I just finished reading a book by Kent and Barbara Hughes titled Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome. An excellent book, it should probably be read by most pastors, as well as elders, deacons, and other church leaders. It will help them understand one of the leading causes of ministry burnout and ministerial depression: the pressure to produce results.
Here is a sample:
…secularized ideals of success, straight from the business world, are increasingly being applied to the church. A church must “turn a profit,” so to speak. Thus, whatever else can be said positively said about a church, it is not succeeding unless it is growing numerically. Big, growing churches are, by definition, the most successful. In some instances, a secularized competitiveness grips the church. If Second Church outgrows First, it is more successful. And, in some…a cold quantity-based pragmatism is in the driver’s seat…This means that there are untold numbers of pastors whose self-worth is affected by the size of their churches. This means that many pastors of smaller churches feel discouraged and insecure. In a word, this means pressure…Your pastor’s situation, his disposition, and his maturity will determine how much pressure he feels. But it is there. Believe it, if you wish to understand him. The unhappy goddess of secular success is taking its toll in the church.”
I find this to be very accurate and an ongoing temptation in my own life. And almost every pastor I know struggles with this as well, even the ones who are labeled successful (perhaps even more). Sadly, I can also think of several instances in which this kind of pressure resulted in very faithful and godly men leaving vocational ministry. Even more unfortunate is that it’s not just pressure to produce from secular-minded businessmen in the church, this success by numbers mindset has become a regular part of ministerial culture. Speakers at pastor’s conferences are introduced with reference to the size of their church and the pace of the growth. The church growth movement flourished through the ’80s and ’90s with multiple best-sellers promising the secrets to growing a church numerically.
But there is a ray of hope. More and more Christians are seeing the foolishness of such thinking. The trend is toward quality over quantity. As people engage the Scriptures, they are finding that man’s responsibility is to be faithful to sow and water the seeds of the Gospel, while it is God’s responsibility to bring the increase (1 Corinthians 3.6-7). Even the Christian publishing industry is seeing a slow shift in emphasis from books emphasizing church growth to emphasizing church health.
As I pondered the message of this book, I couldn’t help but think about the seven churches of revelation. Jesus didn’t pull out a multi-colored graph charting the attendance numbers, the baptism numbers, and the offerings. Instead, his critique of each church revealed a laser-like beam past the external results and straight to heart issues:
I know you are enduring patiently…
…you have left your first love.
I know your tribulation…
…you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam…
…I am He who searches the mind and the heart…
You have the reputation of being alive, but are dead….
…you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
A couple of the churches of Revelation were outwardly successfully but Jesus said they were not successful in His eyes. And one of the churches was not successful in the world’s eyes, but was successful in His eyes.
As Christians we are called not to judge things according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 5.16), and yet most churches today are probably judging themselves and other churches just by that: fleshly criteria. It’s time to stop. Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome is a helpful aid in this battle.