For some unidentifiable reason I enjoy tormenting students with an important albeit slippery theological and philosophical question. What is good? As you might imagine, the answers I get are quite diverse. One student recently responded by citing an online dictionary that offers forty-seven definitions of the word. Forty-seven! Most, if not all, of the forty-seven were not legitimate, as they typically erred by defining the word by the word itself. As you might expect, the question itself is simple, but an appropriate answer has been far more elusive for the unaided human mind.1
Perhaps you already see how this question is critically foundational. For example, as pastors if we are to engage in ministry that is good, with the hope of good results, don’t we need to understand what good is? If we fail to understand this one issue we are in grave danger of heading in an entirely wrong—dare I say bad—direction. It would seem that if there is one thing we can’t afford to miss it is a proper understanding of what is good.
Please allow me, then, a feeble attempt at defining the term: good is that end universally sought by all things when they are functioning as designed. Of course, I understand that I haven’t fully defined the concept; I have merely pointed us in the direction where the definition can be found. If this pre-definition is acceptable, then we must pursue a follow-up inquiry. What is the end universally sought by all things when they are functioning as designed? The answer to this question is so important that it should impact every nook and cranny of our lives. But where would we find such an answer? The same place we should look for all our answers.
The Bible reveals an indisputable end or purpose for all things: the glory of God.2 We often refer to this as God’s doxological purpose. An examination of a few basic works of God shows the centrality of God’s doxological purpose, and it is no coincidence that every work of God revealed in Scripture serves this purpose. Here are twelve important examples:
- God’s Predestining & Calling Works, Eph. 1:5-12; 2 Pet. 1:3;
- The Ministry of Christ (including His resurrection), Jn. 13:31-32; 17:1-5; 21:19; 2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 13:21;
- The Keeping of His Word, Rom. 3:1-7;
- Salvation, Ps. 79:9; Rom. 15:7; 16:25-27; Eph. 1:14; 1 Tim. 1:15-17; 2 Tim. 4:18; Jude 24-25;
- The Church, 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 4:15; Eph. 1:12; Php. 1:11; 2 Thess. 1:11-12; 1 Pet. 4:11,16;
- Fruitfulness of Believers, Jn. 15:8; 1 Cor. 10:31;
- The Kingdom, Php. 2:11; 1 Thess. 2:12; Rev. 1:6;
- Sickness, Death, & Resurrection, 1 Sam. 6:5; Lk. 17:11-18; Jn. 9:1-3; 11:4;
- Judgment, Rom. 3:7; Rev. 14:7;
- Deliverance of Israel, Is. 60:21; 61:3;
- The Fulfilling of Covenants & Summing up of All Things, Is. 25:1-3; 43:20; Lk. 2:14; Rom. 4:20; 15:8-9; 2 Cor. 1:20; 2 Pet. 1:3-4; Rev. 19:7;
- Creation…Ps. 19; Is. 40; Rev. 4:8-11.3
If indeed God’s stated purpose for these significant works is doxological, then how can we fail to recognize that a proper understanding of what achieves God’s glory is in fact foundational to a correct understanding of other aspects of biblical theology? How can we as pastors fail to consider God’s central purpose for all things in our own preparation, planning, conduct and evaluation of the ministries that He has entrusted to us? Sadly, we err quite easily and commonly. There is no shortage of theological trends that distort God’s purpose to the point of being unrecognizable. From the ever popular Christian hedonism, which synthesizes an age old godless, anthropocentric system4 and a subtle yet sinister creedal error,5 to emergent theology’s repackaged amalgam of the social gospel and replacement theology,6 to redemptive-centered covenant theology,7 to the post-modern relational mysticism of The Shack8—God’s purpose, announced so precisely in Scripture seems on the whole to be disregarded.
But pastors, you and I should know better. We should be taking our cue from Scripture, not from the popular theological trends of the day. If we are diligent so as to guard ourselves and our teaching (1 Tim. 4:16) from the many appealing and often convincing contradictions of God’s word, then we can begin to understand that we do not define good, God does, and He has defined it as that which glorifies Him. If good is that end universally sought by all things when they are functioning as designed, and that end is God’s glory, then we must always consider God’s glory first and solely when evaluating the goodness of anything.
Before we can even begin to discuss practical aspects of pastoral evaluation, there are two preliminary questions we have to confront. First, what about those things which are not functioning as designed (and is that even possible…oh boy, deep stuff there)? Without entering a deep and broad discussion on the sovereignty of God (very tempting and worthwhile, due to the wondrous nature of God), let me just point us to Romans 9:21, which contrasts vessels for honorable (timen) use and those for dishonorable (atimian) use. In view of this contrast, one might argue that there ought to be two definitions of good, one for the vessel of honor and one for the vessel of dishonor, since ultimately God will be glorified in all things.
But do I aspire to glorify God as a vessel of dishonor? Of course not. Practically speaking, I would imagine that if you are reading this you also desire to glorify God directly as a vessel of honor. So while the question regarding things not functioning as designed is indeed an important and readily solvable one (Romans 9-11 quite thoroughly addresses this query), for now we will take for granted that we, as pastors, are persons who, by God’s grace, desire to glorify Him as vessels of honor, thus there is no need for us to ask again the question posed by Paul in Romans 9:19, and we need only here consider the kind of goodness, or glorifying of God, that can be accomplished by vessels of honor in His service.
A second question we need to address before moving to pastoral evaluation is whether or not we should even attempt to evaluate success in ministry. After all, didn’t David’s zeal for evaluation cost seventy thousand men their lives (2 Sam. 24)? Of course there were extenuating (to say the least) circumstances involved, and David admitted his own guilt in a seeming recognition of pride and rebellion (24:10). It would appear that David’s evaluation did not consider God’s doxological purpose. Whose glory then did it serve? As the hymnist says “Great things He hath done,”9 not “Great things we hath done.” To suggest that we should not evaluate ministry based on this example is akin to suggesting we should never cut our hair since Samson did so with such tragic results, or that a man should never listen to his wife due to Adam’s plight (insert tactless yet funny joke here…you will have to, because I don’t dare). The issue is not evaluation, just as it is not the haircut or listening to one’s wife. The issue is God’s doxological purpose and where He directs us to fit in it.
Paul evaluates his own ministry with that purpose in mind (2 Tim. 4:7-8), even considering hardship and trial to be under God’s doxological umbrella (Php. 1:12-21). He encourages believers to follow his example and to be observant of others who walk in the same manner (Php. 3:17). Peter, likewise, offers the same apparatus for evaluation (1 Pet. 4:12-13), and calls believers to be diligent and certain of their calling by evaluation and consistency of practice (2 Pet. 1:5-10). Further, Peter acknowledges the importance of reminders for believers (2 Pet. 1:13-14; 3:1-2) and encourages believers to diligence and alertness in purity and steadfastness (2 Pet. 3:14-18). Finally, every believer is to test (dokimazeto) his own work (Gal. 6:4), in order that we not think of ourselves inappropriately, but that we might instead glorify Him. Thus, for the believer, evaluation is not optional. Rather it is to be ongoing and consistently applied.
Evaluating Success & Failure
Thus far we have seen that we should be constantly evaluating our work—including the various ministries that God has entrusted to us—not to catalog our own achievements (such attempts in that regard are always laughably pathetic), but to confirm that we are indeed functioning appropriately as vessels of honor for His glory. We have understood also that in order to evaluate the good and our success or failure in conducting good ministries we must conform to His standard of goodness, and to no other. So what does this mean in practical terms? As a pastor, how am I to evaluate success or failure in the pastoral role?
We are called both to humility (James 4:6-10) and to examination (e.g., 2 Tim. 2:15), and the testing is according to God’s standards in light of His doxological purpose, not according to man’s standards. Paul reminds us not to exceed the bounds of Scripture, lest we fall into the temptation of pride (1 Cor. 4:6). Thus any evaluation of our work, and (for purposes of this present discussion) of pastoral ministry in particular, must be conducted in light of His doxological purpose, and must be grounded in Scripture as the only source of measure. The Bible alone provides the mathematical system for quantifying success in pastoral ministry.
I recall a conversation with a pastor in which he referred to himself as “the losing pitcher” since it was on his watch that church membership and attendance had declined. Other pastors have frequently expressed perceived failure when encountering opposition from people within the church or without, or when not meeting financial goals, or when not securing desirable facilities, or when not being able to create enthusiasm for their programs. Circumstances like these contribute to the discouragement of pastors, and often keep us from focusing on what is really important.
Not so long ago Matt Branaugh wrote an article in Christianity Today entitled “Willow Creek’s Huge Shift.”10 In the article, Branaugh reported that a large portion of Willow Creek’s membership felt “dissatisfied” and “stalled,” and that 63% of those who felt “dissatisfied” contemplated leaving the church. Branaugh writes that this was “alarming to Willow Creek Church.” Among other things (apparently), this threat helped contribute to significant paradigm shifts in how Willow Creek does ministry. Previously, leadership at Willow Creek “sporadically has recognized it was not teaching a robust enough biblical theology and needed to turn the ship around.” The turning of that ship is described as “a huge shift,” but I suggest no huge shift would have been needed had God’s design been more fully in view at the outset.
The lessons to be learned from the discouraged pastors I referenced are the same as those to be learned from Willow Creek’s questioning of its own core values. If we are not grounded in our understanding of the centrality of God’s doxological purpose and in the consistent application of it in our practice, we are almost certain to be pastoring the wrong way. Willow Creek’s methodology was considered by many to be exemplary, and was presented in many seminaries as standard operating procedure. Years later those who developed the methodology admitted (at least some of) its flaws. How much more time will it take for those seminaries and leaders trained in them to also reverse course?
My intention here is not to question the hearts of these leaders nor to criticize them directly—I would assume these are all men who love the Lord deeply, and who among us has been without error? Rather we must be mindful that we all share the same tendencies to measure success and failure by temporal and deceptive standards. As Vince Lombardi famously exclaimed to his football team, “this is a football,” in hopes they would understand the need to return to the basics, perhaps it is past time we opened our Bibles and exclaimed, “this is God’s purpose,” in hopes that we may likewise understand what is the foundation of pastoral ministry and even of life itself. God tells us what is important to Him. Brothers and pastors, if we listen closely we will have no doubt about our success or failure in the ministries that he has assigned to us.
Measuring Pastoral Success
Peter encourages us to consider that the proper use of gifts is a means of glorifying God (1 Pet. 4:11). A pastor is a gift to the church (Eph. 4:11) and utilizes gifts (e.g., teaching, Rom. 12:7) in service to the Lord, thus to be faithful in pastoral ministry one must utilize (and be) gifts for the purpose of God’s glory. A vessel of honor ought to be obedient to the Lord’s design in everything, and for those serving in pastoral ministry no exception is made. But what is God’s design for pastors? Unfortunately we are subjected to mixed messages when it comes to answering this question because we are often not looking in the right place for the answers.
Try this exercise: do a web search on the phrase “successful pastor,” and see how many sites you have to wade through before one even mentions the Bible. You will see big names, relational advice, leadership tips, and if you look long enough you might eventually find a Scripture reference or two. What is evident from such an exercise is that popular culture defines pastoral success in very different ways than does Scripture. Perhaps this can serve as a reminder that we truly must recognize the Bible as our sole source of authority (2 Tim. 3:16-17). While popular definitions of pastoral success are often muddled, accurate pastoral evaluation is readily attainable in light of seven biblical imperatives for pastoral ministry: (1) guard yourself and your teaching, (2) maintain good conduct and personal godliness, (3) lead, oversee, or set in order, (4) function for the equipping of saints, (5) teach, (6) handle the word, maintaining sound doctrine, and (7) attend to reading, exhortation and teaching.
First, pastors are to guard themselves and their teaching (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:14). This first imperative provides the two categories for the other six imperatives: there is first to be an emphasis on the conduct and character of the individual, and secondly, an attentiveness to the teaching ministry. Note the inward-outward focus matches the inward-outward focus of evangelism in Acts 1:8, for example. An order of priority is evident that is particularly relevant to evaluation. Before one can be an effective pastor he must be a godly person. This is an aspect usually ignored or taken for granted in evaluating pastoral success. Personal godliness requires, among other things, proper order of priorities. Relationship with God must come first. After that, God has ordered that a married man love his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25ff), thus a (married) pastor must have as his second priority the wellbeing—spiritual and otherwise—of his wife. Next, the father is given the responsibility to train up his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Priority thus far follows an inward-outward pattern: Relationship with the One who indwells you, then relationship with the woman with whom you are one, then relationship with the children who came from you. Only after those priorities are in order is ministry to the broader church a consideration. And it is at this point that so many of us fail.
As an illustration, I will challenge pastoral students with an exercise: write down the following four priorities in no particular order: children, wife, church and God. Then ponder the importance of each. None of us are perfect, and we will probably not be successful at everything we attempt. If you had to fail at one of them which would it be? You must choose one. Are you willing to fail at being a father? A husband? A pastor? A child of God? I would suggest anyone giving the wrong answer has no business being a pastor until he remedies the error. Yet so many pastoral ministries are destroyed because pastors have not guarded themselves and their teaching. We often do not understand or do not submit to God’s order of priorities in ministry.
Pastors, guard yourselves first, then worry about your ministry to the church. Our willingness to fail as pastors in ministry to the church is in fact prerequisite to our being the kind of godly people that understand God’s order of priority, and thus only when willing to fail at pastoring can we be successful in that ministry. I cannot be a successful pastor if I am an unsuccessful child of God. If I am married, I cannot be a successful pastor unless I am a successful husband. If I have children, I cannot be a successful pastor unless I am a successful father. We must first guard ourselves, and then we must guard our teaching. Before one can evaluate the success of their teaching, one must first evaluate his own character and conduct.
The second imperative for pastors is to maintain good conduct and personal godliness, avoiding shipwreck (1 Tim. 1:18-20, 4:16, 5:21-22, 6:11-16), and therefore to be an example (Tit. 2:7). This is a fitting reiteration of half of the first imperative. How would my conscience evaluate me? What do I flee from? What do I pursue? Am I an example in deed, doctrine, and speech? These are just a few of the questions to be considered in evaluating one’s success in obeying this second imperative.
While the first imperative introduced the two categories of measure: personal godliness and pastoral teaching, and the second imperative focused on the personal godiness aspect, the remaining five imperatives all deal with pastoral leadership through teaching.
Third, pastors are to lead, oversee (1 Tim. 3:1 & 5), and set in order (Tit. 1:5). But lead where? And how? This is about more than leadership dynamics and personal charisma. This is about recognizing and submitting to God’s program for His church. In order to effectively lead and oversee a pastor must be keenly aware of where God wants His people to go, and how He wants them ordered. What tools has He provided? What kind of organization has He put in place? These are just a few of the many issues that must be resolved before one can be a biblical leader in a pastoral role.
Fourth, pastors are to function for the equipping of saints for the work of service (Eph. 4:11). Importantly, pastors are not the ones who do the equipping (solely), but they are to function to that end. Too often pastors create among the people a dependency upon a pastor, to the extent that Christians either do not see their need for personal spiritual discipline and growth or they believe themselves to be incapable of pursuing it. Such a dependency is self-serving to pastors and spiritually crippling to believers. Instead, pastors must abide by biblical principles for training up people from spiritual infancy to maturity. They must understand God’s pedagogical principles and apply them directly. Further, pastors must understand that they are working to the intermediate end (the final end is the glory of God) of equipping saints for the work of service for the maturing of the body. Much like a parent who seeks to train up a child to be independent of the parent, so a pastor must recognize he should be fostering independence and maturity in the believers to whom he ministers. But how is this done? As the saying goes, give the man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Pastors, are we functioning with only the short term in view? Or are we looking to and working for the maturing of believers? Such a focus demands a particular kind of teaching ministry.11
The fifth imperative for pastors is to do what their very definition demands them to do: teach (Eph. 4:11). We must remember that God gave not simply pastors to the church, but pastors and (who are) teachers. The content of the teaching is the word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The students of the teaching are believers (Eph. 4:12), with particular emphasis on believing or faithful men who will be able to teach others as well (2 Tim. 2:2)—in other words there is a high priority placed on the raising up of godly leaders and teachers, and on the appointing of elders (Tit. 1:5). The goal of the teaching is growth and maturity as evidenced in character and conduct (1 Tim. 1:5). If there is a sine qua non of pastoring, it is teaching the word, and it is thus no coincidence that this is the area most under assault in a post-modern emergent culture. The assault is sometimes subtle but no less real.
I recall a pastor explaining during his Sunday morning message that he really was a musician at heart, and his true joy in the pastorate was in “leading worship” (by which I assume he meant leading music, since teaching is a very important part of worship), and that the teaching part was not as important to him. My suggestion to that pastor (with all due love and respect), should the opportunity ever arise, would be for him either to change his priorities or change his ministry. There is no room for pastor-teachers who are not teachers. By God’s definition the pastor is primarily to shepherd by teaching. Thus teaching ought to be recognized as the crux of pastoral ministry. Pastors must also avoid the temptation to adopt secular pedagogies and instead must ask how the Bible defines teaching, and learn from the numerous examples therein provided.
For example, note the pedagogical example of Nehemiah 8, in which Ezra (notably with others, as plurality in leadership was and is still important to God) read, translated and explained (8:8), and the people understood the words (note the importance of words as opposed to concepts and applications) which had been made known to them. Likewise, one can compare the evangelistic methods of Peter in his proclamation to unbelievers (e.g., Acts 2 & 3), and his pedagogical methods in teaching believers by way of reminding them of what was written and what they had learned (1 Pet. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 1:12-21; 3:1-2, 17-18)—evangelism and teaching are not the same thing. Many other important biblical examples are available, and the pastor who would be biblical in his teaching owes it to God, himself, and the people he will teach to investigate very thoroughly God’s design for biblical teaching.
The sixth imperative also pertains to teaching, but has a particular emphasis: Handle the word, maintaining sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1; 2:15-3:1). The term translated sound in the NASB is hugiaino, and can also be translated as healthy or safe. This imperative pertains to speaking only that which is sound, healthy or safe. To obey this imperative requires a great deal of alertness and caution, always measuring speech and teaching to ensure it is sound, healthy or safe—or in a word, biblical.
The seventh and final imperative is to be attentive to reading, speaking, exhorting, teaching and reproving (1 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 2:15). Paul tells Timothy to read, exhort and teach, and in a parallel passage he tells Titus to speak, exhort, and reprove. The two variations show teaching to be multifaceted in method. Reading and speaking are, of course, methods of communication, while exhorting and reproving are personalization of the taught content. Exhorting bears the weight of encouragement and entreaty, while reproving references correction and even discipline. The Bible’s teaching, then, is not dispassionate and disconnected. Rather it cuts to the heart of all who will submit to it, and gives guidance to all in any situation and in any setting, and for those already in Christ, it demands and provides for alterations in character and conduct.
The Bible does not need to be made relevant. It is far more relevant than an infinite number of pastors’ illustrations, stories and anecdotes could ever make it. As pastors we must not attempt to do the work of the word or the work of the Holy Spirit, rather we must do the work He has given us through and with the word. It is not easy. It takes a significant amount of love to encourage and exhort and a likewise great portion of courage to reprove and correct. But if we are reading and speaking the word, we will have the love and courage needed to present the Bible as it is. We will not be bound by a culture that tells us we have no legitimate authority to exhort or reprove, and we will be free from the selfish pride that tells us we can communicate truth better to our generation than can God. How sobering in responsibility and yet how liberating in grace—that God has given us all we need for exhortation and reproof in that little Book.
Thus, in light of the first imperative—to guard yourself and your teaching—and in light of the other imperatives, after first evaluating ourselves we might begin to evaluate pastoral ministry by asking some basic questions. Is it driven by and centered on Bible teaching? Is it doctrinally sound? Is it focused on maturity and replication of teachers? Is it in accordance with God’s design for the equipping of saints? Is it guarding and reminding? Is it biblically grounded in its leadership? Does it reflect biblical priorities? Is it loving enough to exhort and courageous enough to reprove? These questions may be fairly asked, and represent only a few, at that. Yet with confidence I can assert that answers in the affirmative are reflective of truly successful ministries.
But what about the fruit? What about church growth? What about our decreasing attendance? What about the building? What about the programs? What about our approval ratings? What about our impact on our society? What about the color of the carpet? What about the birds and the bees and flowers and the trees…blah blah blah… We need to stop it. We need to evaluate pastoral success based on the standards God has revealed, and not on the ones He hasn’t. God is in charge of the fruit. He is the one building the church, not you or me (Mt. 16:18). It is His church. It is His doxological plan. Let’s stick to fulfilling the responsibilities He has given us. We can be quite confident that He will handle His part. We can trust Him—He knows what He is doing. As it is written,
In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:8b-14).
Republished from Practical Aspects of Pastoral Theology.
1 Plato’s Euthyphro illustrates some of the challenges of answering this question.
2 Perhaps best understood as a kind of Divine Self-expression—much like a painter who pours himself into his art for the purpose of expressing some aspect of his character.
3 Christopher Cone, Prolegomena: Introductory Notes on Bible Study & Theological Method (Fort Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2007), 94-95.
4 Epicurus is an early and notable proponent of hedonism, which is an egocentric pursuit of tranquility through pleasure and managing of desires. His represents a philosophy of self-centeredness, and is not redeemable by simply bringing those desires into agreement with God’s desires. Self –centeredness is still self-centeredness. Believers are not called to gratify self. God often graciously allows happiness for those who commit their way to Him (e.g., Ps. 37:4-5), but happiness is not the believer’s pursuit—God is.
5 From the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This statement implies equality between God’s doxological purpose and man’s enjoyment. It has been practically applied to overemphasize the role of man in God’s program. While this is a fundamental error in reformed theology, dispensational thinkers have also been guilty of building on this shaky ground.
6 E.g., “Our dream is to join in the activity of God in the world wherever we are able, partnering with God as God’s dreams for our world come true. [emphasis mine] In the process, the world can be healed and changed, and so can we.” From www.emergentvillage.com/about/ (accessed on 5/27/09).
7 Covenant theology recognizes that God’s plan of glorification is important, yet in practice the system makes more central the redemptive, soteriological aspects of the three artificial covenants (redemption, works, grace), viewing all of history through a soteriological lens. For a fair description of this non-dispensational view, see Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1993), 21-22.
8 See Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 65, 91, 93, 95, 96, 98-99, 107, 109, 119-120, 122-123, 137, 145, 149, 177, 179, 181-182, 198-199, 214, & 248.
9 Fanny J. Crosby, “To God Be the Glory”, 1875.
10 Matt Branaugh, “Willow Creek’s Huge Shift,” Christianity Today, June, 2008, 13.
11 As an aside, this is one of the reasons I consider it necessary for pastors in their teaching to allow people to become familiar with the exegetical process. Pastors must not teach simply an application of a passage, but they must teach people how to teach themselves the passages.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.