What's a "Significant" Ministry?

Posted on January 1, 2004

Our national conference had been an enjoyable time with fellow pastors and missionaries. Denominational leaders warmly welcomed us.

Then it happened. An official told us about someone beginning a new ministry, who was leaving a “significant” work. We knew exactly what he meant: that pastor had left a large church. Suddenly the encouragement of the conference turned into a gut-churning moment.

Why did that innocuous statement bother me so? Was it jealousy, envy, or insecurity? Or did it strike a deep chord because I was already wondering if my ministry, much smaller and in windy Wyoming, was really significant?

Whatever the cause, it forced me to wrestle with the powerful word “Significant.”

If I left my present pastorate, would anyone say I was leaving a “significant” work? Would God?

Amid these storm questions came a gentle breeze of perspective. At that meeting another leaders was introduced: Dr. Bingham Hunter of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. What he shared has stuck with me like a close friend It helped me get a grip on my significance. It still challenges my shallow thinking.

Dr. Hunter’s thesis was simple—define your ministerial significance by ascertaining how God measures success. The ambitious question of the Twelve in Matthew 18:1, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” pleads for an answer. Dr. Hunter focused on this and two other passages in Matthew that answer that question.

The first time Jesus addresses greatness in his Kingdom surfaces in Matthew 5:19. He says that “anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

The first measure of greatness, than, is obedience. With greatness typically linked to statistics, what a decidedly personal assessment! We can’t quantify this measurement in the annual church report or list it on our resumes, yet Jesus commands us to anchor our ministries in personal obedience.

It is a measure of significance that is as accessible and demanding to the pastor of 50 as the pastor of 5,000.

I have discovered that the pastorate, with its temptation toward a righteous facade, nibbles away at my attention to personal obedience.

For example, I find it easier to preach on prayer than to pray. I can wax eloquent on loving my neighbor, but do I? Desiring to be effective, I attendseminars to gobble up the latest strategies, but I admit I am not as enthusiastic to deal obediently with my pride, my anger, or my priorities.

I am becoming more conscious that my personal obedience to God is not just nice, it is critical. I now experience great personal and professional satisfaction when, for example, I handle a difficult person in a biblically obedient manner. I also know that a significant work is resisting an inroad of moral compromise known only to me. Personal obedience is significant.

The second measure is “teaching these commands,” and that touches the nerve of our pulpit and teaching ministries.

I confess, I do not relish preaching on some passages or topics. They are difficult to preach and probably as difficult to hear. I like “crowd-pleasing” sermons that elicit lots of praise and few furrowed brows. I can reason that these homiletic jewels fill the pews and lock the exits. Unfortunately, I can’t escape my responsibility (and my joy) of preaching the “whole counsel of God,” whether popular or not.

In light of Jesus’ command, one of my greatest joys is preaching with clarity. relevance, and integrity through biblical books or texts. I rejoice that God is pleased when I diligently preach even the passages that our tough but necessary. The impact of my ministry must be measured less by my ecclesiastical statistics and more by making genuine disciples, those who obey Scripture’s demands in their personal lives, their homes, and their service for God.

In Matthew 18:14, we read: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the ministry we feel the tension between the demands of confident leadership and the need for a humble spirit. Can we truly lead and yet cultivate humility? We know the answer is yes, but the challenge is how.

Obviously, humility does not mean abdicating our leadership abilities or belittling our unique gifts. When “humble” Moses pleads with God to be excused from leadership, God rebukes his thinly veiled self-pity as unbelief. The larger hurdle for us is usually not humility without leadership, but leadership without humility.

To assist me in keeping proper perspective, I remember three counterweights: God’s grace, my fallibility, and the indispensability of others.

First, I remember God’s grace for my salvation and my ministry. Usually, my humility is most to be affirmed. “Pastor, that was a great message!” I need encouragement, but does these affirmations result in praising God for his grace or the stroking of my ego?

“The first test of a truly great man is his humility,” art critic John Ruskin asserted. “Really great men have a feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them; that they could not do or be anything else than God made them.” Now when a parishioner says, “You are a fine pastor,” I offer it as praise to God.

Second, I remember that I am fallible. Peter Marshall said, “Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change, and when we are right, make us easy to live with.” This reality humbles me, makesme listen better, and encourages me to be gentle with others who fail.

Third, I remember others’ indispensable impact on my life and my ministry.

The last several years our church has helped single moms each September by servicing their cars for the long, cold Wyoming winter. When a pastor friend complimented me for this outreach, I directed the credit to the dedicated laity who made it happen.

If obedience is our motive, and humility our attitude, then serving must be our action. In ministry, we are tempted to view others as existing to benefit and serve us. Power, perks, and position, considered signets of success, drain the servant’s soul. We are enticed to lead by the power of our position, while Jesus’ yardstick is servanthood.

How can I serve?

  • Come dressed to work on a church work day.
  • Volunteer to handle some correspondence so my secretary can care for a sick child.
  • Tidy a beleaguered Sunday school teacher’s classroom.
  • Share my pulpit with a young person aspiring to the ministry.
  • Run the sound system for the soloist rehearsing for worship.
  • I occasionally ask myself, “How have I served the Lord recently, unseen and uncredited.”

Albert Einstein challenged others, “Try become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” Servanthood is significant.

This article first appeared in Leadership journal’s Summer 1999 issue, used by permission. Tim Bowman is pastor of Grace Bible Church in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Tags: H&D, Biblical Principles, Missional Living

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