Summary: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

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In his early life as a pastor, Kent Hughes faced a personal crisis. He seemed to be doing everything right in ministry, but his church wasn’t growing—at least not compared to the church across town. This lack of ‘success’ ate at him and made his efforts seem worthless. What else do I need to do to be successful?

Many—if not all—pastors face a similar crisis. Is this just part of the grind of ministry, or is there a better perspective?

Kent and Barbara Hughes sought God for answers from the Scriptures for their dilemma and what they found make the backbone of their important book Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.

The Hughes’ tell their story of liberation from the success syndrome of ministry by sharing rich examples from biblical characters, powerful illustrations, and God’s eternal perspective that will energize and refocus readers. Instead of measuring success with worldly standards, the authors share seven biblical definitions of ministry success, which we share below in the form of a quote summary.

“…the miserable yoke of worldly success is so crushing because it is a burden that God’s servants were never meant to bear.” (106)


Seven Biblical Definitions of Ministry Success

1. Success is faithfulness.

“As Barbara and I searched the Scriptures, we found no place where it says that God’s servants are called to be successful. Rather, we discovered our call is to be faithful.” (35)

“So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2).” (35)

Using the episode from Numbers 20 when Moses struck the rock to provide water for Israel instead of speaking to it, Hughes explains that, “one can be regarded as hugely successful in the ministry and yet be a failure.” (36) Moses was not faithful to God’s word and faced the consequence for it: not being able to enter the Promised Land.

Two Essential Elements of Faithfulness:

1. Obedience

“Obedience (knowing and explicitly doing God’s Word) is the key to true success.” (38)

2. Hard work

“No one keeps track of a pastor’s time…if a man is not a self-starter, it is so easy to come in late and go home early. It is also very easy to let prayer and sermon preparation slip, and, generally, to imagine that extraneous interests are ‘ministry.’ There is more sloth in the pastoral ministry than we would like to admit.” (42)

[Commenting on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14–20]:
“The Lord has nothing good to say about lazy servants; they are unfaithful.” (42)

2. Success is Serving.

“Whenever we may be on the path of servanthood, there is one thing we all must do if we are to be servants, and that is to look to the cross. It is the crowning event of Christ’s servant life, just as Jesus had said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45)…So here’s one secret of successful ministry: When we keep our eyes upon the cross, we want to serve. Friends and co-workers, if we have been chafing under our ministerial burdens, possibly wondering if we have followed our own fancies, we need to envision Christ washing the feet of rough, unlettered fishermen. We need to see Christ on the cross washing our sins away as the Ultimate Servant. And then we need to whisper, “Lord, you washed their feet; you washed away my sins. I will serve you and your church. Amen.”” (50–51)

Three Essential forms of service:

  1. Preaching. “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), tell us that a primary avenue of servanthood is preaching the truths of the gospel.” “Faithfulness in the pulpit requires a vast investment of time and energy and is a great service to Christ and his church, whether recognized by the church or not. Those who would honor God in the pulpit must be servants.” (51)
  2. Administering. “Do we see our executive duties as opportunities to serve Christ? If we do, we will be encouraged to give our very best to him in loving, efficient administration.” (52)
  3. Counseling. “Paul charges us, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Here the pastoral ministry provides vast opportunity for servanthood because we are very often the ones to whom people turn to unburden themselves…pastoral counseling compels us to serve others much in the way the Lord would if he were still here on earth.” (52)

3. Success is Loving.

“Before all things, even service to God, we must love God with all our hearts. It is the highest priority in life! It is the first question for every theologian, every pastor, every missionary. It is the quintessential question for everyone who wants to please God.” (58)

“What appears at first glance to be success, is not necessarily success in God’s economy.” (58)

Love liberates us in four ways (59–60):

  1. It places our lives and ministries beyond the fallible, oppressive judgment of the quantifiers—the statistic keepers.
  2. It liberates us from the destructive tendency to compare ourselves with others.
  3. It frees and motivates us to live our life’s highest priority [loving God].
  4. It is freeing to the whole church, regardless of status, because loving God is something equally open to all.

3 Ways to Cultivate More Love for God (60–61):

  1. Be honest in examining yourself and your current love for him.
  2. Cultivate earnestly the conscious inner ability to love him while we serve him.
  3. Spend special time with him.

Part two shares four more biblical elements of ministry success.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.