What is success in pastoral ministry? We often judge ministerial success by the same standards generally used in the secular world. Business, for example, measures success in terms of heightened production, more extensive operations, larger profits, more imposing organization, and staffing. Bigger, better, and higher positions are touted as marks of a successful person.
After serving the church as a pastor for some 25 years, I have come to identify a similar philosophy in the church, one by which we tend, almost unconsciously, to define success in ministry. Such a philosophy has encouraged us to believe that higher production (more baptisms), bigger operations (larger and more modern church facilities), larger organizations and staffs (senior pastor of large multi-staff congregation), or becoming a CEO (conference president) are the criteria by which we define success in ministry.
Promotion of success criteria
These success criteria might often be upheld when we bring very successful pastors to ministers' meetings. If this is done simply to show the attendees how to grow a bigger church, raise more dollars, or be more impressive, we will have, consciously or not, played into the hands of these secular definitions of what makes for "success" in ministry.
In short, in such cases a simple message is broadcast: This is what success is and this is how to achieve it. After such meetings, one can come away feeling somewhat over whelmed and even a little defeated, and perhaps not quite know why. After all, it has just been demonstrated what success really is. If, after several years of ministry, my church has failed to become a "super" church with a multi-member staff, then I as a pastor must be something of a failure.
A further implication is almost inescapable for some . . . "I am not close to God. If as a pastor I were closer to God and more connected to Him, my church would grow phenomenally. There must be something wrong between God and me ... or simply something wrong with me, period."
Another look at success criteria
The book of Acts reveals that God chose certain individuals to be used in more dramatic ways than others. While Peter and John are mentioned frequently, the other disciples are not; yet I am certain they too were faith fully serving their Lord, just as the more frequently mentioned apostles were.
Just because some disciples were not mentioned as being used in dazzling ways does not mean that they were less successful in their service, or within the sphere to which God had called them. Each disciple had a purpose in God's plan for the advancement of the gospel. As they fulfilled that plan, they were successfully ministering for their Lord.
It might appear that perhaps Peter, John, and Paul were doing more for the Lord than the other disciples. Peter saw thousands accept Christ as a result of his ministry, 3,000 following one sermon. We don't read of James having such phenomenal success in soul winning. However, we do read of him mediating a very important meeting dealing with an issue that could have divided the early church (Acts 15).
It appears that God did not call Peter, John, or Paul to be such crisis mediators, even though Peter and Paul did play important roles at the Jerusalem Council. Nevertheless, this leading mediation function was James's mission from God, and not the mission of the other disciples.
When we consider Paul's ministry, it would seem that he influenced more people to accept Christ than any of the original apostles. He took the gospel to the then known world. He raised many churches in several countries. But does this mean that he was more successful than others? No. He was simply fulfilling the ministry God called him to do; a ministry different from the ones God had called the others to perform.
We see the same varied ministries in the lives of the original seven deacons. Philip was called to be an evangelist. We read of some of his service for the Lord in Acts 8. Stephen became a marvelous expounder of God's Word. God performed "great wonders and miracles among the people" through Stephen (Acts 6:8). We don't read of such a marvelous ministry being done by the majority of the deacons, the remaining five.
Does this mean that Stephen and Philip were more successful than the others? No, no one would conclude such a thing. Again, each of the deacons was called to do a specific ministry, and as long as they were fulfilling the purpose God called them to, they were a success. Yet in human eyes, some appeared to be more successful than others.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the analogy of the human body to describe the various functions of the members of the church. Each member or part of the human body has a function. Some parts of the body function in a more visible way than others do. Some members of the body are considered less significant than others. The heart would be considered more important than the appendix.
The important point is that each member and organ has a function whether seen or not, and whether considered important or not. When observing the human body, it is easy to judge the function of a given part and to determine if that member is functioning successfully. In the spiritual body of Christ (the church), it is much more difficult to make such assessments.
In every case, it depends on our criteria for success.
This brings us back to the beginning of this article. If we decide that success means that a pastor baptizes 50 people every year, the church grows by 100 percent each year, the tithe increases by 100 percent each year, and the church plants a new con gregation every three years, then if that is not happening, the pastor appears to be unsuccessful in our eyes, and probably in his or her own eyes also.
However, what if God does not call each pastor to do exactly the same kind of ministry as every other pastor? What if God calls some to be a Peter, another a John, another a James, another a Paul, and another a Bartholomew? The point is clear.
I believe God calls pastors to fulfill a specific mission in their ministry. I also believe the New Testament clear ly illustrates this through the ministries of the various individuals mentioned. What that mission is will become clearer as each pastor seeks to know God's call to him or her, and as time and circumstances make such things clearer.
The results of each pastor will vary widely. The important thing is that pastors keep their hands in the hand of God, continue to be filled with the Spirit, yield to the Spirit's leading, and do their best to serve God faith fully where they are.
An illustration of success
In a little book titled, They Found the Secret, V. Raymond Edman gives brief life sketches of men and women over the past couple centuries, and their experience in finding God's mission for them in their life. One individual, Samuel Logan Brengle, clearly illustrates the premise of this article.
He accepted Christ at a young age and became a circuit preacher in the Northwestern Indiana Methodist Conference in the United States. After two years, he attended a seminary in Boston.
Brengle's "ambition was to be a great preacher; and he sought the power of the Holy Spirit to that end. He rationalized that a great preacher would do more for the glory of God than one who was mediocre.
"Finally, in utter desperation, he prayed, 'Lord, I want to be an eloquent preacher, but if by stammering and stuttering I can bring greater glory to Thee than by eloquence, then let me stammer and stutter.'"1
As Brengle continued to seek a clos er experience with his Lord, God led him to understand the grace of Christ more fully. Through God's leading, he experienced the Holy Spirit's outpouring in his life and ministry.
He describes his experience with the words: '"It was an unutterable rev elation. It was a heaven of love that came into my heart. My soul melted like wax before fire. I sobbed and sobbed. I loathed myself that I had ever sinned against Him or doubted Him or lived for myself and not for His glory. Every ambition for self was now gone. The pure flame of love burned it like a blazing fire would burn a moth.'"2
In time the euphoria of his initial Spirit infilling subsided. Brengle wrote: "Tn time, God withdrew some thing of the tremendous emotional feelings. He taught me I had to live by my faith and not by my emotions...He showed me that I must learn to trust Him, to have confidence in His unfailing love and devotion, regard less of how I felt.'"3
Edman describes Brengle's experience: "And what resulted from the continuance of that crisis experience of cleansing and the filling of God's Spirit? Brengle's preaching changed perceptibly. Before this he had preached for human appreciation, now alone for the exaltation of the Savior. He preached to disturb and not to please. The reaction of his audiences was conviction of sin rather than commendation of the preacher."4
God led Brengle into a totally different direction of ministry: "The deliverance from pride and ambition for ecclesiastical promotion led him into untrodden pathways of service. From the preferment and security of Methodism he was called into the ranks of the Salvation Army when that organization was little known and not highly regarded."5 In human eyes such a move would be considered a real demotion.
Brengle's pride having been subdued, God led him to appointments with the Salvation Army that were in small places and new assignments. None of these compared to what he could have had if he had stayed serving God in a more conventional way.
Edman describes one of Brengle's experiences with these words: "When stationed in Danbury, Connecticut, he led his little contingent of faithful ones, consisting of a lame lieutenant, a big Negro, and a little hunchbacked girl, to a street meeting to the tune of 'We're the Army that Shall Conquer!' Suddenly he came abreast of a large and imposing . . . church and for a moment red hot were the thoughts that burned through his soul, Fool, you might have been a pastor of a great church like that! But the sting was only for a moment, for the Sanctifier steadied the soldier to obey His orders."6
God blessed Brengle's ministry in the Salvation Army. He was an inspiration to all those he ministered to, and he also authored a collection of articles titled, Helps to Holiness.
To the casual observer, one might conclude that his life of ministry was a failure compared to some of his previous colleagues, who went on to pastor large congregations and were promoted to administrative positions in their church organizations.
However, in God's sight Brengle was a success. He had fulfilled the purpose for which God had called him.
God has indeed called some to per form what we generally consider to be "very successful" ministries. On the other hand, He has called others to perform "less successful" ministries, from a human perspective, that is.
If this is true, then "super successful" pastors and "less successful" pastors, by our reformulated criteria, may both be "equally successful" according to God's criteria of success for them. If they have done their best to fulfill the mission God has placed before them, they are successful.
This article is by no means an excuse to be lazy. I believe the criteria for success on a personal level is simple. We must constantly maintain a meaningful study and prayer life, daily renewing our commitment to Christ. We must seek the baptism of God's Spirit every day with a willingness to yield to His leading personally and professionally.
Our goal must be to have an experience like that of Paul: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). Then no matter how we are judged by human criteria, we will be a success by God's standard. We will be fulfilling the mission He has called us to fulfill. Every min istry has a purpose. We are successful when we fulfill that purpose.
1 V. Raymond Edman, They Found the Secret (Grand Rapids, Mich-: Zondervan Pub. House, 1984), 26.
2 Ibid., 29.
3 Ibid., 29, 30.
4 Ibid., 30.
6 Ibid., 34.