Lessons I am Learning in the Ministry (3)

Success is not the Goal

I read a blog the other day by a former minister who described himself as having been a successful pastor. He qualified this statement with the bracketed reflection ‘whatever that means’, which was very helpful as I was reflecting on exactly the same point. What does it mean to be a successful minister? Come to that, what does it mean to be a successful doctor, teacher or business person? I suppose in these professions it could be claimed that to be a success is to achieve whatever targets have been set – numbers of patients treated, numbers of students achieving good grades etc. But is a person who neglects some other area of work in order to achieve these targets still a success? Can the business person who achieves greater profits at the expense of the wellbeing of her employees really be described as successful?

Throughout my time in the ministry I have felt an inner conflict: on the one hand I have been drawn towards the ambition of being a successful minister—to have a growing church and a recognised wider ministry—; on the other hand I reject the crudeness of the idea of success as the criteria for the judgement of any person’s life or work. It has been interesting for me to reflect on this tension and to consider what Siren voices tempt me, in spite of my values, to pursue success. I would suggest at least two very powerful cultural influences are at work here.

The first is neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on the individual and its blind faith in the sovereignty of the markets has infiltrated every walk of public life. School is pitted against school and hospital against hospital in the belief that competition will produce the best outcome for the ‘consumer’. To create this competition performance targets are set, which, like white lines on a rugby pitch, set out the conditions under which this game between hospitals and schools is to be played. Victory and validation for these institutions are achieved by trumping their rivals in the league tables and so becoming more attractive for parents consuming A-levels for their children or patients consuming heart bypasses.

For ministers in a neoliberal world the market becomes the invisible hand of God. Not only must they tailor what they do to maximise the appeal of their church to the consumer—the geographical, social and online communities associated with the church—and so become more appealing to the consumer of religion, but also to achieve that ultimate validation: God’s approval of their ministry. Within a neoliberal culture it is very tempting to conclude that the church that is growing is the one which God likes the best and the minister whose church is the largest is the one who is most blessed by God. The temptation for ministers in this environment, therefore, is to derive a sense of self-validation from the size of their congregations.

The second powerful cultural force is social pragmatism. This is a philosophical movement promoted by, among others, the American philosopher Richard Rorty. It holds that the only universal value is success (this statement is an appalling oversimplification of what is a highly complex system, but although it by no means a summary of pragmatism it is accurate as a statement of one element of what pragmatism promotes) . Now if success is prioritised over every other conceivable value then whatever needs to be done to achieve success is clearly not only permissible, but is to be encouraged: the end (success) justifies any means. Its influence is best seen in politics and the media: if telling the electorate that the NHS will save £350m a week if Britain leaves the European Union will win the election for the Vote Leave campaign then that is what needs to be done. Concerns over the decline in ethical standards among politicians and journalists are best understood as a response to the rise of pragmatism as a world view.

Given the ubiquity of these two theories, I am reassured that my inner conflict over the success of my ministry is to be expected. It is simply one of the potential challenges of being a minister at this time. But this is not a challenge that can be safely overlooked.

The real danger of buying into the supremacy of success is the anxiety it would inevitably provoke. This would take one of two forms: the anxiety of not being successful or the anxiety of having to keep being successful. It is, of course, an anxiety that derives its force and intensity from the thought that if I am not successful then that would mean that God had withdrawn his approval. With this threat behind me I would be driven towards the rocks of hyperactivity and of the exploitation and manipulation of others in order to achieve what will have become a psychological necessity.

Having said all of this I must have some sort of goal for my ministry. There needs to be a focus for my ambitions, a destination that provides my ministerial journey with direction. By rejecting a neoliberal and pragmatic version of success am I condemning myself to an aimless drifting through the dull and dry routines of a ministry where mediocrity is tolerated and negligence is justified? I don’t believe so. I am instead working to replace the goal of success with a greater one: that of personal flourishing within the community of God’s people.

There is, of course, something universal about the goal of human flourishing; there is nothing about it that is specific to the ministry alone. But this does not render my calling as a minister irrelevant as far as my personal goal is concerned. If I am looking to become a person who is flourishing through growing in love, faith, hope, courage, truthfulness etc, then this cannot be abstracted from my identity as a minister. No virtue can be abstracted from the specific life context of the person who possesses it. If I am to become a person of faithfulness then it is as the husband of my wife, the minister to my church, the friend of my social circle and the citizen of my country that I am to be faithful. It is as a minister, therefore, that I seek to be characterised by the virtues of Christ. Alasdair McIntyre makes the point in his book After Virtue that for an accountant (say) to be a good human entails er becoming a good accountant, where ‘good’ refers to the virtues that characterise her self-identity as an accountant: diligence, honesty, integrity etc.

For me to flourish within the specific and unique context of my life means, among other things that I work to fulfil my calling to minister to my congregation to the best of my ability. It means that my direction of travel in the ministry must be determined by the pursuit of Christ and the task of making his attributes my own. It means also that I continue to take responsibility for the gifts I have been given, to improve them and to use them for the benefit of the church. This may or may not lead to the growth of my church. I would, of course, prefer that it did (I cannot claim to be disinterested in the growth of my church!), but if it didn’t then Jesus would still be Lord and I would still be a child of God by his grace. My world, my self, would not be threatened and my task would remain the same: to flourish by following Christ.

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2 Responses to Lessons I am Learning in the Ministry (3)

  1. Gordon Martin says:

    Problem I see here is that the aim to personally flourish as described is going to lead to an intospective pietism. Also an acceptance that it’s okay not to be successful in terms of growth, which means people are not being converted.


    • owenbach says:

      I agree that there could be a danger of introspection, but I state in a previous post (Cavemen and Campfires) that to be human is to be turned towards others, to be for others. We flourish as humans then only when we love as Christ loved. I try to indicate towards the end of this current post that the expansion of the church is not something I am disinterested in, however, I do think that it’s okay not to be successful in terms of growth, which is the point I am trying to make. Having said that, I also believe that if believers are focussed on authentic living in hope then the church is attractive to a world that lacks genuine hope. What do you think?


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