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What Makes a Pastor Successful

What does success look like for a minister of the gospel? Is it a steady growth in church membership? Exceeding your budget? It can be a helpful exercise from time to time for pastors to think about what the numbers are saying. But as we do so, we must always remember this biblical reality: success isn't measured merely by numbers but by faithfulness.

I have a question for you, my fellow pastor. Are you a successful pastor? That’s a tough one to answer, isn’t it? 

What is success? What does success look like for a minister of the gospel? Do we define success the way professional football teams do, in terms of wins and losses? Or is it how a Pee Wee football team defines success, meaning everybody gets to play, has a good time, and then enjoys plenty of snacks after the game?

What does success mean for a pastor? 

During the past year, the church I am privileged to lead added new people and exceeded the budget. Does that mean we were successful? On the other hand, in 1998, the same church under my leadership went through a painful season of pruning, and we eventually lost a third of our congregation. Does that mean we were unsuccessful then? Does the fact that the giving in 1998 exceeded our budget (meaning we had fewer people in the pews but just as much money in the offering plates) affect how we assess that year?

I’ve thought a lot about this question in over 35 years of pastoral ministry at the same church. It started in 1987 when I became pastor at Wheelersburg Baptist Church. I remember charting how the next 10 years might look. After all, I had taken a church growth class in seminary, and I knew that successful churches should grow, right? And by so many percentage points a year, right? And if that doesn’t happen, it means I’m not a good pastor, doesn’t it?

In 1990 we built a new auditorium, and our Sunday morning attendance increased from 144 to 228. In just over five years, we grew by 58%. Many new people were coming to check things out, and many joined us.

During the next four years, however, from 1993 to 1997, Sunday morning attendance went from 228 to 192, a decrease of 16%. What did those numbers indicate? They were evidence that I was no longer successful. At least, that’s what a veteran church member told me one Sunday morning in 1998. We stood at the front door when he asked me the following question: 

“Why don’t you resign?”

“Haven’t you been watching the declining attendance?” he said. “If you were a manager of a professional team, you’d know it is time to leave.”

Was he right? What could I say? “Just wait. The numbers will go up again?”

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you, too, are looking at declining numbers in your church and are searching for a good answer to that slippery question.

In our case, the numbers didn’t go up again. In the two and a half decades since that painful conversation, our Sunday morning attendance declined, from a peak of 228 to our present average of 114, a decline of 50%.

Imagine a graph with the line representing church attendance falling steadily from left to right. That doesn’t look very successful, does it? Yet that’s what we’ve looked like since 1998. Have we been unsuccessful, as my brother insisted?

Now imagine a graph with the attendance line steadily curving upward. This is a successful church, isn’t it? Frankly, it’s what we looked like in 1993. The numbers had gone up by 58%. It’s also our present trajectory in 2023. The Lord has blessed us in the past three years with many new people and a surplus of giving. Does this mean we are now successful again?

Finally, I want you to imagine a third graph. The line looks like a roller coaster. Up, and down, and up again. Using a sports analogy, you win some, and you lose some. Just hang in there because you’ll be successful again if you do. But this implies that as long as the numbers remain down, you remain unsuccessful. Is that true?

I am convinced that none of these three scenarios portrays pastoral success. I’ll take it a step further. I am convinced that we cannot chart pastoral success period. Why not? 

A chart fails to capture what God sees

A chart shows us what we see but not what God sees. Only God’s Word can present that necessary perspective, and it does. To see what God sees, we must listen carefully to what God has said.

What does God have to say about success in the Bible? I’ll be transparent. The seeds for what I’m about to share with you came during a crisis moment in my life. I’ll give you the exact date. It was August 3, 1998, at 11:15 p.m., to be precise. That night, I cried out to God, seeking His answer as to whether I was an unsuccessful pastor at WBC, as the critics (now plural) were saying.

I kept thinking about another minister – the apostle Paul – and wrote down a question. Then I searched the Scriptures to find God’s answer to this vital question.

In what church was Paul most “successful” as a leader?

Paul was a church leader whom God used in eternally significant ways. He took the gospel all over the Roman Empire and saw the Spirit of God bring several churches into existence. Here’s the question again. In which church was he the most “successful’?

Here’s a little exercise I did that night. Let’s do it together. Let’s record some of the churches that Paul either established or in which he had an extensive ministry. Then let’s summarize some of the highlights of what happened in those churches (+ means a good outcome, – means a not-so-good outcome).

The Church at Antioch

Key Texts: Acts 11, 13

+ lots of people saved there, most before Paul arrives (Acts 11:21)

+ first called Christians (Acts 11:26)

+ very giving; sent benevolent offering during famine (Acts 11:29)

+ missionary minded (Acts 13:1-3)

– struggled with Jew/Gentile prejudice (Gal. 2:11ff.)

The Church at Philippi

Key Texts: Acts 16; Philippians

+ Excellent missions giving and missionary care (Phil. 4:15-16)

+ Partners in the ministry (Phil. 1:5)

-Squabble between some church members spreading (Phil. 4:1)

The Church at Thessalonica

Key Texts: Acts 17; 1 & 2 Thessalonians

+ Persecuted, yet strong (1 Thes. 1:2-3, 6)

+ Solid reputation, though Paul spent only a short time there (2 Thes. 1:4)

– Fornication being tolerated (1 Thes. 4:3)

– Confused about eschatology (1 Thes. 4:13; 2 Thes. 2:1-2)

– Some members not working; in need of church discipline (2 Thes. 3:11-15)

The Church at Corinth

Key Texts: Acts 18; 1 & 2 Corinthians 

+ Very gifted (1 Cor. 12, 14)

+ Exposed to an abundance of sound teaching (1 Cor. 1:12; 4:17)

– Poor reputation, even though Paul spent two years there (1 Cor. 1:10)

– Schism and divisions (1 Cor. 1)

– Lack of love (1 Cor. 13)

– Sexual immorality tolerated; church discipline needed (1 Cor. 5:1)

+/- Lots of excitement in worship services (1 Cor. 14)

+/- Lots of ministry happening, yet its members were jealous of each other (1 Cor 3:3)

The Church at Ephesus

Key Texts: Acts 19-20; Ephesians

+ Well taught; able to handle a good theological epistle like Ephesians

+ Good “pastors” over the years (Paul, Timothy, John, etc.)

– Eventually left its first love (Rev. 2:4)

– False teachers infiltrated (1 Tim. 1:20)

The Church at Galatia

Key Texts: Galatians

– Compromised the doctrine of salvation (Gal. 1:6)

– Turning to a different gospel (Gal. 1:7-9)

– Being swayed by false teachers (Gal. 6:12)

– Confused about the role of the Spirit (Gal. 5:15, 22)

The Church at Crete

Key Text: Titus

+ An evidence of the sovereign, gracious working of God on the island of Crete (Tit. 1:1-3)

– A very young church with lots of issues needing attention (Tit. 1:5)

– Poor reputation (Tit. 1:10-16)

– Church discipline needed (Tit. 3:10-11)

There’s the raw data. Now let’s consider the potential takeaway.

Ten observations about Paul and implications for success

1. Things went smoother (at least on the surface) in Philippi than in Corinth, in Thessalonica than in Galatia.

2. This does not mean Paul did a bad job in Corinth and Galatia. He took the same approach to ministry wherever he went. He taught the Scriptures and sought to present people complete in Christ (Colossians 1:28-29).

3. The churches where Paul ministered frequently attacked his leadership. That did not mean he was a poor leader.

4. The reality is, different churches have different problems. Indeed, some churches have more complex issues than others do.

5. Just because a church is “successful” (or outwardly strong) today is no guarantee it will be in five years. Which of the churches Paul led are strong today? Which are even still there, for that matter?

6. Success is doing the job God gives us to do in a way that brings honor to Him. At Philippi, Paul did that and experienced much joy for it. At Corinth and Galatia, Paul did the same thing and experienced much heartache.

7. In the end, God determines success. We cannot measure it because we don’t have the right stick to measure the invisible. Only God can, for God alone sees the whole picture from beginning to end.

8. Paul’s example reinforces this reality: a successful church is not without problems but a church that solves its problems God’s way.

9. Problems are for solving, not for ignoring. This is why Paul wrote his letters, both to churches and individuals.

10. Problems are not necessarily bad. They remind us how much we need God and provide opportunities for God to display His sufficiency.

The bottom line: success isn’t about numbers but faithfulness. 

It’s not that numbers don’t matter, for they do. God gave us a book that we call Numbers. It can be a helpful exercise from time to time for pastors to think about what the numbers are saying. 

But as we do so, we must always remember this biblical reality: success isn’t measured merely by numbers but by faithfulness. This is Paul’s important conclusion in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, which we’ll consider carefully in my next post, the Lord willing. 

“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:1–5 (ESV)

Action plan – where to go next?

Here are a couple of suggestions. 

1. Memorize 1 Corinthians 4:2 (if you haven’t already), but don’t stop there. Allow this wonderful passage to shape the way you process life and ministry day by day. Perhaps write these words on a 3×5 card and use them as a bookmark in your Bible.

I am not responsible for the numbers. 

 I am responsible for being a faithful steward of what God has entrusted me.

2. Develop a biblical theology of problems and pain. Every ministry involves both issues and pain, and it’s vital that we who are in ministry think biblically regarding them. Here are some resources that may be of help, particularly in identifying key scriptural texts to consider: 

Brandt, Brad, Promises to Live by in the Crucible of Suffering, audio, and transcripts of sermon series preached at Wheelersburg Baptist Church,

Brandt, Brad, A People to Live with in the Crucible of Suffering, audio and transcripts of sermon series preached at Wheelersburg Baptist Church,

Brandt, Brad. Help! I Live with Chronic Pain (Lifeline Mini-books). Wapwallopen: Shepherd Press, 2020.

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