Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Book Review: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

As I've mentioned previously, I've been reflecting on the notion of success in ministry, particularly since I've just passed my first anniversary in this parish (but I'm still, seemingly, the new rector!). I've already read and reviewed Shawn Lovejoy's book The Measure of our Success, but while I was on holiday I read a similar book which had long been on my shelves.

Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome comes from the pen of Kent and Barbara Hughes, as they share their own story of ministry burnout and recovery. I had heard Kent teaching at the very first NIMA back in 2005, and remember him sharing a little of the story during the teatime interview, but this book gives the whole picture. It was a touching, and challenging read.

'Pastors... often face significant feelings of failure, usually fueled by misguided expectation for success.' This sense of failure almost made Kent quit: 'The significance of my experience is not its hardness, but that it almost made me quit my divine calling.' Indeed, as he goes on to say, 'I wanted to quit. How had I come to this? In retrospect, I can now see that much of it had to do with my expectations.'

What makes this book special is that you don't just hear from the burnt out pastor - you also hear the other side of the story, from his wife. The minister's wife doesn't have an easy life, in that unique position of being a part of the congregation, and yet being on the inside of the ministry family as well. Barbara shares her experience of that time, and how it was her faith that somehow kept Kent going until he could believe again.

The problem arises, they maintain, because of the thrust of most counsel to pastors - your church will grow if you are involved in marketing, understand the sociology of people, encourage giving, grow in godliness, and teach the word - simply as if it's a formula or a machine: put this in and out will come the end result. But it's not always so. What if you're in a small church; can you be successful in a small church?

Through the succeeding chapters, the authors take the reader through a series of definitions of success, most importantly centred on what the Bible says, rather than on ministry or church planting gurus. In some senses, these chapters were reminiscent of other books from the Hughes couple, the Disciplines of a Godly Man (woman, etc).

Their first definition may well be the most significant. 'We found no place [in the Bible] where it says that God's servants are called to be successful. Rather, we discovered our call is to be faithful... Faithfulness is possible for all believers, regardless of the size of a person's ministry.' Faithfulness is based on (i) the obedience factor - knowing and doing God's word; and (ii) being hard working.

The remaining definition chapters, in brief, spell out that 'Servanthood yields success - because in serving we become more like Christ.' 'In the spiritual realm, the number one priority is loving God.' 'Without faith (believing) there is no success.' 'As God's undershepherds we must keep our lives ever sharp through prayer.' 'Holiness is foundational to true success. No one can be regarded as a success who pursues a life contrary to God's will.' 'Attitude is everything. There are two attitudes that particularly characterise ministerial failures: negativism and jealousy.'

The section ends with a completely turned around testimony: 'We had discovered that the miserable yoke of worldly success is so crushing because it is a burden that God's servants were never meant to bear. So this is our testimony: we found success in a small church that was not growing. We found success in the midst of what the world would call failure. We realised that the results are for God and eternity to reveal.'

Part 3 presents the places and people for pastors to find and receive encouragement: God, the call, being ordinary (and used by God), fellow workers (in what they call the Titus Touch), and the reward of heaven. It can be so easy to get burdened by the work and fail to see the positives, so this is a useful list that will be revisited heavily. The Titus Touch is one that I've been trying to do anyway - in coming alongside and spending time with other pastors - but is even more on my priority list now. Indeed, as I read that chapter, I sent out a few encouragements by text from my sunlounger, and will continue to try to see the guys face to face.

Part 4 presents some helps for the pastor, some useful help for the pastor's wife and congregation to take on board to ensure that they are serving the pastor who serves them.

All in all, this is a very important book for anyone involved in pastoring to read. It's probably better to read and learn from Kent's experience rather than going down that same road and having to learn it first hand. It's a helpful and timely reminder that success in ministry is not the same as worldly success - but in pleasing the Master through faithfulness in our current station. It would also be good for those involved in church leadership - Vestries, Elders, Committees - to think through their aim for success, and to help serve their pastor in his work. You can get it from Amazon.

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