Five disciplines of highly effective pastors

Ministry need not be trial and error. What do pastors have in common when it comes to success? Take a look!

Timothy W. Ehrlich, DMin, serves as senior pastor for the Oakhurst United Methodist Church, Seminole, Florida, United States.

My doctoral dissertation was titled “The Relationship Between Critical Spiritual Incidences and Their Impact on Pastors’ Calling, Philosophy, and Success in Ministry.” As the title implies, I was hoping my research would establish a link between the number of spiritual experiences a pastor had and their success as a pastor. I expected to find that virtually all highly successful clergy are empowered and energized for ministry by having had dramatic, critical spiritual incidents in which they clearly experienced the presence of God or the action of God (i.e., miraculous events). I also hoped to find a pattern of behavior that these pastors use to bring about or to put themselves in a place where intense spiritual experiences would occur—a pattern that others seeking to be more successful could follow. I was motivated to take on this research project because of my deep concern about the continuing decline of Christianity in America and my desire to uncover information that might help halt or reverse the decline.

The criteria I used in selecting highly successful pastors included full-time clergy who (1) had served churches that grew significantly under their leadership to an attendance mark of over seven hundred, and (2) were recognized as successful leaders in their community and by their denomination.

I was able to obtain the help of Florida United Methodist Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. to find highly successful pastors. He nominated 14 clergy members from the 720 churches of the Florida United Methodist Annual Conference as being the most successful pastors. Five of the selected pastors are published authors; two others serve churches with 3,000 or more in attendance; and another serves the church now attended by the current governor of Florida. By any measurement, these are highly successful pastors. In addition to the 14 highly successful United Methodist Florida clergy members, I also interviewed a group of seven more typical pastors from several Protestant denominations as a reference group.

Thus I began my research, and to my surprise, I did not find the link between spiritual experience and success that I expected to find. But I did find, instead, five disciplines that all of the highly successful pastors have in common.

What follows is what I found.

The problem

The subject of clergy success is really a critical issue because Christianity is on the decline in America, and church growth experts agree that the success of a church depends on its clergy leadership. The Washington Post reported in May 2015 that Christianity is declining across the entire United States—in all races, genders, educational levels, and geographic regions. They reported that the number of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped 10 percent to about 71 percent of the American public from 2008 to 2015.1 This downward trend follows a larger pattern of continuous decline of religion in America for the last 60 years—but has been accelerating in the last ten.2 According to research done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, in a random survey of more than 32,000 churches conducted in 2015, the aver-age attendance in American churches shrunk from 129 in 2005 to 80 in 2015.3 Should the average number of attendees continue to decline at the same rate for the next 10 years, church attendance will shrink to 50! I like to put it in graphic terms: Christianity, the body of Christ, is like a person who has been shot and no one stops the bleeding. Our decline is less apparent and is slower than that of an untended gunshot victim, but our end, if left untended, is just as certain.

Barking up the wrong tree

As a United Methodist pastor with more than 30 years in the denomination, I have experienced many denomination-wide efforts to halt the downward slide in membership since the denomination was formed in 1968, one that now affects every Christian denomination in America. Church growth experts have studied highly successful pastors and their churches in exhaustive detail. They have care-fully laid out the “how to” details and put together plans on how these successful programs or activities can be implemented. They have carried out comprehensive clergy training events, in which virtually every denominational pastor has been trained—and yet the downward trend continues unabated.

So then, what do all highly successful pastors have in common? We generally assume that these highly successful pastors are very passionate about their service. My study confirmed that one factor they share is their passion for serving God and His people. It is not the ministry techniques and practices they use that make them successful, because they use different approaches and techniques, but their passion about their ministry is what drives them. In my study I questioned these pastors about the source of their passion and how they fed or nurtured it. I also asked them many detailed questions about the disciplines that their passion to serve engenders in them, and I was delighted to discover that passion for ministry leads all these highly successful pastors to faithfully use five ministry-related disciplines, and these five disciplines feed their passion.

The study

My study consisted of a series of interviews using a survey form that included the same quantitative and qualitative questions for each pastor. The interviews revealed that 41 percent of the highly successful pastors (here-after referred to as the select pastors) reported having actually heard God speaking to them and calling them into ministry, compared to zero percent of the reference group. That is a significant difference, but it still meant 50 percent did not have a critical spiritual incident leading them to feel called. Fifty percent of the select pastors’ group also reported experiencing more than five large-scale, dramatic, and/or miraculous spiritual incidents (compared to just 17 percent of the reference group). I was likewise surprised when my interviews revealed that 17 percent of the select pastors had not ever experienced even one large-scale, dramatic, and/or miraculous spiritual incident. So I found some correlation between having experienced critical spiritual incidents and clergy success; however, those pastors who had not ever experienced one or more miraculous or critical spiritual incidents clearly show that this type of experience is not essential to clergy success.

One interview was particularly important. The pastor has grown his church from fewer than 400 on Sunday to over 3,000 in the last 20 years. I was expecting to hear about many amazing spiritual incidents that he had experienced. Instead, I was shocked to hear that he could not point to a single miraculous experience or critical spiritual incident in his life. At the same time, this pastor’s conversation, his demeanor, and his personal and professional disciplines, all showed he was consumed with passion for serving God and God’s people.

As the rest of the interviews were carried out with the other select pastors, I realized that not only were all of them extremely passionate about their ministry but all of them were practicing the same five disciplines! These disciplines, as a rule, emerged in these pastors because of their passion, but all of them were empowered and impassioned by their disciplines, so they are in a positive reinforcing cycle where their passion drives the disciplines and the disciplines fuel their passion. I realized this seems to be the formula for clergy success: passion for serving God and God’s people that is expressed in, and fed by, five disciplines, and these disciplines can, fairly simply, be emulated by clergy seeking to be more successful.

Discipline no. 1: An unshakeable sense of calling

In each of the interviews I asked the pastors to describe their calling: what led them to believe God wanted them to serve as a pastor? The strength of their perception that they were called by God was one of the most unexpected findings of the survey. One hundred percent of the select pastors were absolutely convinced of their calling from God, compared to only 33 percent of the reference group. I expected that the 50 percent of pastors who had a miraculous or mystical calling would have a much greater conviction or certainty about their calling than did those whose calling was not so clearly mystical, but this was not the case. One hundred percent of the select pastors expressed absolute certainty about their call and, significantly, they all also reported mentally revisiting the memory of their call, or their sense of being called, at least daily.

The interviews also revealed that pastors who did not have a strong sense of calling served much shorter terms in their pastorates. Though they were the same approximate age, they were on average four years in their current ministry setting versus 14 years for the select pastors.

The conclusion I reached is that the most important thing pastors can do to increase their effectiveness is to get in touch with their sense of calling and reaffirm that calling daily. Whether doing this in a disciplined daily prayer time or altogether during an individual retreat, pastors must get in touch and stay in touch with their calling.

Discipline no. 2: Keeping the relationship strong

Another important discipline the select pastors practice is being intentional about working on their relationship with God. One hundred percent revealed that they find ways to nurture their faith or relationship with God daily. One hundred percent either prayed or spent time with God daily. I was surprised to discover that 100 percent felt spiritually fed by perceiving God moving in the lives of others whom they were serving in ministry. One of the highly successful pastors who said he could not recall ever seeing or experiencing a miracle or other action or event that was undeniably the action of God is, nevertheless, passionate about his perceptions of God working subtly, in the day-to-day events of his ministry, which he calls “glory sightings.” Each staff member is expected to report on their “glory sightings” at their weekly staff meeting.

I was intrigued to discover that the select pastors find that their passion for serving God is empowered by their observation of God at work in small-scale and seemingly minor parts of their daily ministry. One put it succinctly, “What drives me is seeing people putting their faith into action; I’m seeing this payoff in lives transformed.” Compared to hearing God speak or having a vision, seeing someone putting their faith into action certainly is a lower intensity spiritual experience, but to these pastors such observations are like manna, spiritual food that nourishes their passion for ministry. So whether the pastor was fed primarily by prayer time or by the experience of the miraculous power of God or by the observation of God at work in and through his or her ministry, these pastors take time daily to feed their spirit, and this, in turn, feeds their passion for ministry.

The benefits of the discipline of maintaining a strong relationship also were apparent: 100 percent of select pastors said their spiritual experiences positively influenced them profession-ally in one or more ways, which included enabling them to stay in ministry, being better able to share the love of Christ with people, and being better able to give their life entirely to God. Out of all the five disciplines, making time for God requires the most effort, attention, and self-discipline, but the discipline of daily taking time to maintain a good relation-ship with God is critical to success and longevity in ministry.

Discipline no. 3: A commitment to health in body, mind, and emotion

Another unexpected result of the survey was that the select pastors are not just healthy, they are robust. The Canadian Mental Health Association and the Parish Nursing Association both define health in terms of body, mind, spirit, and emotions. These pastors are highly intentional and diligent about taking care of themselves in each of these four measurements of health. I have just described what they do to take care of their spirit, but an impressive 100 percent of the select pastors also expressed a commitment to taking care of their bodies through regular exercise. Each one exercises several times a week. Several said they would like to lose weight, but none were obese. All pastors expressed that exercise was both a stress reliever for them and a way to honor God by taking care of themselves physically.

These pastors are committed to improving their minds. I was surprised at the hunger for knowledge these pastors demonstrate through their voracious consumption of books, articles, and online content. These pastors see themselves as being on a lifelong journey of self-improvement. One pas-tor told me, “A leader is a reader!” He showed me a shelf of more than 30 ministry-related books that he had read in the last two years. Another showed me on his Kindle that he had read 35 books in the last 35 weeks. Every one of the successful pastors took time at least weekly to read, both for relaxation and professional enrichment. Regarding the Word of God,

  • 100 percent read the Bible weekly,
  • 92 percent read the Bible daily.

Another significant discovery for me, second only to the discovery of how intently the highly successful pastors focused on their calling, was the extent of commitment these pastors make to caring for their emotional health. One hundred percent referenced the emotional support they received daily or weekly from a strong network. This network of support takes a slightly different form for each, but they are all strongly connected to one or more other pastors or to a covenant group of pastors or to a mentor, counselor, therapist, or coach. These pastors referenced drawing strength for the challenges of ministry from the emotional support they received: they know they are not in ministry alone. A benefit these pastors receive from their emotional connections is that, while they are receiving emotional support, they are at the same time being held accountable to remain faithful in using the other disciplines.

Discipline no. 4: Diligent students of ministry practices

In answering the survey questions, the select pastors frequently referenced or quoted the teachings of the most successful pastors in America. They each showed themselves to have a good working knowledge of the writings of multiple experts on church growth and church healthiness. One pastor showed me the books about good business practices that he had read in the last year, there were more than a dozen. He said he was a student of business practices because church is a business. He told me, “I am successful because I use a combination of business practices and spirituality.” All of the select pastors had different authors whom they followed and different ministry practices that they employed, but in their interviews 100 percent attributed their success, at least in part, to their use of good business practices and good ministry practices. They were all

  • seeking to borrow heavily from the techniques of other highly successful pastors,
  • building their churches up through good ministry practices, and
  • intentional about providing quality preaching.

Each of these pastors has used their reading, study time, and continuing education to make themselves experts on good ministry practices.

Discipline no. 5: A great commitment to the great commandments and the Great Commission

In the course of the interviews, several of the select pastors named the great commandments (Matt. 22:36–40) as driving their passion for ministry and shaping their ministry practices. All of the highly successful pastors referenced their deep love of God. Because they love God, as commanded by Jesus and His Father, they feel a great commitment to the second greatest commandment—to love others. Because they love others, they want others to come to know the joy of loving the God they know. Because they love God, they feel a deep commitment to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20), namely to make disciples of all people on earth.


All highly effective pastors are passionate about ministry. Their passion for serving God and God’s people is what drives the various practices or programs their churches carry out. Their passion for serving comes from a deep love for God and their fellow human beings,  which leads to daily work on their relationship with God, including daily revisiting their calling, and to using these four other disciplines. For these pastors, their passion for ministry leads them to use the same five ministry disciplines, and the ministry disciplines, in turn, increase their passion for serving God.

I cannot promise that employing these five disciplines will make any pastor successful. I can say that 100 percent of the highly successful pastors I interviewed follow each of these disciplines. I can also say that there is a definite connection between a pastor’s passion for ministry and longevity of service, ministry success, and overall happiness.

1  Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated With Religion,” Washington Post, May 12, 2015, /wp/2015/05/12/christianity-faces-sharp-decline -as-americans-are-becoming-even-less-affiliated -with-religion/?utm_term=.5c269f6f91e9.

2   Tobin Grant, “The Great Decline: 60 Years of Religion in One Graph,” Religion News Service, January 27, 2014, -religion-united-states-one-graph/.

3   David A. Roozen, “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving,” Faith Communities /American-Congregations-2015.pdf.

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Timothy W. Ehrlich, DMin, serves as senior pastor for the Oakhurst United Methodist Church, Seminole, Florida, United States.

May 2018

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