By Karl Vaters
Pastors may be the hardest-working, most undervalued members of our society. And that goes double for the small church and bivocational pastors I spend a lot of time with.
I’m not talking about humility, which is always appropriate. I’m talking about a toxic mind-set that traps many of us.
We tell people in our churches that God is interested in them for who they are, not for what they do. We tell them it doesn’t matter how much money they earn, how big their business is, what other people think of them, and so on. We quote Scripture showing that what our society values has nothing to do with what God values.
Then we go home from church depressed because, after preaching that message, all we can think about is how few people were in church to hear us say it.
Really! Are we that irony-impaired?
Where’d My Success Go?
I’m making this criticism from the inside out. I know this is how a lot of pastors feel—especially small-church pastors—because I felt the same way for a long time. I spent so many years beating myself up for an external lack of success that I ended up in a counselor’s office, burned out, depressed, and angry.
“What’s wrong with me?” I cried. “Why can’t I be a successful pastor? Why won’t my church grow? And how do I fix it?”
My counselor offered several compassionate and helpful words of advice in response to my questions that day. But I remember only one statement. And it didn’t feel kind, compassionate, or helpful when he said it. “You need to redefine success.”
When he said that, I wanted to punch him in the nose.
You see, I thought redefining success was “counselor speak” for dropping the bar, lowering my standards, and settling for less. In other words, being OK with failure. And there’s not a strand of my DNA that will allow me to do that.
But that wasn’t what the counselor meant, so his nose is safe.
What Is Redefining Success?
Here’s what redefining success looks like.
On one side of our lives, there are numerical goals we want to reach: the money we want to make, job promotions we hope to achieve, and for pastors, how big we want our church to be.
On the other side, completely unrelated to our numerical goals, are the things that actually matter—the things we tell our congregations they should be concentrating on. And these are the things we refuse to take our own, or God’s, advice about: family, faith, health, emotional contentment, serving others, loving and worshipping Jesus (oh yeah, that stuff).
Redefining success doesn’t mean lowering our standards on the things that don’t matter; it means realizing they truly don’t matter. And it means raising our standards on the things that do matter. It means shifting our focus.
For small-church pastors, it probably looks as simple as this: serve the people currently in the church with passion, joy, and wisdom. Lead them into worship, hope, and health. Equip them to have an outward-focused faith. Help them raise healthy families, live with integrity, and share Jesus’ love with their community.
Let’s do that well, no matter how many (or how few) people attend our church. That’s not only a healthy redefinition of success in ministry; it’s the original definition of success in ministry.
Karl Vaters serves as pastor with Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, Fountain Valley, California.