The Oxford English Dictionary defines success as:
1) The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
2) The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.
3) A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.
My Generation X childhood memory of success in the 1980s is the Wallstreet executive: The corporate ladder climbing, cutthroat yuppy in the power suit with the flashy car. Like everything in the 80s, it was extreme and over-the-top.
Images of success have changed and evolved over the years. Hopefully, when we think of a successful person, generally images of financial comfort, worthy accolades, a fulfilling career, and meaningful relationships come to mind.
In terms of successful organizations, ones that are financially profitable while creating an environment valuing both the employee and the customer/consumer are ideal. Currently, companies which make a buck with no regard to employees and those they serve are frowned upon.
So, with all the above in mind, what does success in pastoral or ministry leadership look like? And what measurables do we use to define this success?
We can look at attendance numbers, income statements, serve rates, and much more to establish growth metrics and fluctuations. These tools help to gauge if what we are doing is serving its purpose. However, those metrics cannot be the true measure of what matters in ministry leadership.
When experiencing a season of success in ministry leadership, it’s important to avoid some specific dangers we can easily fall into . . . especially when seem to be losing track of the real reason we are called to ministry.
Jesus instructed His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 as He ascended to the right hand of the Father, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It’s crucial to keep in mind that God’s definition of success is far different than the way we tend to view it. In Matthew 16:26, Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” He teaches us our soul and the souls of those we minister to are much more important than the size of the church, the magnitude of its bank statement, or the flashiness of programs. Seeing people as means to an end—bodies in seats or cogs in the machine—rather than souls loved by God, is not only less than ideal, but also in reality, sinful. When we stop seeing people the way God sees them, we lose track of our true calling, and it becomes easy to slip into hurtful or even abusive patterns.
Yet, when we are faithful with the tangible tasks God has assigned to us in ministry, he trusts us with the very important things: The souls of those He loves. Jesus said in Luke 16:10-11 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”
When we are walking in a season of success and stewarding the true riches God has trusted us to steward, we must be careful to avoid two common snares:
When all signs point to success—people are getting saved and discipled, programs are effective, and finances are booming, it’s easy to slip into a prideful mindset. Scripture has a great deal to say about this pesky problem of pride. We aren’t saying you shouldn’t feel good when things are going well, rather we are warning you and ourselves to guard against feeling like we have it all figured out.
My husband coined a phrase when we were pastoring regarding success: “Look what I did” is one step away from ‘Look what I did without you, God.”
Striving in our own strength
When things are going well, it’s easy to plod along at an intense pace, thinking we need to run fast to continue replicating the same success. When we race at a breakneck speed to “make the ministry successful,” what really matters will suffer. It’s important to ask ourselves a few questions and make sure the answers are in alignment with what’s most important:
- Who or what is getting our best energy as leaders?
- Where are we spending our time?
- Why are we doing the things we’re doing?
- What fruit is resulting from the things we’re doing—not just in our ministry—but even more importantly—in our personal lives?
At the end of the day, success in ministry is defined very differently than worldly success. The reputation of Jesus, the health and longevity of our most important relationships, and the fruit of our ministries depend on understanding the difference.
Walking humbly with the Lord and asking Him to help us remember this most important distinction is a good place for us to start. And remembering why you signed up for ministry in the first place—reaching lost people and then discipling them, is a great second step.
Rooting and praying for you,