Success is hearing “Well done” from the only lips that matter. Failure is succeeding at things that don’t finally matter at all.
You probably knew this already. But how hard it is to live! How hard it is not to crave praise and affirmation from those around you. How hard it is not to measure success by the size of your house, the behavior of your kids, or—perhaps most dangerous of all—the size or budget of your church.
How does our Lord and Master define a successful ministry?
Learn from a Prisoner
By most measures, the apostle Paul had failed by the time he wrote his second letter to Timothy. He was in prison. He was facing execution. His followers were deserting him. The Christian communities he’d founded were struggling, riven with internal division and external persecution.
Don’t make the mistake of reading later history back into Paul’s situation. He did not know, as he sat shivering in prison and writing to one of his few remaining friends, that the churches he’d planted were the seeds of the fastest-multiplying religious explosion the world has ever seen.
He did not know, as he contemplated death at the hands of a Roman executioner, that one day that empire would not just tolerate but (for better and worse) promote Christianity. He didn’t know any of that, and by every worldly measure (including church-growth metrics), he had failed. His funeral would not be well-attended; no obituaries would lionize him; and the location of his grave would go unrecorded.
Yet Paul didn’t see his life as unsuccessful. And so he called Timothy to live a life of eternal success, even if it was likely to look like worldly failure. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved,” he urged this younger pastor (2 Tim. 2:15). Live every day in a way that means you’ll hear the divine “Well done.” How was Timothy to do that? How do we do that?
Two things: we must get the Word right, and we must get our character right.
1. Get the Word right.
The one God approves is the one “who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The Bible, and the gospel it contains, is the truth. That must be the lifelong anchor of your ministry, for it is the only anchor of a God-approved ministry.
2. Get your character right.
The Scriptures nowhere call men to teach truth without also commanding them to live by it. In 1 Timothy 3:2–7, when Paul lists the qualifications for being an “overseer” or elder, there are 12 that speak to character or relationships, and only one about teaching.
For those of us who are “able to teach,” it is easy to read a sentence like “We must get the Word right, and we must get our character right”—and focus far more on the first clause than the second. But one of two is not a pass mark. A leader’s character must never be an afterthought, nor can strengths in teaching justify or make up for weaknesses in conduct.
The key to a ministry useful to the Master is not less than teaching the Word faithfully, but it is more. The key is not academic qualifications or rhetorical eloquence or inspirational vision-casting.
The key is godliness. Many of us subconsciously find that unappealing, I think, because it’s harder work, and longer work, to clean our characters. It’s less noticed and less praised. But that’s the call—to cut the Word straight, and to get our character clean.
A leader’s character must never be an afterthought, nor can strengths in teaching justify or make up for weaknesses in conduct.
Most of us will know people who exemplify this approach to ministry, and it’s wonderful to see. I think of the man who led me to Christ—kind, patient, unresentful, gently teaching me and many others. Tim Challies put it like this in his article “The Celebrity Pastor We’ve Never Known”:
The highest privilege and greatest honor in pastoring is not standing in the church pulpit but praying by the hospital bed. It’s not being accorded the highest place but carrying out the least-seen service. It’s not broadcasting the truth to thousands, but whispering it to one. The holiest moments of pastoring are the ones that are seen by the fewest people. And in the end, I’m convinced these are the ones that mean the most.
Most people will forget most of your sermons, but they’ll remember that when they called, you came. They’ll remember that you were there when their hearts were broken, that you were there to lead them to the Lord and to speak his truth into their sorrows.
That is a successful life, for that is a successful ministry. The world, and indeed the wider church or even your church, may not notice it or thank you for it. The world—and, tragically, many professing Christians—will tend to applaud those whose characters are more worldly than godly, or whose teaching is more inspired by what the world says than what the Scriptures say. But that will mean nothing in 200 years.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15)
Failure is being successful at the wrong things; and success for the pastor is standing before his Shepherd one day, after a life of cutting the Word straight and living with clean character, and hearing those precious words that will sustain his joy forever: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”