The Downside of Being a Goal-Setter

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I’ve been a goal-setter for as long as I can remember. Whenever I got a “B” on my report card, my dad and I would sit down and come up with a plan for getting an “A” the next time. And when my batting average fell below 300 on my middle school baseball team, we would spend extra time hitting balls in the batting cage.

After I gave my life to Christ at age 18, I found Bible passages that seemed to endorse my enthusiastic approach to goal-setting. I quickly embraced Paul’s statement about forgetting the successes of the past and pressing on toward a calling that was always “upward” (Philippians 3:3-14).

I also was influenced by motivational speakers and self-help gurus who warned that “If you don’t set a goal, you will hit it every time,” and “People don’t plan to fail, they just fail to plan.”

But now, at this advanced stage in my life, I’m rethinking my approach to goal-setting. I find myself disregarding the promotional emails I receive every from authors wanting to sell me on their “revolutionary” new approaches to better goal-setting.

Maybe I’m just feeling too tired for all of this goal-setting hype. But some recent events in the lives of other people have also given me quite a wakeup call. Could it be that my goal-setting approach has been off-balance all these years?

When Perry Noble was removed as pastor of New Spring Church because of alcohol problems, some of the “back story” really caught my attention. Perry clearly was an amazing goal-setter, and this helped to make him wildly successful. His church was one of the largest in the country, with 30,000 people over 17 cities.

Yet it turns out that Perry wasn’t satisfied by this incredible achievement. In fact, he wasn’t even close to his ultimate goal of having a following of “100,000 or more.”

Wow. A goal for New Spring to grow to “100,000 people or more.” This was goal-setting on steroids. Although I’ve tended to be driven by ever-higher goals, I’ve never driven myself anywhere near this extent.

A friend pointed out to me that Perry Noble probably wouldn’t have reached 30,000 members in his church if he hadn’t aimed at 100,000. Perhaps so. But I’m wondering if he also wouldn’t have had a problem with alcohol…

So I’m working on a new approach to setting goals. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts for your consideration:

  1. Make sure you involve God in setting your goals. A few years ago, one of my divorced friends set a goal of “finding a new wife in the next 12 months.” Although I’m sure his intentions were good, the result wasn’t. He should have spent more time consulting with the Lord before setting such an audacious goal.
  2. Make sure you’re looking to God to help you reach your goal. Even if you have a correct, God-given objective, you’ll end up frustrated if you try to attain the goal through your own strength and ingenuity. The Lord not only wants to show you His will, but He also wants to work through you to accomplish that goal (Philippians 2:13).
  3. See your goal through the dual lenses of quantity and quality. Numerical goals are important, but too many leaders and churches judge their success only on the basis of numbers. Hey, wouldn’t you tend to feel successful if your church had 30,000 people, like Perry Noble’s? Yet Jesus saw things much differently. Knowing that the crowds would come and go, His central objectives were to (1) do the Father’s will and (2) pour His life into some true disciples (John 8:29, John 6:60-71). Even after three years of Jesus’ ministry, only 120 people showed up for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
  4. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others. If you compare your church to the size of Perry Noble’s, you will undoubtedly get depressed. No wonder the Bible warns us against comparing ourselves with others (2 Corinthians 10:12). Listen to me on this: If you’ve been faithful, you’ve been successful. But even as I encourage you on this profound truth, I know there will be many times when I’ll need people like you to remind me to apply this principle to my own life.
  5. Healthy things grow, but they don’t grow by striving. I’ve visited many churches that have done well in gaining numbers, but there’s clearly a spirit of “striving” in the air. The pastor, staff, and volunteers all seem entirely exhausted and burnt out—a symptom that they’ve achieved their objectives with self-effort rather than abiding in Christ and waiting on the wind of His Spirit (John 15:1-5, Isaiah 40:28-31).

So, I wish you happy goal-setting, my friend. But don’t forget that the Father loves you, no matter what your earthly achievements may be (Matthew 3:16-17). Remember to cease striving, always recognizing that He’s God and you’re not (Psalm 46:10). And if, like Perry Noble, you’re dealing with personal issues behind the scenes, take time to disengage from the rat race. Get the help you need so you can finish well.

One more thing…

My son Ben is finishing his final college class this week. The past few years, I’ve been telling him not to worry about grades. “Just shoot for a ‘C’ Ben!” I regularly say.

Despite my encouragement not to sweat the grades, Ben has been getting “A’s” lately. He tells me goal-setting is a good thing, and perhaps he’s right. But I’m really not so sure anymore.

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10 thoughts on “The Downside of Being a Goal-Setter

  1. I’ve wished I could be better at goal setting Jim. I have a daughter who was very driven. She has succeeded in climbing some significant ladders in her young 30 years. However, I believe she would agree, there was not always balance which left some regrets. I think balance and season’s are likely big players in goal setting successfully. Being highly relationally motivated rather than goal motivated has some issues on the other side of the coin. Whichever side one is on- your insight is excellent in it’s approach and is sound wisdom for all.

  2. Great blog piece! I especially appreciated #4, the faithful/successful part. True! Do you know that it took me 8 yrs. to write my book, Harvest Fields? I thought I’d never get there.

    I identified with # 5 also. Something that helps bring me balance is remembering that His yoke is easy and burden is light. When life feels crazy, it’s time to slow down!

    Thanks, Jim.
    Warmly, Judy

  3. Jim,

    I seem to remember a passage where Jesus attacks goal setting. A farmer said, “My barns are too little to hold my crops. Tomorrow I will build a bigger barn”. Jesus said, “That is foolish”! You will not live to enjoy it!”

    I do not know Brother Noble, but my Counseling practice is full of these kinds of Pastors. My Psych Hospital had many ministers like him. Driven, anxious, filled with false guilt and shame. All had a god that had no mercy, no affirmations, and endless demands.

    I tell them, “If I had a god like that I too would find some dope or sex or food to fill the gap of perfection”. My God is way bigger than 100,000 members. But it is up to Him where they attend or even attend anywhere. People that attend those churches are worse off than staying at home and praying.

    The “Name it and Claim it” teaching is evil!

    Have Perry to call me. I can offer him a real God.

    • You’ve seen it all, Gary. When the curtain is pulled back, we all tend to look like the Wizard of Oz, trying to keep control with our light and sound show. May God help us to find His rest and peace, abiding in Him instead of striving and conniving.

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