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4 Hard Lessons for Measuring Ministry Success

We all know the drill. Faithfulness isn’t measured by the size of our church. It’s foolish to compare ourselves with others. A big church isn’t necessarily a healthy church. A small church can have a big impact. And so on.

Easy to say. Easy to write.

But it’s not so easy to take root in our soul. I know firsthand. In my first three years at North Coast Church, not much that we tried worked. Church growth was nonexistent. It was a season of significant depression.

Then suddenly, everything changed.

It wasn’t because of a turnaround in our ministry. It wasn’t a new facility or new people.

My depression started to lift after a spiritual kick in the gut. All I remember is a sudden and intense awareness that God was not pleased with the way I was evaluating my “lack of ministry success” and the church’s lack of growth.

He showed me that the thought process leading to my depression (Our church isn’t growing; it’s all my fault; I must be a bad person and pastor) was the same thinking that would produce arrogance if we ever experienced rapid evangelistic growth (Our church is growing; it’s all my doing; I must be a lot better than those who are struggling).

It shook me to the core. It was one thing to feel like I was coming up short of my ministry potential; it was another to realize that I had a deep-seated spirit of arrogance and haughtiness masked only by my lack of outward success.

The result was a complete realignment of my ministry scorecard. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Focus on the flock I have.

1 Peter 5:1-4

I worried so much about the sheep I wanted to shepherd someday that I forgot to care for the sheep I already had. It’s no wonder God wasn’t too keen on sending more of them my way to be ignored or used.

I can prepare the horse for battle, but I can’t control the outcome.

Proverbs 21:30-31

Like most leaders, I’m often quick to take credit for victory and quick to cast blame for defeat. But the fact is, especially in the spiritual realm, all I can do is prepare my horse for battle; the outcome belongs to the Lord.

The harvest is determined by the soil’s quality, not the farmer’s skill.

Matthew 13:1-23

Even with the best farming techniques, the best seed planted on hardpan will produce nothing. Some of us minister in great soil; some of us minister in rocky or weed-infested soil. It’s foolish to take too much credit or too much blame for the size of the harvest.

Do my best, then take a nap.

Matthew 16:18

It’s nice to know that the success or failure of the kingdom does not depend on the success or failure of my particular ministry. It’s not about me—or you. It’s about Him. He won’t fail. He’s God. And He’s got our back. We just have to do our best—then go ahead, take a nap. That’s all He asks, even when our board, congregation and peers want a lot more out of us.

I discovered I really could find my identity in Christ, not the size of my church. I could savor the incredible privilege of ministry, even when times were tough and fruit was sparse. Best of all, I found myself inching closer to a goal my mentor was constantly putting in front of me: “Jesus wants you to get to the place where you have nothing to prove and no one to impress.”

I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But I am a lot closer.

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Larry Osborne is a senior pastor at North Coast Church in Vista, California. With 20 weekly services on five campuses, North Coast is known for both its innovation and its small back door. You can learn more about the principles he shared here in his upcoming book, Sticky Church (Zondervan/October 2008) and the Sticky Church Conference. You may also visit the North Coast Training Network at www.NorthCoastChurch.com/Pastors.