Measuring the pastor's success

Are baptisms and church attendance adequate measures of success for a pastor? Or should we be looking for something else?

Jay Gallimore is president of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Lansing, Michigan.

How should we measure a pastor's success? The question is important enough to have been the subject of an Adventist Review editorial.1 In that editorial Myron Widmer suggested the following reasons that the church should replace the old yardstick of baptisms as the prime measure of a pastor's success: "It invites the creation of a false sense of achievement. ... It opens the door to contentment.... It could lead to the misdirection of a church's efforts [focusing the church's efforts on evangelism to the exclusion of nurture]."2 Widmer concluded his editorial by recommending that we accept the number attending church as the prime measure.

Certainly Widmer's concerns are sincere and have some validity. However, would substituting church attendance in place of baptisms really solve the problems? Would it not be trading one numbers game for another? Some evangelical churches have already played this one with gusto. Buses pick up scores of kids, rewarding them en route with candy. Pastors entice people by offering fantastic services complete with rock music, dancing, bands, doughnuts, "Christian" politics, and so forth. They offer those attending all kinds of formulas for personal success from positive thinking to ecstatic spiritual encounters. But do their high attendance figures indicate real spiritual success? Are they leading people into genuine biblical worship?

Again and again I have heard colleagues both young and old ask, "What do the conference and my church really want?" It seems we all make annual pilgrimages to the conference office for an evaluation. Some churches even get into the act and review their pastors yearly. Of course, the members' view of the pastor's success may depend on their perspective. Those who are sick may judge the pastor successful who visits them; those whom the pastor has converted will judge him or her successful; those who have children of Pathfinder age will approve of the pastor who starts a Pathfinder Club—the list gets quite long, as each pastor knows.

In the midst of all the confusion as to what constitutes a successful ministry, some pastors throw up their hands and find another occupation. Others focus their efforts on the two or three things that they do really well and move on when the things they don't do well catch up with them. Many simply work, pray, hope, rejoice—and weep.

What is success in ministry? Can we just pick out one element, such as baptism or attendance, and calculate a minister's success by his or her attainments in terms of that element? That's the temptation in this computer age, which tries to fit everyone and everything onto a spreadsheet. But when I see pastors who baptize many people but show no in crease in church attendance, or pastors who report a great increase in church attendance but who have few baptisms, I wonder about the yardsticks. Neither of these indicators alone or together will give a true picture of success. Nor will they give the pastor the kernel around which to build his ministry.

We need a definition that is not distorted by our own narrow, parochial desires, a clear definition supported by the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy. When we have arrived at such a definition, we should make sure that it permeates all levels of church government.

One afternoon in a Northwest Minis tries Training Center class on church management, a pastor asked, "What should my goal be?" He continued, "I've gotten many things from these classes, but I wish I could go away with my hand wrapped around that." I knew he had asked the crucial question. Leaving it only partially answered until the next day gave me some time to think. The following day I wrote the word goal on the blackboard and shared with the class my conviction: the pastor's goal should be to disciple the church into Christlikeness.

In the gospel commission Jesus indicates that discipling is of primary importance: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go there fore, and make disciples" (Matt. 28:18, 19).3 Paul adds his weight to this approach when he says, "We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and under standing, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work" (Col. 1:9, 10), In his general letters Peter wrote: "Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves" (1 Peter 1:15). And: "He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). And John writes: "Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies him self, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:3).

We exist to disciple people to become like Christ. The life of Christ is to be come the life of the church. Ellen White wrote that, among Christ's followers at the time of Pentecost, "one interest prevailed; one subject of emulation swallowed up all others. The ambition of the believers was to reveal the likeness of Christ's character and to labor for the enlargement of His kingdom."4 "As they [Christ's disciples] meditated upon His pure, holy life they felt that no toil would be too hard, no sacrifice too great, if only they could bear witness in their lives to the loveliness of Christ's character."5

How do we define practical, functional Christlikeness? It seems to me that three activities characterized Jesus' life: He prayed, He bore fruitful witness of His Father's love, and He shepherded His Father's sheep.

While not using the same terminology, Ellen White characterized the work of the minister in a similar way. Speaking of the faithful minister, she wrote: "Those who hear him know that he has drawn near to God in fervent, effectual prayer."6 And she wrote: "The conversion of sinners and their sanctification through the truth is the strongest proof a minister can have that God has called him to the ministry."7 Conversion and sanctification of sinners are other terms for witnessing and nurture. I can't think of anything that should go on in my church that wouldn't fit within one of these three categories.

Flowering plants come in many shapes and sizes, but they have one thing in common they all bloom. Similarly, while churches differ, they must all produce the bloom of Christlikeness in their members. There is plenty of room for variety in the methods churches use to disciple Christlikeness, but they must ever keep this goal in mind. Pastors and church boards may find the three characteristics of Christlikeness I have set forth helpful in developing plans for action. Conferences might use these characteristics in discussing with pastors how effectively they are working for Christ. Maybe church educators and leaders could develop them as a barometer to test their success in carrying out a Christlike ministry.

As a pastor, it is easy for me to focus on many fine projects and in the process neglect the weightier matters praying, witnessing, nurturing. We might rewrite Jesus' counsel this way: "Pastors, seek ye first genuine Christlikeness for your churches, and all these statistics baptisms and church attendance will be added, not only on computer paper, but in the book of life." We must accept as our goal nothing less than discipling Christlikeness. Accepting anything short of this means losing our mission and perspective.

Now, back to our baptismal and attendance goals. Is there any place for them? The Bible goes to the trouble of telling us how many were baptized at Pentecost. In evaluating what is going on in my own ministry, church attendance and baptisms are very important numbers. The issue should never be whether we should use them, but rather, how we use them. If numbers are taken out of the setting of an ultimate goal of developing Christlikeness, they will skew the vision. They will yield misleading readings.

Have the many who would abandon all indicators—including baptisms and church attendance—caught the vision of Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit? Jesus was very clear when He said that if His disciples would abide in Him, they would bear much fruit that would glorify the Father. Not only would they bear much fruit, but the fruit would endure.

Isn't it time to start dreaming, planning, praying, and working to encourage our members to grow in Christlikeness? While it may seem to be an impossible goal, Scripture assures us that someday Christ's bride will be without spot or wrinkle, ready to meet Him. He will complete that work in His people. But we must be about His business by cooperating with Him in developing His characteristics in our own lives and discipling those in His church.

1. Myron Widmer, "Baptisms Sign of Success?" Adventist Review, Nov. 13, 1986, p. 4.

2. Ibid.

3. All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.

4. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 48.

5. Ibid., p. 36.

6. Ibid., p. 329.

7. Ibid., p. 328.

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Jay Gallimore is president of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Lansing, Michigan.

May 1990

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