Service Beyond Significance

Service Beyond Significance

I have an old and dear friend who will turn 86 before the end of this month. From time to time, he wonders if and how his life has made a difference.

He never married or had children, so he has no wife or children around to assure him – in either word or deed – that his life has mattered.

He was a professor of mine and an incredible presence on our college campus back in the tumultuous sixties, so I can say without reservation that his life has made a huge and wonderful difference in my own.

But he still wonders.

Blessed with the feedback of a loving spouse of 50-plus years, five adult children, their spouses and 16 grandchildren, I confess that I wonder much less than my friend does. For better or worse, I am usually acutely aware of my impact on their lives, at least at the moment. And sometimes they even point to longer-term effects they think I have had on their development. 

It happened in Mexico last fall when my five children, their spouses and their 16 children joined my wife and I to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. My youngest daughter heard I was interested in taking a nap and she asked if her three-year-old could join me before she had a meltdown. I was happy to be of service.

Little Maya was fidgety at first, but after I rubbed her back for a while she started to drift off. Then, just before she lost consciousness, she reached her hand out to touch my cheek and said, “I wuv you, Grandpa.” When I shared the moment with my kids after our naps, I told them: “I’ve had my will changed; Maya gets everything.”

What can a three-year-old know about love? And yet, her words melted my heart. She knows what she feels. And what she feels is surely contagious, even life-giving. In the main my life has been filled with a lot of loving affirmation. Yet from time to time, like my friend, I wonder too. What does my life mean? Does it matter at all?

For many of us – perhaps all of us at some time in our lives – we concern ourselves with “success,” whatever that means.  In our culture it often it means achieving wealth and fame. It can become a life-consuming game for us. How do we know we are winning? We look around to see if we are doing better than those around us. Do I have more? Can I flaunt more?

One of the problems with this approach to living a meaningful life is that our neighbors become “the competition.” Life itself becomes all about competing – about getting more money and more renown with each passing day. In this context, our drive for success can become insatiable. We are never satisfied.

As one cynic summed up this lifestyle: “The one with the most toys when they die wins.”

Sometimes we seek refuge from an obsessive drive for success by pursuing significance instead. This pursuit can lead us down two very different paths. One path has us focusing on pleasing God. But another is just the pursuit of personal success using different symbols. It finds us seeking recognition wherever and from whomever we can find it.

We want to be good at something. More than that, we want to be known for being good at it. We want our praises sung far and wide. We want our deep love for ourselves affirmed again and again. It’s all about me.

Christian faith can liberate us from self-obsession, whether it’s expressed in a relentless pursuit of personal success or public significance. The challenge is to put first things first. And Jesus shows us the way. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark we read of Him being asked which of the commandments is the greatest.

Jesus gives the man more than he asked for: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Putting God first -- really loving Him with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind – and keeping Him in that place of ultimate prominence is an incredible challenge for me, and I daresay probably for many of us. But to the extent we can do that, we are liberated from having to justify ourselves and the meaning of our lives.

We are here – alive – because God wills it. It pleases Him. Given that, all we have to be is grateful. All we want to do is to love Him back. Treating our neighbor as just as important as we are is the way we do that. We can requite God’s unconditional and unlimited love for us by loving and serving others. What an opportunity!

all we have to be is grateful

From that perspective, we can accept the fact that ultimately determining the value of our lives is above our pay grade.

To illustrate this point, I shared with my friend an incident from my own life that has made me resolutely humble about measuring my own life’s impact on anyone else ever.

Many years after I had left a place of employment in another state where I had been engaged for a few years, an envelope arrived from that village with a personal note inside. At the time I was certain that I knew everyone who worked for my employer, without regard for what department they might have been in or what work they might have been doing.

The author explained that the purpose of her note was to thank me for the help I had given her in learning how to be a photographer. She said she had since been blessed to travel pretty much around the world and to take photographs that she now cherished to refresh her memories of her adventures.

She was writing, she explained, because she realized how much my time and attention decades ago had contributed to her ability to take those special photos, and she just wanted to acknowledge her debt and her gratitude.

I was stunned – and not just at her heartfelt expression of gratitude after so many years. I was stunned because I had no memory of any person by her name, much less having helped her learn photography.

Whatever impact I had on her life, I was completely unaware of it until she wrote to me across so many decades of ignorance. The lesson for me has been that in this life we can never know in any comprehensive sense how we have affected and perhaps even helped shape the lives of others. That is, quite simply, above our pay grade.

What we are left with are countless opportunities to help, to serve, to contribute to the development and betterment of others – some intimates, others strangers. We can step up ... or we can step by. But we cannot keep any kind of accurate score because we are only dimly aware of the opportunities that have occurred, much less our own responses to them.

In the leadership training programs I facilitate, we talk about how leadership is not a choice. People lead even when they aren’t aware of the impact they are having. Helping a woman learn photography many years ago is one such positive instance in my life. No doubt there are many more negative ones. Some of them I am aware of. Others, thankfully, people have not bothered to share with me. That’s why I ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy at least once a day. With that, my life may amount to something that He appreciates.

People lead even when they aren’t aware of the impact 

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalms 136:1)



Read more like this: 

Rules of Engagement: Acting and Reacting Like Jesus (Blog)

Make Your Mark (Blog)

Leading By Understanding and Valuing Others (Podcast)



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Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.