How does one measure success in ministry? Longtime pastor Kent Hughes and his wife Barbara urge readers to turn to God's Word rather than numbers.
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About the Author
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and former professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Barbara Hughes has supported her husband Kent’s pastoral ministry for over forty years while also raising four children. She is a popular teacher of women’s groups and the author of several books. Barbara and Kent live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
As I begin our story, do not suppose that this is the hardest thing that has happened to me in the ministry. It is not. The significance of my experience is not its hardness, but that it almost made me quit my divine calling.
When a man is forty-five he is said to be in mid-life, and I certainly am. It is also often said that he is in his prime, and that I am. I have been married twenty-five years to a woman who is not only my love but my soul partner. We have four children, all of whom love Christ and want to serve him in their callings.
Twenty-three of our twenty-five years have been spent in ministry. Preaching is my passion. Even on vacation, I enjoy books that have to do with the history of preaching and homiletic thought and theology. I feel as if I am doing the thing I was born for.
The ministry has made it possible for me to experience what some would (unwisely!) call success, as I have traveled widely, spoken to international conferences, written several books, and sat on the boards of Christian organizations.
Those who have served alongside me these past twenty-plus years say that they see me as a capable, solid, even-dispositioned pastor who has a positive approach to ministry — and all of life. And without hesitation I can say that they are right. Though I am not unfamiliar with dark moods, such times are rare in my life — and always have been.
All of this is what makes the following account so enlightening.
I was not feeling well as I stepped from the car onto my broiling southern California driveway and walked, briefcase in hand, toward the shade of the front porch. There Barbara cheerfully greeted me through the kitchen screen.
Aware of my gradual depression, she had been observing me with increasing concern. My gait had lost its characteristic energy and I often appeared downcast. Barbara knew that it had to do with my work, for she observed that when things were going well at church I was OK, but otherwise I was discouraged. If church attendance was up, I was up; if it was down, so was I. And the numbers had been going down for a long time.
What Barbara didn't know was that I was seriously wondering whether I should continue in the pastoral ministry. Neither was she aware that the doubts troubling me were actually so repugnant that I could not bring myself to verbalize them. Nor could she know that as I further suppresed them, my depression itself had become increasingly ugly.
A covert, unarticulated animosity had crept through my soul. It was hidden from all. Years of honestly cultivated Christian civility served me well — for inside I was a very angry man.
The focus of my resentment was God himself, the one who had called me to this. I had given everything — all my time, all my education, years of ministry and true Christian devotion (he knew?) — and now I was failing. God was to blame.
Beneath my pastoral veneer, dark thoughts moved at will.
Inside I was embarrased and fearful. At night, as I drifted off to sleep, the beneficent faces of my well-wishers would slip in and out of focus — always smiling. They seemed benignly to watch me sink into a pit of miserable despair.
I wanted to quit.
How had I come to this? In retrospect, I can now see that much of it had to do with my expectations, which went back to the very week when as a twelve-year-old I meet Christ at summer camp. ...
I can still remember the gowing lens of my flashlight illuminating the delicate pages of my tiny Bible. After lights out in the musty, gym-sock air of my sleeping bag, trembling with joy, I read and reread the great texts of salvation. I had come to know Christ!
Although I was not quite a teenager. I knew that I was called to preach. So sure was I that the next day I let everyone know. When I went home, I announced it to my family and gave testimony to it before the whole church. It was a precocious announcement, but it was of God. The call was never to leave me. It gave profound direction to my young life. God had saved me and called me, and in my youthful egocentricity, I assumed he was going to do great things through me.
Because I this my teenage years were full and focused. I wholeheartedly entered into the life of my local southern California high school and church — all the while happily growing in my pastor-to-be persona.
When just sixteen I preached my first sermon on Jonah and the Whale. I gave it a double title: "The Chicken of the Sea, or God Has a Whale of a Plan for Your Life!" So it was a sermon of dubious wit and doubtful quality! The mere doing of it established my identity as one called to the gospel ministry. Many kind and affirming people in my church predicted I would be a "good" preacher. And with their predictions, my anticipation of future success increased.
Despite my immature pride, my call was an intensely serious matter to me. Virtually everything I did was with an expectant eye to the sacred goal of ministry.
I went to Whittier College. There I became deeply involved in studies and preparation for the pastorate. I directed Youth for Christ clubs, did some street preaching, and organized evangelistic outreaches to students at other colleges.
Meeting and marrying Barbara — my cheerful, outgoing. ministry-minded wife — deepened my commitment and the sense that the best times Lay ahead.
Choosing to begin a family as college ended meant increased pressures. I attended classes, worked forty hours per week, and together Barbara and I began an exciting ministry with young married couples in our church that carried over into our years at nearby Talbot Theological Seminary. To be sure, our single-mindedness left us tired, but we were happy.
Seminary was all I had hoped for and more, There is a distinct romance to biblical study. "The Queen of Sciences," With its epic history, magisterial doctrines, delicately nuanced theology, its Greek and Hebrew. And I entered the romance completely, for studying the Scriptures and learning about Christ were heaven to me. Lifelong friendships with godly professors and students strengthened our resolve to serve God with all that we had. Seminary confirmed for me the rightness of my vocation. It also had the effect of heightening my expectations of success.
During seminary I began a memorable ten years of ministry in my family church, first as youth pastor and then as associate pastor. This was the sixties — restless, unsettled, but a time of wonderful spiritual harvest. Our Bible studies overflowed with teenagers honestly and earnestly seeking truth. Many not only met Christ but went on to become missionaries and ministers.
The highlight of that ministry is framed in a five-by seven photograph hanging in the hallway of our home.
The photo was taken in 1968 in Parker, Arizona, during our high schoolers' Easter Outreach week. It was snapped in the intense low morning sunlight of the Arizona desert, which gives it almost surrealistic detail. In the background is the turquoise ribbon of the morning-lit Colorado River. In the foreground are five young men posed on a boat trailer. They are tan, windswept, and holding beers with postured male élan. Three of those young men would confess Christ that morning. Today two of them are in the ministry and the other is now a prominent Christian counselor. That picture demonstrates for me the sovereign, ineluctable power of God. Those young men, before that week completely unknown to me, not only were revolutionized by God's grace but have led unusually productive Christian lives and have been my good friends for almost twenty years.
If only all of Christian ministry were as triumphant as that photograph. Unfortunately, ministry is messy. One experiences a wide range of disappointments and criticisms in ten years of aggressive Christian service.
Even so, those were productive and satisfying years. But, having reached the age of thirty-two, I realized it was time for me to begin an active pulpit ministry. God's call was clear. And I looked forward, with an anticipation that had been years in the making, to what God would do.
The church I served decided to mother a new church with me as the founding pastor. In this adventure, the sponsoring church and its pastor were wonderfully magnanimous. Together we produced an excellent multimedia presentation to communicate to the congregation the potential of the new work. When the pastor urged all to respond who felt the call of God to commit themselves to planting this new church, twenty families decided to go with us. To top that off, the church gave us a gift of $50,000 to get us started.
What a way to begin a church! Optimism ran high. As the fair-haired boy, I was told by friends that great things were about to happen, and it would not be long before the new church would be larger than its mother. Such talk enlarged my expectations. I believed it.
The people who gathered with us to begin the church were terrific. We left our initial meetings amazed at the array of gifted, hard-working, visionary people the Lord had brought with us With such people we expected to grow.
And we did things "right." Our denomination retained a church growth expert who instructed us in the broad principles and minor subtleties of growing churches. They sent me to seminars on church growth. We obtained aerial photographs and demographic projections commissioned ethnographic studies, consulted with the County, and chose the target community with painstaking and prayerful premeditation.
Beginning a new church is exhausting work, and we went for it with all we had. I found myself attending meetings, strategizing, canvassing, counseling. preparing sermons, and borrowing pianos, pianists, projectors, and pulpits. Then came the Sunday ritual of preparing the rented facilities for worship services — sweeping out the trash from the community center. helping Whitey Cary unload the big storage trailer containing the pulpit, microphones, hymnals, rugs, rockers, and playpens, and then in the evening working in happy Christian bonhomie with the entire congregation to disassemble and pack up our church for another week.
From the start, we had everything going for us. We had the prayers and predictions of our friends who believed a vast, growing work was inevitable. We had the sophisticated insights of the science of church growth. We had a superb nucleus of believers And we had me, a young pastor with a good track record who was entering his prime. We expected to grow.
But to our astonishment and resounding disappointment, we didn't. In fact, after considerable time and incredible labor, we had fewer regular attenders than during the first six months. Our church was shrinking, and the prospects looked bad — really bad.
So as I walked up my driveway on this hot summer day in 1975, after more than a decade of ministry, I began to lose my equilibrium. My long- established world of bright prospects and success had melted around me.
I was in the darkest, deepest depression of my life. My memory of this time is of a gray horizonless sea. A faint light falls from a threatening sky and I am treading water alone, sinking. Son I will be below the surface. Melodramatic, to be sure! But that is how I felt. I wanted out.
Seeing Barbara's smile through the screen, I brightened, as always, and for the next few hours I was preoccupied with my happy young Family. But after dinner, when the children were in bed, despondency crept over me once again.
Except for my wife, it seemed that no one cared. And on this hot summer's midnight of soul, I was ready to talk.CHAPTER 2
"Hang On to My Faith"
Late that night when the children were soundly sleeping and the only sound was that of insects flapping against the hot screens, I began to reveal the depth of my calamitous misery to Barbara. As I spoke, my eyes burned red with frustration and anger. Dark thoughts mounted within, waiting their escape.
Barbara's attempts to soothe me received predictable responses. When she said, "Honey, your sermon really spoke to me last week." I responded, "Yes, but I'll just be on trial again next week." Again, she tried to cheer me up. She said that in her study of Genesis she saw that Noah had preached for 120 years without a single convert. My dark-humored response was, "Yes, but there wasn't an other Noah across town with people flowing into his ark!" Barbara was terribly frustrated too — and with obvious good reason. But unlike me, her faith did not waver. And on this hot September evening I poured out all my dammed-up. hidden feelings.
What came forth was repugnant and offensive — truly mean. "Most people I know in the ministry are unhappy," I said. "They are failures in their own eyes. Mine as well. Why should I expect God to bless me when it appears he hasn't blessed them? Am I so ego-centered to think he loves me more?"
I wasn't exaggerating the situation. Conversations over the years at pastors' conferences supported my thoughts. A few moments of personal exchange with a pastor almost invariably revealed immense hurt and self-doubt. Most pastors were unhappy with themselves and their work. And I secretly agreed with many of their self-assessments.
I went on: "In cold statistics my chances of being a failure are overwhelming. Most pastors do little more than survive in the ministry in piddly little churches." I rehearsed how a professor had stood before my seminary class and said that eight out of ten will never pastor a church larger than 150 people. Those were the statistics. And if true, they condemned most pastors to subsistence living unless their wives worked outside the home. "The ministry is asking too much of me," I said to Barbara. "How can I go on giving all that I have without seeing results, especially when others are?" I had been working day and night with no visible return. Everyone needs to see results. Farmers see their crops grow. It is their proper reward. I could see others' "crops" grow, but my field bore nothìng.
If not that, then how should I measure my success? "If I were in the business world," I thought aloud that night, "it would be measured by the size of my bank account. Life's successes are measured quantitatively. How can anyone be expected to do otherwise?
"Those who really make it in the ministry are those with exceptional gifts. If I had a great personality or natural charisma, if I had celebrity status, a deep resonant voice, a merciless executive ability, a domineering personality that doesn't mind sacrificing people for success, I could make it to the top. Where is God in all of this?" I defied Barbara to disprove me. "Just look at the great preachers today. Their success seems to have little to do with God's Spirit; they're just superior people!"
Suddenly I found myself coming to a conclusion that I didn't want to admit. Though I knew it had been brooding in me for quite some time, now it was finally coming out. "God has called me to do something he hasn't given me the gifts to accomplish. Therefore, God is not good."
There. Finally, I had blurted out the thought that had tormented me. It fell between us, ugly and misshapen, into the silence of the hot night. I knew I had been called by God; I had never been able to escape that call, nor had I wanted to. But now I felt that I was the butt of a cruel joke. I was a failure. I wanted to quit. And in aching desperation I said to my dear wife, "What am I to do?"
How distressing it must have been for Barbara. I had always been the one on whom she could depend — and I was faltering. But I will never forget her kind and confident response. "I don't know what you're going to do. But for right now, for tonight, hang on to my faith. Because I believe. I believe that God is good. I believe that he loves us and is going to work through this experience. So hang on to my faith. I have enough for both of us."
That night I went to bed exhausted. Barbara stayed up long into the morning hours reflecting on our conversation.
"Hang on to my faith." Had I really spoken those words to Kent only a few minutes earlier? Sitting alone at the kitchen table, I wondered now if I had simply been mouthing pious bravado.
What about my faith? Was it strong enough to survive on its own or had Kent married a spiritual dependent? If Kent's faith failed, would mine shrivel and die like a parasite separated from its host?
My earliest recollections of placing my faith in God are associated with a promise. Mrs. White, the Good News Club teacher holds up a tiny leather book with colored pages but no words. As she turns the pages, she explains the way of eternal life and promises us our own Wordless Book if we memorize the verses each page represents. My childish imagination is captivated. And so it was that I first learned about the love of God. Along with the tiny prize, I received Christ as my Savior. Young as I was, it was true faith.
My parents were blue-collar Protestants who seldom attended church. They had six children, twice as many Problems, and never enough money. Hardworking and proud, they always tried to manage on their own. I seldom saw them turn to God. During my high school years my father was seriously injured. Unable to cope with the resulting long-term unemployment, he developed a serious drinking problem. As a result our family was thrust into a time of protracted and painful insecurity. This time of instability was used by God to temper and strengthen my faith. I learned that God was a good God who keeps his promises even when life is difficult.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome"
Copyright © 1987 Kent and Barbara Hughes.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I A Dark Night of the Soul,
1 Disapointed Dreams,
2 "Hang On to My Faith",
PART II Definitions,
3 Success Is Faithfulness,
4 Success Is Serving,
5 Success Is Loving,
6 Success Is Believing,
7 Success Is Prayer,
8 Success Is Holiness,
9 Success Is Attitude,
10 Sweet Success!,
PART III Encouragements,
11 Encouragement from God,
12 Encouragement from the Call,
13 Encouragement for the Ordinary,
14 Encouragement from Fellow Workers,
15 Encouragement from Reward,
PART IV Helps,
16 How the Pastor's Wife Can Help,
17 How the Congregation Can Help,
What People are Saying About This
"One of the very best books I have read on the spirituality of pastoral ministry."
—Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College; author, Loving the Way Jesus Loves
"I recommend that every pastor first read the Hughes's book privately and then go over it with his lay leaders. Doing this will not be less than a milestone and might well be a watershed."
—J. I. Packer, Board of Governors' Professor of Theology, Regent College
"Born out of experience, based on the Word of God, and applied to real life, this book is just what weary and discouraged pastors and their wives need. And it wouldn't hurt if critical church officers read it too! I highly recommend it."
—Warren W. Wiersbe, Retired General Director, Back to the Bible
"With wisdom gained from their own struggles and long years of experience, Kent and Barbara Hughes spell out the principles that can set God's servants free from the yoke of unscriptural ideas."
—Vernon C. Grounds, Chancellor, Denver Seminary
"Bless you, Kent and Barbara, for saying with clarity and boldness what thousands of pastors and pastors' wives need to hear. Your call back to the basics in ministry will free many from the false demands of 'success' and restore the proper measurements of achievement."
—Ray C. Stedman, Former Pastor, Peninsula Bible Church, Palo Alto, CA