The Biblical Metrics of a Successful Ministry 

Nearly four decades ago, Kent Hughes and his wife penned a book entitled Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. Early his ministry, Hughes faced challenges that threatened to derail him from his pastoral calling. As his troubles were reaching their apex, Ken’s wife, Barbara, offered him words of encouragement that were rooted in God’s faithfulness. This steadied Hughes’ listing mind, but it also became clear to him he needed a significant adjustment in how he thought about ministry. Specifically, Hughes needed to see that success did not necessarily entail a large church and a growing membership. Rather, for the sake of his perseverance and joy in the ministry, Hughes needed to view success as faithfulness to Scripture, rather than conformity to cultural or congregational expectations. 

Although this book was first published nearly forty years ago, pastors today need to hear its message afresh. 

Your Vision of Success Will Set the Course of Your Ministry
While it’s difficult to discern all the factors that lead to specific cases of pastoral burnout, a sure recipe for disaster is approaching ministry with a wrong view of success. If we are wrong here, our motives, ambitions, goals, and efforts in ministry will veer into a direction that will be destructive for us, our family, and our church. Get the definition of success wrong, and everything else will fall apart at some point in the not-so-distant future.

How can I make such a comprehensive claim? Because our vision of success is what drives our ministry labors. If we believe that a successful pastor is one who experiences an annual member growth rate of 25%, or who publishes multiple New York Times Bestsellers, or who oversees a multi-million-dollar budget, or produces over fifty converts every calendar year, or who hosts a wildly popular podcast, we will aim at hitting these targets. Yet, because these are not biblical metrics, we will be working at cross-purposes with God and placing ourselves, our families, and our churches in danger, not to mention setting ourselves up for grave disappointment. Even if we were to accomplish one of these goals, it would have likely come at the cost of other vital spiritual priorities because the goal itself was not sanctioned by Scripture.

So, what is success in the ministry? If you haven’t ever asked yourself this question, it’s time to begin the process of self-reflection and biblical investigation. Even if we’ve never verbally articulated our ideas about what constitutes a fruitful ministry, we all operate from some notion of success. Likely, our notions are vague. But ambiguity about what success entails will not likely lead to success in reality. We need to sharpen our vision.

Success is Character
For the pastor, success in the ministry begins with our character. A pastor who has filled the pews, preached biblically sound sermons, published edifying books, and trained a host of leaders is not successful if his heart and life are ungodly. That’s why Paul emphasizes the pastor’s character in his letters to Timothy. Paul called his young protégé to watch his life carefully, to walk in purity, to pursue righteousness, to be kind and gentle, courageous, and holy. Those whom he trained as elders and deacons needed to be exemplary in their character as well (1 Tim 3:1ff). Had he abandoned these qualities and yet packed his church every week, he would have been unsuccessful. 

Far from a burden, this emphasis on character is a blessing from God. While there are other duties in pastoral ministry, the first step to success is not developing a large-scale building campaign or crafting a five-year growth plan. Rather, success begins with the cultivation of a holy, repentant, faithful walk with Christ in our personal and public lives. Without this, everything else is meaningless. 

Success is Faithfulness
How else should we define success? We must define success as faithfulness to the Bible’s priorities for pastors. A pastor is not first responsible for securing donors, expanding the church’s footprint, or growing the budget. No, the pastor is first and foremost a shepherd of God’s flock (1 Pet 5:2), tasked to watch over the souls of Christ’s people (Heb 13:17). He is responsible for the spiritual health and safety of the congregation the Lord has entrusted to him. To be a faithful pastor, then, is to discharge these specific duties according to Scripture. 

Shepherding requires the feeding of Christ’s sheep (John 21:15-19). The successful pastor, therefore, will be the one who prioritizes careful, thorough, biblical preaching and teaching. Paul exhorted Timothy several times to make preaching and teaching his primary work (1 Tim 1:3; 4:11, 13; 6:2 and even exhorted Timothy in the presence of God and Christ to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:2). The teaching aspect of pastoral ministry also extends into counseling and personal discipleship, as the pastor aims to instruct his people and help them overcome practical problems in their life and to grow in spiritual maturity (Matt 28:18-20; Col 1:28-29). A successful pastor, then, is not one who is merely conducts his ministry from pulpit or behind the lectern, but one who is with his people and engages with them on a personal level.  

Success is Prayer
Pastors are also to constantly and regularly pray for their people. Hughes comments, “As God’s undershepherds, we must keep our life ever sharp through prayer….Prayer is fundamental to success in the ministry” (72). This is an important reminder, especially when we begin to think faithfulness entails always doing something that bears tangible results. In fact, we won’t see good results—tangible or otherwise—if we trade prayer for ministry activity. Prayer and ministry must remain tightly connected to one another.  

Jesus was a model of the prayerful, busy life. Over the course of three years, Jesus ministered to many people’s spiritual and practical needs, trained a small team of disciples, preached and taught throughout Israel, and sparred with the religious leaders over important doctrinal issues. He was full of God-pleasing ministry activity. Yet, he did all of this while making prayer a priority in his life (Matt 14:23; 26:36; Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18). Paul was the same. He ministered faithfully to countless Christians in churches across the Mediterranean region, yet he was steady in his commitment to pray regularly for God’s people (Eph 1:15-23; 3:14-19; Phil 1:3-4; Col 1:3).

Success is Attitude
Finally, Hughes reminds us that success is attitude. Consider the life of Paul, for example. He suffered mightily in the course of his ministry, yet his outlook was one of indomitable joy and spiritual optimism. Even when preachers used their freedom to afflict Paul while he was in prison, Paul rejoiced that they were preaching Christ (Phil 1:15-18). Paul hoped expectantly in God’s work in people’s lives (Phil 1:6), even when sin and immaturity abounded in local congregations (1 Cor 1:4-9). Paul looked forward to dying and being with Christ and remaining on earth and serving the church (Phil 1:21-26). On the one hand, the sinful attitudes of envy, bitterness, resentment will kill the pastor’s soul and taint his ministry, regardless of how much “success” he has seen. On the other hand, a hopeful perspective that trusts in the power of the gospel and the goodness of God will provide the pastor with contentment and ministry longevity. 

Brothers, how we define success will set the trajectory for our ministry, family, and personal spiritual health. If we are wrong in how we define success, we will dishonor God while seeking to minister on his behalf, and we likely experience pastoral burnout, family trouble, or both. If you’ve been judging your success by the wrong standard, go back to Scripture and find relief in Christ, who gives rest to the weary and whose commandments are not burdensome (Matt 11:28-30; 1 John 5:3).