Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

Many years ago I went through a dark season of discouragement when I felt my church wasn’t growing as quickly as it should, nor was my ministry advancing as I’d hoped. Pastors across America are struggling with those very issues, now more than ever. Studies are being done on the plunging morale of pastors during the current general decline in church attendance. The rapid, rampant de-Christianizing of our culture is… well, it tempts us to be discouraged.

But just when I was at a low place, Kent Hughes, a pastor and writer in Wheaton, published a little book titled, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. The copyright date is 1987, so that helps me mark when I was so discouraged. Kent opened the book talking about his own “dark night of the soul,” when his home congregation appointed him the pastor of a church-planting operation that everyone thought would take off like a rocket. Funded by his sending church, Kent had consultants, experts, and a strong contingent of hard-working people. Kent was also highly motivated, and he worked around the clock to build a strong work. But to his consternation, the church didn’t grow. As his numbers dwindled, he experienced anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment, and a deep sense of failure.

One evening, he and his wife, Barbara, wrote down three questions that changed their entire approach to working for the Lord: (1) Can a person be a success in the ministry and pastor a small church? (2) What is failure in the ministry? (3) What is success in the ministry?

As they thought and prayed over those questions and sought out the answers in the Bible, they found seven scriptural ways to define success, and they realized it didn’t look like anything in the popular culture. The Bible’s view of success is different.

1.  Success is Faithfulness. “We found no place where it says that God’s servants are called to be successful. Rather, we discovered our call is to be faithful. Faithfulness is possible for all God’s servants, regardless of the size of their work or church…. Success, then, comes when we faithfully study God’s Word and faithfully obey it.”

2. Success is Serving. James and John wanted to be first among the disciples, but Jesus told them that whoever wanted to be greatest must be a servant to others, just as He came, not to be served, but to serve.

3. Success is Loving. In John 21, the risen Christ met Peter, who was discredited and guilty. Jesus said, “Do you love me?” Peter said, “Yes, You know I love You.” Then Jesus said, “Tend My sheep.” In other words, “If you really love Me, you may tend My sheep. If you don’t love Me, it’s a worthless exercise for you.” Before our service for God, there must be a deep love for God. If we love Him, we’ll spend special time with Him, and our service will flow from that. Loving must precede laboring. If we labor without loving, our work is a failure.

4. Success is Believing. The Bible says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” Obviously, in God’s eyes, then, without faith we cannot be successful in our service for Him. The question is: Do you believe God loves you? Do you believe He can guide you? Do you believe He can use you? Do you believe He can keep His promises about His blessings on your work? Just as we walk by faith and not by sight, we work by faith and not by sight.

5. Success is Prayer. Exodus 32:19 says, “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned.” But Exodus 34:29 says that when Moses approached the Lord, his face shone. As Moses spent time with God on Mount Sinai, he was so exposed to God that his face became radiant. It wasn’t the condition of the Israelites that made His face radiant; the children of Israel would have the opposite effect on him. It wasn’t his work projects or writing projects or leadership position that make his face radiant. It was his time in prayer with God.

6. Success is Holiness. Many Christian leaders and pastors have established far-famed ministries only to be discredited by their moral failures. The great biblical examples of Samson and Saul show us the dangers of this. Holiness is foundation to all true success.

7. Success is Attitude. No matter how great things appear to be, a jealous or negative attitude is dishonoring to God. But cultivating a positive, enthusiastic, friendly attitude reflects the personality of God.

Kent said that when he internalized these seven markers for success, his entire attitude changed. He showed up the next Sunday. There were 25 people there, not 250 or 2500, but he said, “Thank you, God, for these 25 dear people. What a privilege to serve them here.”

As the years passed, Kent Hughes did become a well-known pastor of a prominent church, but he said that the lessons he learned in his dark days about success and failure become the anchors for his heart wherever he was and whatever he did. He said that God is not so interesting in whether we have the starring role, but in the way we play our part for Him. “The marvelous truth is that whether famous or nameless, prominent or unknown, great or small, God’s principles for success remain the same, and success is equally available to all.”

Personally, I came out of my own struggle realizing that my morale must be based on my walk with God, not my work for God. The work goes up and down, and numbers rise and fall. Much of it has nothing to do with me, and I shouldn’t compare myself with others.

God has promised that His Word will not return void, and that our work in the Lord is not in vain. We seldom see more than a percentage or two of the results of our ministry. Only in heaven will we realize how greatly God has blessed us.

That removes the temptation to look over at what others are doing or to struggle with either an inferiority or superiority complex. We must simply serve the Lord wherever He puts us, realizing God has a unique plan for each of us—and success is simply fulfilling the will of God in daily increments. It’s doing what He has planned for us each day. We should work hard, plan well, envision all He has for us, and strive to do all we can–and then leave the results to Him.

One of my favorite poets, John Oxenham, put it this way:

Is your place a small place?

Tend it with care!—

God set your there.

Is your place a large place?

Guard it with care!

He set you there.

Whate’er your place, it is

Not your alone, but His.

He set you there.