When Productivity Strangles Joy in Ministry

Time is a significant pressure point in ministry. Ministry involves many things that take an extraordinary amount of time. Wisdom, relationships, faith, and love all take time. They are not efficient. They evade our attempts to control, schedule, or manage them. That’s because they are about people, and about God’s own activity with us. We simply lack the power to control these things. Couple these factors with the pressure of modern culture, which measures success by productivity and efficiency, and everyone in ministry is set up for failure, disappointment, shame, or frustration.

There is a way to care about time that will strangle our hearts, and there is a way to care about time that will give life. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 provides wisdom on this distinction. This parable is about time, about life. But the way you read the parable will lead you either in the direction of burden or freedom.

The parable is a familiar one, especially in discussing stewardship and time. Jesus tells the story of a man who goes away on a journey and leaves his work and property in the stewardship of his servants. In the story, each servant receives a different amount of resources. The first two invested theirs and were fruitful and turned a profit. The third, though he only had a little, simply buried it until the master returned. The third had done nothing with what he was entrusted, so the master rebuked him. The parable is supposed to tell us something about the kingdom of God.

A Parable about Faithfulness, Not Fruitfulness

Would the servant have been called “worthless” or “faithless” if he had invested the money but still returned no profit? This is the question that reveals how you read the parable. Is this lesson on the kingdom of God about the profit, or something else?

Because the metaphor of the parable is money, it is easy for us to get focused on the economy of the parable, that is, the money or return on the servants’ work. The parable too quickly becomes about productivity or fruitfulness. But if the parable is about the fruit of the servants’ work, then the parable is teaching a works-righteousness, that in order to be in the master’s favor we have to attain some sort of fruitfulness or profit with what we’re entrusted.

In order to feel the weight of the parable, we have to see that the parable isn’t about the money. It’s about the servants. The money in the parable exposes their hearts. The parable is about their care of what belongs to the master, their faithful engagement with what he has entrusted to them. Since the parables are stories that portray the people of the kingdom and the ministry of the kingdom, the analogy here is to our care to steward with full heart what he entrusts to us, because it belongs to him and he is in the work. In this way, the parable is about relationship, not economics; it is about faithfulness, not fruitfulness. 

Significantly, the emphasis isn't on the product or fruit of that time and care, because, as another parable tells us in Luke 8, God does different things with the seed planted in his kingdom. Some he makes fruitful, some he does not. The rebuked steward could have invested and not made any profit himself, but he is considered “worthless” because he was more worried about failure than investing and stewarding what he was entrusted with.

Not All of Ministry Will Bear Fruit

So much of ministry will not bear fruit, as God himself has said about the seed he sows through our ministry (Luke 8). We have to protect one another and ourselves from disappointment in ministry and the fear of failure. We have to protect one another from turning our attention from faith to fruit. Fruitlessness in ministry does not equal failure, or else God’s own Word “fails” in Luke 8. Faithful ministry, like God's Word, always serves a purpose, but that doesn’t mean it bears fruit in a productive or worldly sense. Especially in pastoral ministry and care, you quickly learn how slow ministry occurs. Jesus's concern is that we always bear faith, as we care for the things he entrusts to us.

But if we don’t protect one another and ourselves, our productivity-obsessed, results-based culture will strangle the joy of ordinary ministry that is long-suffering, inefficient, messy, and seemingly fruitless. We will judge, disappoint, or shame ourselves or one another because of our inability to control or bear fruit in faithful ministry. We put heavy yokes of expectations on our shoulders. But fruitful, productive time isn’t the standard of success in the kingdom. Ordinary, healthy, lasting ministry isn’t judged by productivity or fruit, but by care and faithfulness. He loves the fruitless ones no less than the fruitful ones; he is active in the fruitless ones no less than the fruitful ones.

According to Scripture, the best use of time is not first about productivity, but about wisdom (Eph. 5:15). Strikingly, wisdom isn't always what we might call productive. Relationships take time and wisdom. Families take time and wisdom. Reconciliation takes time and wisdom. Learning well takes time and wisdom. Turning to the Lord in the difficulty of life takes time and wisdom. These things aren’t efficient or well-managed. They are messy, inefficient, belaboring, long-suffering, and they are the best use of our time.

To all the pastors and other faithful Christians laboring in ministry, stressed and broken-hearted because of inefficiencies, loss of time, stress, and disappointment, you may be making the very best use of your time.