yoy say! I wonder, at what point did the impartation and evaluation of knowledge usurp the place of instilling an inspirational life of servanthood and joy in Christ? At which point did the aims of discipleship find themselves replaced by an aim of satisfying accreditors and hitting the right grades to demonstrate mastery of a discipline? Surely the humble life of a mastered disciple explodes with the radiated brilliance of a life in Christ in ways that the mere hitting of academic targets never can. All of us who teach, or who have taught, have known students who have struggled academically but who have been light years ahead of the class, and, perhaps, even us, in terms of knowing Jesus. Give me the choice to prepare A grade students or humble and joyful disciples and I know which one I would choose. There is something corrosive to the spirit to have to disappoint a student with a lower grade than he or she hoped for for mere academic reasons, and, contrarily, something hugely fulfilling to watch a disicple soar in the Spirit.


  3. Hetty Says:

    Wonderful explanation of facts aivalable here.

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