What does it take to be a successful minister? Pastors typically judge our effectiveness based upon the holy trinity of ministry success: budgets, baptisms, and bodies. The more money the church takes in, the better we feel about how we’re doing. The more people we baptize, the more the Lord approves of us. If we have more bodies in the pews each Sunday, we think we’re having a greater impact on our communities.
The traditional trinity of ministry success is wrong, however. It’s not a bad thing for a pastor to seek after bigger budgets, additional baptism, and more bodies in the pews; in fact, the pastor should seek to be effective in ministry, and these things usually point to effectiveness. The problem comes when we take these good things and make them the greatest thing; for, at the end of the day, these things are insufficient for a biblical understanding of ministry success. God does not call us to be effective in ministry; God calls us to be faithful in ministry: The successful minister may not be effective, but he will always be faithful.
Instead of budgets, baptisms, and bodies, the Bible holds up faithfulness as the mark of successful ministry. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah spent his entire life warning his fellow Israelites about coming judgment from Babylon: During this time, Jeremiah won at most one convert if that. Though he didn’t have ever-expanding budgets, copious amounts of baptisms, and large crowds gathering to hear his preaching, I don’t think any of us have the chutzpah to call Jeremiah a failure. What made Jeremiah successful in ministry was that he was faithful to the call of God in his life. God didn’t call Jeremiah to change lives: God called Jeremiah to go to everyone to whom God sent him and to say everything that God commanded him.1 Jeremiah was faithful to this task; for this reason alone, he was successful in ministry.
In contrast to Jeremiah, Pashhur, who appears in Jeremiah 20, was an Old Testament priest whose “ministry” would get rave reviews according to our trinity of ministry success. Jeremiah 20 says that Pashhur was “in charge of the temple of the Lord”2 in Jerusalem: That’s what you call influence and connections! When Jeremiah upset Pashhur, Pashhur had Jeremiah “beaten and put in the stocks;”3 the next day, Pashhur used his authority to have Jeremiah released.4 Pashhur had connections, influence, and power.
Though he had so many worldly marks of success, Pashhur was an utter failure in ministry. After being released, Jeremiah looks at Pashhur and says, “the Lord’s name for you is not Pashhur, but Terror on Every Side. For this is what the Lord says: ‘I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; with your own eyes you will see them fall by the sword of their enemies.’”5
When we look at Jeremiah and Pashhur, we see two individuals who had radically different ministries: Jeremiah had practically no effectiveness. He was ignored, beaten, and imprisoned.
Pashhur, however, was apparently quite effective: He had connections, influence, and power. Jeremiah had one thing that Pashhur didn’t, however: Jeremiah was faithful to God in his ministry while Pashhur was not. For this reason alone, Jeremiah was a success in ministry while Pashhur is a mere footnote in history.
Perhaps we could paraphrase Paul’s rapturous exposition on love from 1 Corinthians 13: If I am an extremely gifted public speaker making known the most esoteric areas of theology, but am not faithful, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the largest crowds in my denomination and have budgets that can buy the latest and great equipment, and if I have the largest building in the region, but don’t have faithfulness, I am nothing. If I baptize every person in my city and allow my personal life to be put on hold, but do not have faithfulness, I gain nothing.6
1 Jeremiah 1.7
2 Jeremiah 20.1
3 Jeremiah 20.2
4 Jeremiah 20.3
5 Jeremiah 20.3-4
6 Paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 13.1-3, NIV with some direct quotations.