Book Review -- Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

I took a phone call about six months ago that really got my attention. On the other end was a pastor who was having to endure some very difficult times. He was a good friend of mine and I know that his motivations are right but his understanding of “success” is all wrong. I tried to carefully and gently share it with him and the graft did not immediately take but in time it will because the pain that he is having to endure will bring clarity to what I told him.

As I listened, I discovered that I had heard this conversation countless times in the last 10 years. I noticed that there were some minor variations in the details of the call and that only the geography had changed. The geography was different but the essence of the story was not. I am coming to fear that far too many good men have allowed the American Dream concept of success to totally wreck the biblical prototype of successful ministry. If you are a minister, pastor, assistant pastor, or fill any other role in the American church, I plead with you to do a deep and careful study of 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus, and for good measure toss in 2nd Corinthians. Paul's words to Timothy and Titus map out a job description for pastoral ministry and 2nd Corinthians gives the picture in shoe leather of what a man is to do that is in spiritual leadership especially under duress. If you choose modern books on business leadership to define your job description, ultimately what one will learn to do is gather up a host of tares and build a “tare house” of worship. The last time I checked Covey, Blanchard, Maxwell, Drucker, Holtz, Wooden, Collins, Csorba, Lencioni, and the chief heretic of all, Ayn Rand, weren't apostles and they could provide me with zero instruction of the spiritual aspects of building God's church. Sadly, I have spent a lot of time with these clowns before I chunked them all about 3 ½ years ago. I finally decided that Paul could give me a whole lot more insight into what God wanted than someone whose chief goal in life was to sit on top of a totem pole that exalted materialism.

One of the specific reasons that many pastors feel that they are failures is because they are not living up to the standards set by the business world to build the church. If the numbers were up, they were up. If the numbers were down, they were down. Everything had to do with line and bar graphs that measured attendance and dollars. The focus of ministry suddenly degenerated into one becoming a “spiritual bean-counter.” Ministry no longer focused on personal godliness of the man, holiness of life, integrity of character, and the stability of his home.

As time progressed, Satan sat in his corner and took a holiday. He decided that he would let the pursuit of “success” eat the soul out of the preacher and it would not only kill the man but it would kill his family and the church that he was serving. Kids would go haywire and a marriage would dry up, but before it did it would have to endure a thousand painful blows. It would not be long until the church would get lost in a pantheon of confusion that pursued humanism and idolatry. So presently the devil is sitting back just watching a lot of good men simply self-destruct in their pursuit of the wild numbers game called success.

In the pursuit of success, he would either get “it” or he wouldn't get “it.” Either way the devil would win out. Those who got “it” often got so busy that they worked for years building the church before they realized God had not been there in a while. In fact, success had kept them so busy that they really did not know how long it had been since God had been eased out the door on a greased track by professionalism. Don't worry about God, just make sure those PowerPoints are nifty and the lights are working and the sound is right where it needs to be. “Quick give me one of those handy little sermons that are wrapped in tight, relevant packages. Better yet, let's do a series so that things are mapped out for six weeks!” The band played on and the tares grew higher and higher until pretty soon there were only a few bedraggled stalks of wheat left. It would not be long until the tares would get them too and the whole harvest would be lost. Yet, the bars and lines on the graphs were leaping off the page. Numbers and money was up but the church was dying from a famine of Bread.

Pastoring a church in these times can be very challenging. If we aren't careful we can fall into the same trap that Nabab and Abihu did and offer a strange substitute that God isn't going to be real pleased with. It will end up costing us everything just as it did with Aaron's sons.

Back to my phone call that I first mentioned, the story went on of how that this good man had poured his time, his finances, literally his life into what God had called him to do. He rehearsed with me some of the difficult pressures that his family had been forced to endure because of his absence due to ministry demands or his work demands from a secular job. His children had been fatherless and his wife had been “husband-less” all in the process of “building a church.”

Over the years, it comes to my mind now that I know of several ministers whose marriages have literally fallen apart and they are now divorced because of the pursuit of “success” in the church. I am aware of a trail littered with their children who are now totally out of the church and have no intentions of every coming back because of the demands that they saw on their family. I know of more than one broken man who turned his back on his calling because of the incessant and demanding (maybe ungodly?) siren call to be successful in the ministry.

If it seems like that I am on edge with this blog entry, you have discerned correctly. I am angry that some men that I hold in high regard and count as close friends feel that they are colossal failures. I am angry that the American dream has been pulled into their ideas of what a church is to be. I am angry when I see others tossing non-negotiables over the side of the boat, things that are good, godly and necessary, that will take a church to the pit of carnality so it will be tasteful to the community.

You also might wonder what moved me in the direction of this thought and I have confess it was a little book that I recently picked up by Kent and Barbara Hughes entitled Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I got it yesterday and started reading it before my mid-week Bible study on 1st John around 5:30. I came home last night and picked it up again around 10:30 and hang on for the ride until midnight. So compelling was the book that I have spent much time and thought throughout the day reading it. By the way, it is such a book that you read a while and then pray a while. I have prayed for a lot of the Lord's servants today and prayed that He would deliver us from the soul-eating, mind-exploiting, and pride-inducing grasp of “success.”

I am going to give you the introduction and I believe that it will be a worthy investment of your time to go out and find it and read it.

Some onlookers thought it was unusual, but few noticed when the pastor wheeled into the church parking lot in a borrowed pickup truck. But everyone's eyes were upon him when he backed the truck across the lawn to his study door. Refusing comment or assistance, he began to empty his office into the truck bed. He was impassive and systematic: first the desk drawers, then the files, and last his library of books, which he tossed carelessly into a heap, many of them flopping askew like slain birds. His task done, the pastor left the church and, as was later learned, drove some miles to the city dump where he committed everything to the waiting garbage.

It was his way of putting behind him the overwhelming sense of failure and loss that he had experienced in the ministry. This young, gifted pastor was determined never to return to the ministry. Indeed, he never did.

We wrote this book because of this story—and many, too many, others like it. We are concerned about the morale and survival of those in Christian ministry. Pastors, youth workers, evangelists, Sunday School teachers, lay ministers, missionaries, Bible study leaders, Christian writers and speakers, and those in other areas of Christian service often face significant feelings of failure, usually fueled by misguided expectations for success.

It is true that our Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries are flooded annually with bright and motivated students. But it is also true that every year thousands leave the ministry convinced they are failures.

We know what it's like. We too almost succumbed to the enticements. It is our hope that the account of our subtle confusion about success, our near ruin, and ultimately our liberation through the truth of God's Word will aid in delivering others from this unhappy goddess.

This is a portion of the introduction.

Part One is the gut-wrenching story that Kent Hughes writes frankly of his disillusionment with the ministry and with the church.

Part Two of the book deals with the core of success from the biblical model as being faithfulness, serving, loving, believing, prayer, holiness, and attitude.

I think it is worth your time and your money to read this book. I also realize that my tone in the opening salvo of this blog may have been looked upon with some disdain. But my justification, if there is any, is that I know of a lot of men who pouring their lives into the Kingdom of God and feel like defeated failures because their churches aren't measuring up to the one across town or across the country.

Thanks for reading. . . . .


Good book...thanks
Anonymous said…
Brother Harrelson,

This is an excellent piece of writing. As a mildly successful church planter, I must say, it is easy to fall into the success trap. Far too often I have measured myself against others instead of the Word.

Thanks so much for blessing me today.

Edward Anglin
Staunton, Illinois
Pastor Mills said…
BOOYA! AMEN! I'm also tired of the same thing. I've talked to a few of my friends here recently who, like myself, have thought just about EVERY MONDAY, how good it would be to just go get a job at Wal-Mart running the cash register! I've been feeling frustrated, aggitated, aggrivated, sick & tired or being sick & tired lately with the "pressures" of trying to lead this current generation of CONSUMERS!

People, now shop for churches like they do for groceries and the "trap" I feel like we've gotten into is the feeling that we have to "compete" with the guys across town who keep building BIGGER buildings!

Anyway, before I lose my Victory, I'd like to testify that after a MUCH NEEDED PRAYER MEETING in my office yesterday morning, I'm back and ready to kick the devil's teeth down his throat.

Who cares if somebody thinks this blog is "edgy!" It's the TRUTH and its time we WOKE UP, slapped ourself (or let somebody else) and got back to what has ALWAYS WORKED for God's people...HIS PLAN!

His ways are NOT our ways and His thoughts are NOT our thoughts, and we can read every business model book for church growth that we want to, but it won't do what HIS WORD will do!

whoooooooooooo! I'm about to run a lap around my office right now!

GREAT blog! Keep it EDGY!

Marshall Clack, II
Revival Center, Atlanta, GA
Anonymous said…
thanks bro. harrelson............

you have encouraged me ...........

pastor scott baham
Anonymous said…
Brother Harrelson,

Good post, my brother. We need to define success in more biblical, godly terms. Success is doing God's work God's way. Ministry is a stewardship arrangement. The first and foremost requirement of a steward is faithfulness. Forget what the pastor at the Church of the What's Happening Now is doing and focus on obeying the Lord in your own call.

I am afraid that we often confuse "vision" with ambition. One comes from God, the other from the flesh. Vision comes from God and seeks to promote His People and His Will. Ambition comes from the flesh and seeks to promote My ministry and My reputation. Wow! You done got me started.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I will certainly put it on my list.

Nevin Bass
Anonymous said…
Bullseye! Excellent as usual, Bro. PH. Thanks for a great read! --kv

Popular posts from this blog


Characters from Pilgrim's Progress -- Valiant for Truth

Why You Should Have a Prayer Journal