Defining Success in Pastoral Ministry
“When Our Definition of Success Becomes Misguided”
By Glenn Daman
Perhaps our greatest fear in ministry is failure. We enter ministry with a deep sense of responsibility where we feel the weight of eternity resting upon our shoulders. We fear failure because we fear the eternal consequences in the lives of people. Unlike any other job, where failure has temporal effects, in ministry, our calling has eternal implications. We are not just called to help people deal with psychological or physical problems (such as a psychologist or doctor); our task goes to the very core of people’s identity and being. We are called to change the eternal destiny of people. This is our commission and duty, and when we fail (or perceive we failed), we not only feel the burden of our shortcomings but the guilt that comes with the sense that our failure may affect people’s eternal destiny. Thus, it is not surprising that only 1 out of 10 pastors will not remain in ministry long enough to reach retirement (For further discussion on why pastors are leaving the ministry and how our perspective distorts our view of ministry see, “When Shepherds Weep” published by Lexham Press). We fear failure because of what is at stake, and the cost is so great.
However, understanding what it truly means to be successful in ministry becomes elusive in our quest for success. Our desire to impact God’s eternal program drives us to church, but it ultimately drives us out of ministry as we continually pursue what we never seem to be able to obtain. But the problem is not our desire for success but our definition of success. When we have a faulty view of success, it clouds our perspective and causes us to place upon our shoulders responsibilities that God did not intend.
When we are doing the work God called us to accomplish, he will provide us with the skills to perform the task and give us the tools and resources to achieve his purpose. Success is within our grasp because God supplies us with the strength, wisdom, resources, abilities, and time to fulfill his calling. Yet, we struggle in ministry because we lack clarity in our understanding of what our task is. Is it to develop and run programs? Is it to lead the church to achieve some grand organizational vision? Is it to lead the church in numerical growth? In our quest to be successful in ministry, we are uncertain what success truly is. This confusion not only leads us to pursue what God did not have in mind, nor did he equip us to achieve; it also distorts our understanding of God, the church, and even ourselves.
A misguided understanding of success distorts our view of God.
When we develop a faulty view of success, we have set ourselves up for failure. Pursing the wrong measure of ministry results in the pursuit of not only what God does not equip us to perform, but it also moves us outside of God redemptive plan for our ministry. This leads to a crisis in our relationship with God. We feel called to a task that we are not equipped or empowered to execute. Such was the case of Jeremiah when he failed to grasp what God was seeking to accomplish. Jeremiah felt his calling was to lead the people of Israel in a massive revival resulting in the nation returning to the covenant. When people did not respond to his message, Jeremiah became angry and accusatory toward God. Instead of God being loving and faithful, Jeremiah saw God as deceptive and capricious. Instead of his message bringing revival, Jeremiah was detested by the people. Jeremiah felt that God had abandoned him. This often happens to us. When our expectations are not met, when it seems as if our ministry fails to measure up to the success we dreamed about when going through Bible College or Seminary, our vision of God becomes clouded and distorted. We question God’s faithfulness, and we doubt his word. The words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” becomes a mockery as we feel inadequate to attain the benchmarks of success we envisioned.
A misguided understanding of success distorts our view of the church.
One of the primary reasons pastors leave the church is that the pastor feels the congregation is unwilling to embrace their ministry's vision. As a result, we blame them for our failure. We view them as unmotivated and apathetic to the great commission. But we never stop and question whether or not we have the right vision. Instead, we become frustrated with the church because we see them as the cause of our failure. We begin to think that we have a congregation that is similar to Ezekiel’s and Jeremiah’s.
Consequently, we leave the church. If the church hinders our success, the only alternative is to leave the church to pursue greener pastures. So we become the very thing we denounce from the pulpit. We become church hoppers. We leave one church after another in search of the church that enables us to become successful. The rural church, in particular, becomes plagued by short-term pastors. What hope is there for success in a church where people are content with the status quo, and we struggle just to maintain the attendance levels of the church? The church my family attended in my youth was 50-60 people, and now 40 years later, it is still around 50 people. While many of the faces have changed, and families have come and gone, attendance is stagnant. How can we be successful in a church like this?
If God has called and equipped us for success, and we cannot achieve that success, then it must result from the sinfulness and hardness of the people's hearts. Instead of seeing people as allies and co-workers in ministry, we start to see them as the hindrance to our ministry. We blame them for not embracing our vision. The church's lack of (numerical) growth is the people's fault, so we become bitter towards them. They become our enemy, so we leave the church, labeling them unspiritual, bound by traditions. However, when we arrive in another church, we soon find them the same way (at least in our thinking). After several such churches, we leave the ministry discouraged and bitter towards the church, never realizing that the issue is the people but the false perspective of success that we were taught and embraced.
A distorted view of success distorts our view of ourselves.
Every day in ministry, I am reminded of my failures and shortcomings. As pastors, we are sinful, flawed individuals who struggle to live the very life we preach. We identify with Paul when he states, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is important to note that Paul uses the present tense rather than the past. Paul was not talking about his former lifestyle when he persecuted the church, but his current condition. At the end of his ministry, he can only affirm his unworthiness to his call. Indeed, we identify with Paul. To serve in pastoral leadership is to live daily with the awareness that we are inherently marred by sin and unworthy of our calling. This is what leads us to discouragement. When our ministry does not meet our expectations and our failures seem to outnumber our success, it is easy to attribute our failure to our sin. When the church is not growing as expected, when our visions remain unrealized, when the church continues to struggle, it is easy to cry “Ichabod” (1 Samuel 4:21). We concluded that God’s glory has not only departed from the church but our ministry. In the end, we question the grace and goodness of God. Success is not only governed by the sovereign hand of a gracious God upon our ministry but is earned and determined by personal merit. We conclude that we will succeed if we pray enough, read the Bible enough, and work hard enough. When it does not happen, then it must be directly connected to our sin. So we leave the ministry defeated and ridden with guilt.
What we fail to grasp, and what Paul realized in 1 Timothy 1:16, is that our ministry and our success in ministry is never based upon our worthiness but upon the mercy and grace of God. If our success is based upon our righteousness, then we are all destined to fail. But God touches our lips with the coals of his altar, and he cleanses and redeems us for his purpose. God did not call Isaiah to be a prophet because Isaiah was worthy. Thus, the order of events recorded in Isiah 6 is critical. Isaiah was not appointed to be a prophet because he was cleansed from his sin; rather, he was cleansed from his sin because God chose him to be a prophet. Likewise, effectiveness in ministry is never about earning God’s favor upon our church but living in light of his grace. It is not trying to achieve his blessing but embracing his mercy and forgiveness.
So if our apparent lack of success is not because of God, the people, or even ourselves, then how do we explain why our ministry seems to flounder in the pool of the ordinary where maintenance rather than (numerical) growth appears to be the order of the day? Why do we remain in obscurity and insignificance rather than rise to the realm of recognition and notoriety? The answer lies in our faulty definition of success. When the industrial revolution swept across the landscape, it not only changed where people lived (thus the transition from rural to urban), it radically shifted our understanding of success. Success was no longer measured by merely doing the task before us (as in an agrarian society). It now became measured by growth and numbers. This infiltrated the church as well, so the mantra became, in the words of William S. Burroughs, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” The challenge was to set more significant visions, achieve larger growth, develop more programs, perform more baptisms, build more buildings, hold more services, establish more satellite campuses…more, more, more. In this pursuit, we never stopped to ask ourselves what it Biblically or culturally driving. Is our definition derived from the Bible or our culture? We reinterpreted Scripture to match the mantra, misquoting verses such as Proverbs 29:18 (where the word vision does not refer to some projection of organizational growth but to the necessity of revelatory truth) and making the initial growth of Acts normative for all churches of all ages even though there was never any such assurances given in Scripture that this would be true. The numerical growth of the gospel and the church's expansion was never a guarantee it would happen in each church. We mistakenly equate numerical growth with spiritual growth. While not mutually exclusive, they are also not necessarily mutually compatible. A numerically growing church may be a declining spiritual church (as we see in churches in the book of Revelation). A numerically growing church may be growing spiritually (as the church of Philadelphia). Christ continually reminds us that his kingdom and his measure of success are radically different than the world’s perspective (see Matthew 18:1-6; 20;16, 24-28). But before we turn to a biblical view of success, we must not only eradicate our faulty opinions of a successful pastor (see the previous article on “Common Myths of Leadership”), we must also eliminate our inaccurate views that have plagued our thinking. This we will do in part two: “Inadequate Views of a Successful Church.”