It’s hard to be content in the ministry because our culture narrowly defines success using three words: bigger, more, or new. Therefore, if your ministry or church seems smaller, less, or old, you are not viewed as successful. This cultural definition, of which few of us can escape, contributes to our discontent. It is ingrained in all of us to want to be successful.
I’ve recommended this book for years: Rethinking the Successful Church by Samuel D. Rima. This book isn’t on my “recommended” reading list, it’s on my “read this book or go to jail” list. Every pastor or future pastor who hasn’t already read Rima’s book should stop what they’re doing right now and find this book, order this book, beg, borrow, or steal this book.
Most pastors, if they’re really honest—really, really, really honest—would admit that they would love to be thought of as having a successful church. This isn’t necessarily bad if one’s definition of success is a pure one, unaffected by our western culture. But as Rima points out: “The task of redefining our understanding of success will not be an easy one. Over the course of a lifetime we have had drilled into us a cultural view of success that is not easy to shake.”
The word success has become so Americanized that it is hard to use it without thinking of words like size, numbers, big, popular, and influential. I’d like to throw out the word success, at least any connection between it and the local church, and replace it with the word value. “For me, success in ministry has become much more qualitative than it is quantitative. The reality is that it is entirely possible to manufacture phenomenal church growth and produce dramatic tangible indicators of success, while at the same time accomplish nothing of any genuine eternal value.”
I agree with Rima that we live in a culture of success, and I would add that today’s Christian culture tends to define success in the same way our secular culture does. Equating size with success has been drilled into us over the course of our life time. Let’s throw out the word ‘success’ and replace it with the word ‘value.’
You and your church may never be successful according to the world’s definition but that doesn’t mean you don’t have value. A church can have value whether it has only five, fifty, or a hundred members. “At some point on our ministry journey we have got to realize that we can build the biggest church in the world and actually see thousands of people coming to Christ, and still be an abysmal failure in the eyes of God. If our motives are impure, our methods dubious, and our personal character and spirituality seriously flawed, I do not believe God considers us successful.”
You have value when you remain faithful to your calling even when it would be easier to pull a Jonah and run in the opposite direction. You have value when you show up week after week to teach the Word. You have value when you love your people—especially those who are hard to love. You have value when you try to produce followers of Jesus, when you pray for people, when you counsel people, when you comfort people who are in pain. Your church might not have success, but it does have value when it loves those inside and outside its doors.
Throw out success. Replace it with value.
Paul said that it is required of ministers that we be found trustworthy, not successful (1 Cor. 4:2). Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “God has not called you to be successful. God has called you to be faithful.”
I know everyone has heard of the famous billionaire John D. Rockefeller. In an interview, when asked, “How many more dollars until you’re satisfied?” Mr. Rockefeller answered, “Just one more.”
We pastors aren’t much different: the pastor of twenty-five parishioners dreams of the day when he will have fifty; the pastor of fifty dreams of the day when she will have a hundred; the pastor of a hundred dreams of the day when the church membership will rise above two hundred . But once you pass two hundred, you dream of five hundred. The dreaming goes on and on and on. It’s all a dream: the dream that at some point, at some size, you will feel successful. You won’t. You will always dream of “just one more.”
Since we’ve been brainwashed into believing that success in the ministry means bigger, more, and new—and since there will always be a bigger, bigger; a more, more; and a newer new—it’s no wonder we find it hard to be content.
The above article is an excerpt from my book: Mile Wide, Inch Deep: Experiencing God Beyond the Shallows, Soul Care For Busy Pastors and the Rest of Us. Find your copy here.