Paul Prather

Paul Prather: If I've settled, it's for more, not less

Paul Prather, Faith and Values columnist.
Paul Prather, Faith and Values columnist.

Lately I've noticed how my priorities have shifted over the decades.

I used to have some pretty significant ambitions.

Among other things, at various times I wanted to become a best-selling author, earn a fortune in business, appear on The Tonight Show (the real one, hosted by Johnny Carson) and grow a megachurch.

Today, I don't really aspire to anything. I just am who I am. Take it or leave it.

It's not that I've given up on myself. It's more that the things that formerly mattered to me don't anymore.

A skeptic might say I've merely learned to settle.

I prefer to think I've learned what's truly important. Or at least I've learned to identify and accept my limitations, what I'm likely to achieve and what I have essentially no hope of accomplishing — and to be OK with all that.

Back in the 1990s, I nearly made it big as an author, which had always ranked high among my great ambitions.

I landed successive contracts for three books with a national publishing house that constantly had several of its titles on the New York Times best-sellers list.

The publisher touted me as a budding star and pumped money into promoting me. Once, I almost snagged a guest spot on Oprah Winfrey's show, which would have meant instant fame and riches. It was pretty heady.

But there was one glitch: nobody bought my books. The reading public greeted them with a gigantic, collective yawn.

Eventually, my publisher decided to quit pouring good money after bad and dropped me.

This sort of thing isn't unusual. Writing books is a tough, tough business.

The authors who break through to the A-list tend to be those who refuse to take no for an answer. When one publishing door closes, they keep writing, keep submitting, keep knocking, for however long it takes until new doors open.

I simply didn't possess that level of perseverance. I didn't have whatever it took — desperation, single-eyed vision, self-discipline, ego — to keep spending a year writing a book, and another year or two praying to find a new publisher for it, and yet another year flogging it at bookstores and fairs.

Eventually, I gave up on my dream of bestsellerdom.

But through that experience I realized I really did (usually) enjoy writing columns for the newspaper, a craft I'd practiced earlier. And apparently many people (usually) preferred reading those columns to reading my books.

I could knock out a newspaper column in a few hours, be virtually guaranteed it would be published, see it in print within days, get paid for it and have tens of thousands of readers.

Newspaper columnizing offered me what I'm constitutionally cut out for as a writer: instant gratification.

So in a way, that loss became a win. I let go of a thing I wasn't suited for and instead refocused on something that fit me better.

If I had the space here, I could walk you through several other areas in which I've been forced to admit I didn't have what it took to succeed.

The paradox is that learning what I stank at frequently helped me recognize where I was better. Picking my way through disappointments, I sometimes uncovered shiny gifts that delighted me and gave me purpose.

As I mentioned, I once hoped to build a huge church congregation.

I discovered I'm the worst church-growth guy on the planet.

I broke into a panicked sweat at the thought of going door-to-door introducing myself to strangers and urging them to attend my church. For that matter, I didn't even enjoy speaking to large crowds. I hated bureaucracies, too.

Yet through that failure I also recognized I'm quite talented and feel absolutely blissful when I'm leading a Bible study of a dozen or so close friends.

Bottom line: I'm really good in smaller groups. That's my ministerial gift.

So no, I'll never build a megachurch. I had to admit that, wrestle with it.

The blessing of that surrender was it freed me to finally see the beauty of my tiny congregation, a group of people who genuinely value and love me and who I value and love and know as if they were close family.

I've gradually come to look differently at my church-growth failure. From another angle, it's how I recognized my true anointing.

I'm all for the guys who lead megachurches. They're doing what God called them to do. I'm doing what God created me to do. They're pleasing to the Lord. I'm pleasing to the Lord.

Maybe I'm just growing older and less ambitious. I can't say. But a lot of my earlier frustrations stemmed from thinking I needed to become more "successful"—successful in the pattern of others whom I considered successes.

Now, I think success consists of allowing myself to simply be who God created me to be, rather than who he created someone else to be.

I've found that, even though it was painful, learning what I'm awful at has been God's gracious way of helping me identify what I ought to be doing instead.