These final blog posts of 2013 I want to reflect on my reading this past year and share the most helpful books that have shaped my thinking. This post is specifically geared towards those in ministry. The next post will be about a book that I’ve found very helpful for all evangelical Christians.
I read several books on pastoral ministry this year, but by far the most helpful one was Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbra Hughes. The book was birthed from the their “failed” ministry experience. Decades ago, Kent planted a church that had all the elements of success on the outside. But attendance and zeal soon began to decline from the hundreds down to around 20. This left Kent in a state of depression and despair, even doubts of his call to ministry.
God was gracious to Kent and Barbra during this time and “liberated” them from their misunderstanding of success. As Kent and Barbra began to study the Scripture about how God evaluates success, they found a different picture than the one they had bought into.
The book emphasizes what success looks like from a biblical perspective: faithfulness, serving, loving, believing, prayer, holiness and a positive attitude. Sadly, this runs contrary to how churches and pastors are viewed. Success is usually seen in the numbers.
I want to mention a few things about the book personally. First, I wish this was required at some point during my training for ministry. How many men enter ministry with the wrong model and aspiration of success? Statistically around half of the men who finish seminary will be out of the ministry within 5 years. Is this, in some way, tied to a wrong mentality of success? The attendance in our church has remained roughly the same over the past couple of years since I have been pastor. We have gained some great families and also lost some. Certainly I could do things better as a leader. But without a biblical perspective of success, in a few more years I could feel like a great ministerial failure if the numbers do not increase. This book was helpful to evaluate true success.
Second, I wanted to share my favorite part of the book. It is found on pages 102-103. Kent describes a conversation he had with a child of a retired pastor, who on the outside had all the elements of success, yet he was miserable. The son described his dad like this:
“My father is retired now, but he’s just as resentful and unhappy as he has always been.....he literally married himself to the church, all the while disliking the people he served, and envious of his colleagues who had it ‘better’ than he.”
Remember, this describes a man who throughout his life, on the outside, looked very successful as a minister. But listen to the next minister Kent described who had a genuine joy:
“What a contrast with the pastor I met in a remote little western town. His church met in rented facilities and his car had seen better days, as had his trailer-house home. But as he walked down Main Street, stepping around the tumble weeds, he remarked, ‘I can’t believe how good God is to me. I have a wonderful wife, a church to serve, and sunshine 365 days a year!”
The lesson: “success” from an outside perspective is not always better for the soul. True joy comes not as a result of the outward circumstances but from the Spirit working in the heart.
After finding myself more “liberated” from the success syndrome, I find myself more echoing the second pastor. I too can’t believe how good God has been to me. I have an amazing wife who loves our church, four fantastic children who are fun to be around, a church to serve with people who Christ died for, and sunshine probably 90% of the year!
So my suggestion is that all pastors should read this book at least once in their ministries. It is never to late to be liberated from the success syndrome. Thank you Kent and Barbra Hughes!