Over 30 years ago I spent my summer working for a landscaping company in the city where I would be attending seminary in the fall. During that particular summer, I had the opportunity to spend several days working by myself on a new lawn on a college campus. Ever since that week, I have often taken people – particularly my children – to see “my lawn.” As I put it, “This lawn is the one tangible thing I have done in my life.”
The lawn is the one physical item I can use to define my accomplishments in life. I can point to it and lay claim to planting the grass and, behold, it flourishes to this day! In my life of ministry on the other hand, I find very little that can be said to be the result of my labor. For a landscaper, the growing grass is proof of a job well done. But how does one define success in ministry? To sustain pastoral excellence, we need a definition of pastoral ministry success that is viable.
I spoke to several pastors who acknowledge they have very little each could point to as solely a product of their labor. After all, which pastor will claim that it was he or she rather than God who worked the miracle in the life of a parishioner? Who will say that it is her preaching that changed the heart of a sinner to a devoted follower of Jesus? Who will claim that his time spent with a youth is the reason faith blossomed into commitment to Jesus?
When someone involved in ministry looks at his/her own labor, it appears fragile and unsophisticated for such a significant calling. Ministry is a vague entity. One pastor describes his work in this way, “Real success in ministry is producing genuine spiritual growth. If every single person in our congregation grew in their relationship with God, then our church would be successful.” (Rob Jansons, Monroe, WA).
Pastor Harold Winter (Fredericton, NB) defines his success by looking for the ways he is used of God in ministry. He calls himself a catalyst for the work of God in the life of the congregation. He himself does not usher in the results God desires. Rather, he is used of God to activate a process that otherwise remains latent. Harold defines success as perceiving himself to be a catalyst in the hand of God.
Another pastor (Jim Dekker, St. Catharines, ON) reflected on the temptation to be successful in the eyes of the broader culture. He believes that temptation leads to various aberrations in ministry. People in ministry are tempted to pursue growth in a congregation’s numbers and, meanwhile, fail to pursue the spiritual disciplines that fuel growth in Christ. Jim senses that we can succumb to the personality cult of the nearest mega-church and begin to worship the methods of that church but we ourselves fail to worship the Lord God in spirit and in truth. Additionally, he points out that glitzy ads for the next big thing fill even Christian magazines. The stampede created by the race to “the top” in the church tramples the humble follower of Jesus in the dust. But the race to the top rarely reflects the mind of Christ.
So what is a person involved in ministry to do? How can one be a citizen in our North American culture and be a faithful servant of Christ and his Church? I think it begins with a careful examination of one’s own heart.
The Lenten Season is progressing as I write this. This season was/is set apart by the church so that the individual Christian may take the time to scrutinize one’s heart. In doing so, we detect the disappointing failures, the distressing follies, and the dazzling fantasies of our hearts that yearn for popularity, power, and prestige. If anyone is to measure success in one’s ministry, each must know his/her own heart.
As John Calvin suggests in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, “True wisdom is to know God and to know oneself” (Book 1, chap 1). Anyone who desires to be successful in God’s sight needs to come to that self-knowledge that lays aside all personal hubris. In the place of self-importance, the successful minister catches sight of the hand of God in all his/her work.
If people involved in ministry will submit to an annual spiritual physical with God’s Word as the doctor, they will soon enough realize that to be successful they must be willing to step aside from the spotlight and let all the attention fall on Jesus. John the Baptizer said, “He must become greater and I must become less” (John 3:30 NIV). When people in ministry keep to that ideal, faithfulness to the call of God defines success.
Pastor Tom Bomhof (Surrey, BC) suggests that pastors and churches should scrutinize the level of faithfulness to God and their call to discipleship in themselves and their ministries. God is the one who is orchestrating the process of developing the image of Christ in us. I Thessalonians 5:23-24 reads: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through...The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” When we are tempted to look too far afield for the definition of our success, we need to come back to God’s call to each of us. He will be faithful to see our calling through to the day of Jesus; in response, we follow God where God leads.
I want to focus for a moment on the pastoral calling itself while recognizing that what I have to say for pastors also relates to the rest of the congregation.
A troubling matter for pastors is that the cultural ideals of success pressure them from many sides. A council filled with individuals successful in the business world can prod the pastor to think in terms of business oriented success models. The council, perhaps unwittingly, will redefine the pastoral role based on a business model of success. When the pressure is on to redefine the role of a pastor, the one in ministry needs to again clearly define success by the biblical models of service and sacrifice seen in Jesus.
A young pastor's proud parents and grandparents can also create subtle temptations. They're excited for the success of their young son or grandson who takes a call to a bigger congregation, takes a more prestigious position in the church hierarchy, or earns a higher salary than the local pastor. Not only folks such as these parents and grandparents but each person in the church must guard against the inclinations of our hearts that are impressed by the bright lights of favorable ratings as compared to the humble call of Jesus to wash the dirty feet of disciples.
In the Letter of Paul to Timothy, we find this, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV). Here God reminds us all that a pastor needs to keep an eye on the approval of God, not of humanity. When the pastor rightly handles God’s Word of truth, he/she can appear without shame before the throne of God. I believe appearing without shame before God is a goal that can define success in any ministry.
Jim Dekker concludes, “Jesus' warnings and encouragements in Matthew 25, and the urgings to justice in Micah and Amos are traffic signals. Follow those lights. They're dimmer than the other, brighter lights of great ratings, but they last longer.” Defining success in ministry will always find us on our knees, serving the oppressed, loving the undeserving, and bringing hope to the despondent. May we follow those dimmer, less obvious, signals that show the way to the Kingdom of God. When we do, God’s approving Spirit will sustain pastoral excellence in ministry.