Our main job as servants of Christ is to be good stewards of the mystery of the gospel. That is the one thing we must not fail in. So, I don’t worry too much about what you or the world thinks of me. In fact, I don’t worry too much what I think of myself. I’m not aware of unconfessed sin in my life mind you. But my clear conscience in this regard is not what validates or acquits me. I trust the Lord’s judgment of me. 1 Cor.4:1-4 paraphrased.
Reading some pastoral material one might get the impression that the most important thing a pastor does is “run a tight ship,” “get the most bang for the donated buck,” “keep people coming back,” and essentially market the church and the gospel. I have a book on my desk with a title that specifically highlights church marketing in precisely this way. Eugene Peterson calls this shop keeping. It is a pastoral theology modeled on the American business metaphor. The pastor is essentially the CEO of a non-profit company charged with “changing the world” (a widely overused phrase conspicuous by its absence in the Bible). The business metaphor is not the only one we use. We also like sports. How about the “NFL model” of church growth? Here the pastor is the owner, or the coach, or the quarterback (or all three) depending on the church bylaws and constitution. His job is to create a team that will draw larger crowds and keep them coming, pleasing as many people as possible as often as possible. If revenues drop, or attendance in the stands shrinks, or the team is not winning (beating the other teams in town), then we are “failing.” The emphasis in both the business model and the NFL model of pastoring is on measurable results achieved by human effort. There is an old business motto that says, “What gets measured gets done.” As true as that is in normal this-age endeavors, it is absolutely the wrong way to view ministry in the Church. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if something can be measured in easily quantifiable terms, it probably is not as important as we think it is.
Paul’s approach to ministry evaluation stands in stark contrast. He said he would focus on the gospel and let the Lord evaluate him rather than letting the work itself evaluate him. That is, he did not gain his sense of value primarily from the work he was doing (even though he did work quite hard), but from the Lord’s personal grace toward him (See 1 Cor.15:10). He also said that the evaluation would come at the end of this age rather than now. Paul’s ways are utterly counterintuitive to us. We tend to measure ministry with the same metrics used in business and sports, gain our sense of worth from the results, and look for evaluation (and validation) immediately. It’s not that Paul was lacking discernment or watchfulness about the spiritual state of his churches. He regularly addressed areas where they were not living in the reality of the gospel: like when they were being babies, causing strife, refusing to help each other toward godliness, overemphasizing their personal gifts, flirting with bad doctrine, misinterpreting marriage and treating the Lord’s Table with disdain (See the rest of 1 Corinthians). He knew spiritual maturity when he saw it; and it was always evidenced in relational love, purity, compassion, peace, and gospel/Christ centeredness (See Gal.5:16-26). But he did not put much weight on his own evaluation of his “success.” What a fascinating and difficult balance to strike in ministry.
A pastor’s work is Spiritual formation. That is, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in helping God’s people to grow in their understanding of Christ’s ways, the wonders of the gospel, the hope of the kingdom of God, the mission at hand, and so forth. These are the mysteries of which we have become stewards. The Bible calls this “walking in the Spirit.” But, as the title suggests, Spiritual formation is something the Spirit does. This means that it is not exactly under our control. We do things, certainly. But we do not actually produce, program, or create Christian maturity itself. This is perhaps the hardest part of being a pastor—feeling responsible to the Lord for something we do not and cannot control. How do we deal with this? Well, we do what we tell others to do—we walk by faith and not by sight. I have two suggestions:
– First, we shouldn’t try to measure our ministry the way the world does. We can discern spiritual growth in people (if we know what to look for) but that is not the same as measuring it.
– Second, we should combine equal amounts of patience and persistence in our teaching and spiritual direction. James encourages us, “Be patient, therefore, brothers … see how the farmer waits for the early and the late rains” (Jas.5:7-8). Spiritual growth is slow and usually painful. Patience and persistence are Spiritual virtues that every pastor must have, for himself and for his flock. Give the Spirit time to work in people’s hearts. Persist in prayer, preaching Christ, teaching the Word. But let the power of the gospel under the hand of the Spirit do the actual work.
Don’t despair when people fail, programs flounder, plans implode. We once spent thousands of dollars on a well-planned ministry outreach that crashed on takeoff. By the world’s metrics it was an utter waste of time and money. OK, so we won’t try that one again. But we put it behind us immediately and reloaded for the next opportunity the Lord brought to us. To be a pastor is to live and work in a mystery. Mysteries defy quantification. The only way to navigate is by faith. Trust the gospel and preach Christ.
Just a Thought,