When I worked at a large nonprofit that offered people who lived in poverty life changing opportunities, the work was sometimes frustrating. We had to redefine success. Some people in the community thought our success should be defined as our taking a street prostitute and turning her into a school teacher. The likelihood of that happening was extremely slim! However, when we defined success as the street prostitute admits she has a drug problem, we and she could keep going.

Success was when she wanted to get into drug treatment; success was when she actually entered drug treatment. Then success was completing drug treatment.  Success was being clean one week after drug treatment. And if she failed this time, maybe…maybe the next time would be the time that took. And in the meanwhile, we succeeded when we were able to stay in relationship with her, enjoying her, and we all kept on going.

Of course, there were some days when we wanted to put our own hands around her neck and choke her. That was real, too. Then we’d go behind a closed door and scream, grab another staff person and complain, or leave the building to just get away from everything.

Sometimes we laughed. One woman who was a self-mutilator with a border-line personality cracked us up when she told us about propositioning Santa Claus in the bar at a local hotel!

We might give people names that we’d use for them….in private, of course. “Praise the Lord” was a participant who said “Praise the Lord” every three words. These irreverent words used only amongst the staff were ways to transcend the misery  we encountered every day and maintain our own sanity.

Agency staff members don’t usually share this side of the work because most people would not understand. The community may expect staff members to be all-loving and all-giving. The community might demand that the staffs of helping agencies assuage the community guilt by always BEING THERE and always DOING GOOD. When a staff member buys into that philosophy too much, then he stresses out or she no longer functions as a servant to the very people she wants to help. Sometimes simply showing up is a powerful measure of success.

Some truisms helped:

We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful.

Just as there are many parts in the body, there are many gifts.

I am one person. When lots of us do what we have the skills to do, then change happens.

Things happen when we’re not concerned about who gets the credit.

I am not the messiah. We’ve already had one of those.

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