Nearly every pastor or ministry leader I’ve ever met operates with the assumption that their job is to make their ministry successful. When leaders accept this premise and use it as a guiding principle, they allow the American story of bigger, better, higher, faster, and stronger to dictate the terms of leadership over and above the life and teachings of Jesus.
This wholesale acceptance of the cultural value of success has had a profound impact on the Western church. When the church becomes an agent of the culture, indistinguishable in most ways from society at large, people cease to see the value in belonging, and they opt out.
Nowhere is this pronounced than in church’s goal setting practice. The current church leadership culture is every bit as fascinated with success as the rest of the culture. When church leaders join the throngs of church workers building our tower of Babel, making a name for ourselves, we are participating in a story that is not meant for us, and it becomes our kryptonite. We become just like all the other voices of corporate America, marketing, government, blah, blah, blah… We become meaningless.
The strange thing is that success-driven, goal oriented ministry leadership is not anymore effective that the alternative. The most consistent outcome of church growth methods is not church growth, it’s anxiety. Hard-driving church leaders create anxiety everywhere they go.
The most consistent outcome of faithful leadership is not anxiety, but human flourishing. In fact focusing on faithfulness serves to drain the church community of anxiety. When the pressure to grow is removed, the people of God become free to absorb the pain and suffering of their neighborhood, allowing it to be transformed into a resurrection-life, involving others in a new story of human flourishing, and loving community.
So what does it mean to “decrease” in ministry, practically? This is the point at which I should give pragmatic steps on how to become a faithful leader. The truth is that I can’t give you any pragmatic help. You will have to figure this out on your own. The best I can do is give some practical advice on what you can stop doing. Here are a few goals you could consider for 2016.
Grow Deeper (not bigger): Pour yourselves into discipleship as a church. Make a year-long study of the Sermon on the Mount and the ways in which you can practically live it out.
Stop counting heads: Stop measuring period. If you have to measure things, stop sharing the numbers with your people. Stop believing that faithfulness can be equated with growth. I spent the first two years as a senior pastor convincing my congregation nothing was wrong, telling them that we are a beautiful expression of God’s love, and that if God wants us to grow, we’ll grow, but I’m not going to worry about it anymore.
Stop using the word “success”: Remove the word “successful” from your church vocabulary. Tell your folks it’s a concept that is beyond our pay grade. If you came to my church and started talking about success, I wouldn’t have to say a word. Somebody around you would tell you that success is not what we’re about. We aren’t trying to be successful. We are trying to be faithful.
Stop being pragmatic: As we think about how we are stewarding the resources of our church, the question, “Is this effective?” must give way to a new question: “What does faithfulness require of us right here and now?” The pastor is not looking not for effectiveness, but for the flourishing of your community and the people within it.
Stop serving only the affluent: Find a way to include the poor in worship. When the church becomes busy serving the poor, we have little time to worry about our own successfulness. Service rendered to the least of these is always service to Christ. This is the church at its most powerful, faithfully representing a genuine alternative to the culture at large.
Don’t set goals this year: Just don’t do it this year. At my church we don’t set yearly goals. We just dream about what God might be calling us to do, and then we try to walk faithfully out of that sense of wonder. We don’t force things. We just walk through that are open to us. This means that in our leadership we actually represent an alternative way of life that stands in stark contrast to the culture.