A few years ago I heard a sermon by my friend Scott Thomas. Thomas once led a large church planting organization, and he’s pastored large churches. Scott began his sermon by saying, “I experienced a great deal of success throughout my ministry—but it wasn’t worth it!” That got my attention.
I learned to work hard from both of my parents. God ordained mankind to work. It is God’s plan, and it is good. But I worked hard to prove my worth. Growing up, I do not remember ever receiving love from anyone that was devoid of my performance. So I worked hard and long, not in rhythm to God’s plan, but to be worthy of love. As a result, I worked non-stop in ministry. As a youth pastor, I worked 70-75 hours a week. As a senior pastor (setting my own hours) I worked 80, and leading an international church planting network, I worked 84 hours, seven days a week, 364 days a year. I took Christmas Day off, at least most of it. The more I produced, the more I felt I was worthy of admiration and love.
Thomas makes some good points here.
Pastors are tempted to get their identity and sense of worth from ministry success. If church goes well, and people approve of us, we feel good about ourselves. If church doesn’t go well, and people dislike us, we tend to feel like failures. We’re often motivated by a desire to prove ourselves through our ministries. We weren’t meant to do this: our identity comes from somewhere else completely, and ministry success and popularity will come and go.
Even if we do succeed, ministry “success” isn’t everything that it’s made out to be. I’ve talked to pastors of large churches. I’m grateful that God gives some people the responsibility for large ministries, but I don’t envy them. The bigger the church, the bigger the headaches. No matter how big your church, you could always grow larger. The treadmill never stops. Nobody has ever found the sense of worth they’re looking for through ministry success.
Building our worth on ministry success is likely to undermine the health of our souls and ministries. It can turn ministry into a form of idolatry. It can lead us to overwork and ignore the health of our souls and the wellbeing of our families. It can transform ministry from a form of service and worship to a quest for self-fulfillment.
In his excellent book The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine writes about the suicide of a mentor and friend in ministry. “He could not see himself useful if he no longer held the position of pastor with the care for others that the position enabled,” he writes, before asking a haunting question: “Did I know that I could serve Christ humanly and significantly whether or not I was a pastor or leader in ministry?”
Such a good question. Do we know — really know — that we’re loved apart from our pastoral ministry? The moment that we try to earn our identify from pastoring is the moment we lose the plot.
Pastor, you are loved. You are not loved because you’re useful to God. You’re loved simply because he loves you. When God looks at you, he doesn’t see a worker who earns his approval. He sees his child. God could not love you more because you are in Christ Jesus. You don’t have to earn his approval; you already have it. Ministry can never provide for you what the gospel already does: your full and complete acceptance by God. You don’t have to do anything to make yourself worthy. Jesus has already done it.
Jesus, not ministry success, is where pastors find their worth.