By Jake Evans
There is a story of an elderly preacher in Scotland who was criticized by one his deacons on a Sunday morning before the service. “Pastor,” the deacon said, “something must be wrong with your preaching and your work. There’s been only one person added to the church in a whole year, and he’s just a boy.” The pastor listened intently to the deacon’s words having felt the weight of this already himself. “I understand what you are saying,” the pastor replied, “but God knows that I’ve tried to do my work.” On this day the pastor’s heart was heavy as he went into the pulpit, and as he finished the message he felt the strong inclination to resign that day from his pastoral work.
I am confident that this story resonates with every pastor. The stark reality that it highlights is the fact that as pastors we can put in countless hours each week preparing for our messages, visiting the sick, conducting funerals, counseling the spiritually wayward, and attending committee meetings with little to no apparent effectiveness in our efforts. Pastoral work is hard work and often times we feel like throwing in the towel because we feel our work is in vain and that we would be better suited doing something else.
What I want to argue is that we need a paradigm shift in how we think about “success” in ministry. Success, according to the pragmatic spirit of American culture today, is defined chiefly by fruitfulness. Someone or something is successful if there are quantifiable results. A business is successful when it increases its sales and grows its market. A legal firm is successful when it wins more cases than it loses. A television network is successful when it gets more viewers than the other networks. By this standard of success the deacon had every right to question his pastor and the pastor had every right to feel it was time to resign.
But is this pragmatic, modern American view of success applicable to the church and the work of ministry? My answer is no. In Joshua 1:8 we have a passage of Scripture that turns on its head this notion of fruitfulness as the hallmark of success. Joshua has taken over command of the nation of Israel and he and people stand on edge of the Promised Land about to enter into it. Before they do, Joshua reminds them of one very basic but profoundly important principle: their success in the land will be predicated on their faithfulness to the “Book of the Law.” Joshua tells them, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success,” (ESV).
The last sentence is the game changer. Having imbibed the cultural milieu of today numerous Christians and pastors alike have come to think about success in ministry in terms of the quantifiable. The mindset is that if we have a certain number of conversions and baptisms and we meet our annual budget then we are successful. Joshua 1:8, however, reminds us that we cannot define success in ministry according to worldly standards. In God’s view success is not our fruitfulness it is about faithfulness to Him and His Word. After all, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” (1 Cor. 3:5-6, ESV). The name of the game in ministry is faithfulness not fruitfulness. God and God alone determines when and how much fruit He will bring about through our work.
Returning to our story above, after the service that morning while the elderly pastor was feeling inclined in his heart to resign the boy came up to him after everyone else had left and asked him, “Do you think if I worked hard for an education, I could become a preacher—perhaps a missionary?” Do you know what? That boy did become a missionary. His name was Robert Moffat, a Scottish Congregationalist missionary to Africa. Was this elderly preacher really unsuccessful? In the world’s eyes yes. In God’s eyes no.
Editor’s Note: For further reading on this topic, consider Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome, by Kent & Barbara Hughes.