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Defining Success in Ministry Part 3

One of the critical questions we face in ministry is, “How do we define success?”  How we answer this question will not only influence how we view ourselves, our church, and the people we serve; it will affect how we view God. Kent Hughes warns of the consequences of defining success by numerical growth, “when the persistent motif is numbers- then the siren song becomes deeply sinister: growth in numbers, growth in giving, growth in staff, growth in programs—numbers, numbers, numbers!  Pragmatism becomes the conductor.  The audience inexorably becomes man rather than God.  Subtle self-promotion becomes the driving force.”  (Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, Tyndale press, 1988, p. 29).  This is especially true in rural ministry, where we serve in forgotten places, and numerical growth remains elusive.  When we adopt a business model of success, the result is that we become discouraged in ministry.  We begin to doubt ourselves, our call, and God’s presence in our life. According to, 54% of pasters find their role overwhelming, and 35% of pastors battle depression or fear of inadequacy ( Subsequently, we leave the church in search of greener pastures.  But the problem lies not in ourselves but in our understanding of what marks success in ministry.

To answer the question of success, we must not look at our culture or the business gurus of our day; we must look to Scripture.  In the end, success is not determined by what we think or what others might say or what we might accomplish; it is determined by what God’s Word teaches us.  Our definition of success must be driven by Scripture and the spiritual growth of the people we serve rather than the growth of the organizations we lead or the recognition we attain.  Successful ministry may be defined as “Faithfully serving the people God has placed under our care by leading them in spiritual growth through our example and the proclamation of biblical truth.” In this definition, we see six critical components of successful ministry as portrayed in Scripture.

Success involves faithfulness.  In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, Christ sets forth the heart of success when He evaluates the faithful of the servants.  The final evaluation of each is not what they have been given (5, 2, or 1 talent), nor is it even their return of investment.  The condemned servant was not judged because he did not achieve the same result as the other two (i.e., doubling the asset).  The master would have rewarded him even if he had obtained interest with the investment.  The issue upon which all the servants were evaluated was their faithfulness to care for and invest the money given him.  The point is never about where we serve or even the results of our service (note that both the faithful servants were given the same reward even though their return was different).  The issue is how faithful we are in accomplishing the assigned task God has given us.  If we leave a small rural church, which God has called and placed us, to pastor a large growing congregation so we might gain more recognition and success, then we have been unfaithful to our call. We have become motivated by our pursuits rather than God’s.  Faithfulness is not just remaining in pastoral ministry, it is staying where God has assigned us to accomplish the ministry He has called us to do.

Success is grounded in character.  The books of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are pastoral primers.  They are letters written by a seasoned pastor seeking to equip the young pastors just starting in ministry.  Therefore, it is vital for us to look closely at what Paul writes concerning the nature and purpose of ministry and what constitutes an effective pastor.  In 1 Timothy 4:11-16, we find just such a passage.  In verse 16, he reminds Timothy that if he guards his life (and doctrine closely, his ministry will not only be effective but will be approved by God. At the core of Paul’s instruction is being an example of character for those he served (vs. 12). However, in this instruction, Paul points to the standard that provided the backbone of his ministry.  For Paul, serving the church began with the way he lived his life.  Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).  Effective ministry begins with how we live and how the church can view us as a model of faith to emulate (see also 1 Timothy 4:16, 6:11; 2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 2:7).  This is the strength of the rural church pastor.  As a pastor of a small congregation, people know us.  They know all our strengths and weaknesses.  They do not just see us in the office, surrounded by an impressive-looking library.  They see us in daily life.  They see how we interact with our family and children.  We provide a model for them when they see us deal with discouragement, failure, and frustration.  The most significant impact we have in people’s lives is not what we say on Sunday but how we live Monday through Saturday.

Success is defined by proclamation.  The second key to effective ministry highlighted by Paul is preaching.  The centrality of our doctrine and teaching is emphasized repeated in these three epistles (1 Timothy 1:3, 8, 10; 4:13; 2 Timothy 1:12,  2:14, 15 ; 4:2; Titus 1:1, 9; 2:1).  However, our responsibility in preaching is prophetically calling to people to a change of life (2 Timothy 4:2).  Paul warns against the danger of proclaiming the message people want to hear, appeasing the crowds (2 Timothy 4:3-4) rather than confronting people with the necessity of transformation. We must recognize that the power of our message is never in our ability as a communicator; it is in the message itself (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).  We often compare our speaking ability to the eloquent preachers propagating the airwaves and those who speak at conferences.  While we can appreciate and recognize the speaking ability God has given them, we must also recognize that being eloquent is not a prerequisite for effectiveness from the pulpit.  When we faithfully proclaim the Gospel of Christ, then our message has power, not because of our abilities but because of the nature of the Gospel itself.  It, not us, is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).  But this standard of success is not just found in the New Testament but is grounded in the Old Testament.  God calling to Ezekiel was to faithfully proclaim His Word regardless of the response (3:16-21, 33:7-9).  The measure of his success in his prophetic word was not how well he was received or how dramatically the people responded.  His success was measured by the people’s recognition that “a prophet has been among them.” (2:5 33:33).

Success involves doing God’s will, not our own.   Paul writes to Timothy to “not neglect the spiritual gift within you” (1 Timothy 4:14).  God has equipped each individual with a spiritual gift to build His Kingdom and accomplish His specific purpose.  This gift is both personal in its application and distinctive in its exercise.   The nature of our spiritual gift is as unique and individual as our fingerprint.  Who we are, how we are equipped, and what we are call to accomplish is personal.  Paul was not just given the task of being an apostle; he was sent specifically to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; Romans 15:18-21; Ephesians 3:7-9; Galatians 1:15-16; 2:9).  Paul recognized that to forsake the ministry to the Gentiles and preach to the jews (even though that was his desire, Romans 10:1) would undermine his calling. Our ministry is defined and determined by God’s calling rather than the advancement of our careers.  God never intended us to be or do what He has called others to perform. Instead, we are to be faithful to His purpose and will for our ministry.  If God has called and equipped us for rural ministry, then any other pursuit, no matter how appealing or how much recognition it brings to move us upward on the ecclesiastical ladder of success, would be a failure. What should motivate us in our transitions of ministry is not our career path but our calling, not our desire for more recognition and influence, but God’s direction and purpose for our life and ministry.  The value and importance of even the smallest rural church are determined by the value Christ places upon it.  It was important enough to Him to die for them and then send a shepherd to care for them (Acts 20:28). There is no insignificant ministry.  The rural church is important simply because it is important to God. Therefore, it is should be important to us and worthy of our wholehearted service

Success requires servanthood.  In our success-driven world, we quickly see the church as a corporation to build and the people as employees to accomplish our visions and dreams.  We are told to be leaders with a vision, but it often becomes our vision, not the churches or even God’s vision.  Contrary to popular perspective, our task and responsibility are not to build the church.  Christ does not tell Peter, “Upon this rock, you will build the church.  Instead, he says, “upon this rock, I will build my church.”  Christ takes personal responsibility for the church’s growth, and he does not share that responsibility with us. So, what then is our responsibility?  It is to be a servant to the church who works for the encouragement and “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12-14).  The congregation does not work for us; rather, we work for the church.  This means we care for the spiritual health and condition of the congregation.  In Colossians 1:25, Paul makes a striking and unexpected statement.  After affirming his willingness to suffer for the church, Paul affirms that God has given him the responsibility to tend to the affairs of the church.  What is striking is his statement, “Of this church, I was made a minister.”  The word minister is the word diakonos which refers to a slave or servant.  Paul did not just see himself as a servant of Christ, but a servant of the church. In Mark 10:41-45, Christ points out that secular leadership is about power and authority.  However, Biblical leadership is about being a servant.  Then Christ provides the disciples a visual example when he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want Me to do for you?”  This is what servant leadership entails.  It is the leadership pyramid inverted.  It is not about what the congregation can do for us, but what we can do for the congregation.  It is not about our visions and our plans, but their needs and their ministry.

Success involves spiritual care. We are called to be shepherds of people.  The analogy of a shepherd is one interwoven throughout the Old and New Testament and is the analogy that God used to describe His relationship with His people.  The Shepherd cares individually for people (parable of the lost sheep).  This care is not just through the pulpit to the masses; it is accomplished by building relationships as we minister to each individual.  It involves walking with them through life by giving them guidance and direction in their relationship.  It provides encouragement and comfort in times of trouble and trials.  Psalms 23, which we often view as a Psalm about God’s concern for us, is also a Psalm that touches upon leadership from a biblical perspective (see Blain McCormick and David Davenport, Shepherd Leadership; Jossey-Bass Press). The Psalm is the quintessential statement of what it means to be a shepherd as David seeks to describe God as our Shepherd, a motif that runs throughout the Old Testament.  It is not just a coincidence that this motif is then used to describe the essence of leadership (see Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:2-10).  The most important question of leadership is not where we lead the church organizationally or how much the church grows numerically or organizationally.  It is how we care for people and lead them in spiritual growth to maturity. We are under-shepherds who are to follow the example of Christ as the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:2). This is grounded in relationships.  To be a shepherd, we need to know our people and be engaged with them on a personal level.  This is the greatest strength of rural and small church ministry.  We know our people.  They are not just a face in the church directory or an unknown face in the crowd.  We know them.  We know their struggles, their temptations, their worries as well as their joys.  We can walk with them as they traverse through the valley of the shadow of death. We can provide comfort and strength by pointing them to Christ in times of uncertainty and fear.  Our care is not a generic, one size fits all approach; it is relationally driven and tailored to their specific life.  Often our most effective ministry is not what we do in the pulpit on Sunday but when we interact with people while sharing a cup of coffee with them during the week.

We often look enviously at the large church, with its dynamic worship teams, large staff, and national recognition, and feel that we have failed in ministry. However, it is not the size of the church or the recognition we receive from others that make us successful.  Success in ministry is when we have faithfully proclaimed God’s word and pointed people to a life of discipleship and obedience to Christ, whether to 10, 100, 1000, or 10,000.   We often forget that God views things differently from the world.  The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  The person who lives must first die, and those who seek to save their life will lose it.  It is not the rich writing a large check to the church, but the widow giving a few pennies that receive recognition from God. In God’s economy, the pastor who serves a small forgotten church at the end of a rural by-way may obtain the greatest reward in heaven, for he has been faithful in serving the people that God called him to serve.  Instead of looking at our churches and bemoaning who is not there, focus on who God has brought to us to serve.  Then we will discover genuine success in ministry.


Glenn Daman is the author of 5 books on rural church ministry: Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, Developing Leaders in the Small Church, When Shepherds Weep, and The Forgotten Church.  He is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Lighthouse. A 20-week devotional on the attributes of God.