[This is first in a series of posts reflecting on the last six years of pastoral ministry in a NZ Baptist church. I'm not looking for sympathy (seriously), or to whinge, I'm trying to reflect on real issues in our theory and practice of ministry.]
At one of my interviews for the role of pastor at the Bay I was asked, "How do you measure success, is it just numbers?" At the time I confidently declared, "Success is about being faithful to Jesus, the numbers don't mean anything." If I'm honest though, at the back of my mind was the firm belief that my ministry would be both faithful to Jesus and show numerical increase.
At the end of six years of ministry at the Bay the numbers are pretty bleak. Each of those years after the first we have seen a decrease in people attending Sunday services, the main yardstick used by our denomination. Baptisms have more or less equalled funerals, and new families have just about equalled those leaving, but each year the church has been less full on a Sunday morning. The other hard data is offerings. For the first four years we increased our income each year, but the last two have seen it dropping, and next year looks lean for the church. If they don't reverse the trend or find other sources of income they will need to start cutting back on ministry.
Have I been faithful? I'm certainly conscious of areas of failing, of mistakes made, of opportunities missed, but overall, in honesty, I think I have done a good job. I've got it right more often than I've got it wrong. I think the congregational decline we have experienced is due to cultural and demographic changes. My ministry has not been sufficient to reverse those trends, but it has not been the cause of it. I can't take responsibility for rising house prices and families moving out of the city. I can't take responsibility for social trends away from institutions and regular attendance. I can't take responsibility for increased religious diversity in the community or a secularising nation. I can't take responsibility for money being tight, people getting older, or wages not increasing relative to living costs.
That is what I know logically, but psychologically that is not how I feel. Anyway, success is not about effort but about result. I am not a successful pastor. My faithfulness has not been sufficient.
Then I grow uncomfortable with the question. Since when have I cared about my success or my faithfulness? What sort of a question is that? What about the faithfulness of Jesus? Didn't he call me to this role? Isn't he the Lord of the church and the harvest? Is my lack of success a failure of his? Did he send the wrong guy for the job? Did he fail to deliver on something he promised? Did he not give me what I needed to succeed?
My ambition and hope for the church during my ministry has not been fulfilled. Who am I to say that Jesus feels the same? It is entirely possible that Jesus is not remotely interested in increasing numbers on a Sunday morning or balancing the budget. These certainly aren't things that crop up in the gospels.
Jesus has been faithful.
Every time I faced a challenge or situation I didn't know how to handle, he led me through. Every time I ran out of energy, compassion, wisdom or strength, his grace was sufficient. Every time I wanted to quit and run, he renewed my call. Every time I was wounded, he healed my hurts. He never abandoned me, my family, or the church. Whenever we met in his name, he was there. Whether we succeeded or failed, he was there.
I'm tempted to say I've done great work despite the conditions; that I've laid the foundation for the next pastor to build on, cleared away the deadwood and weeds of the past; that my ministry will bear fruit in the years to come as seeds I sowed finally mature. Perhaps I am a success, just success delayed? Perhaps, but I think it is probably just more of the same horse shit.
I cannot put "success" on my C.V. and I'm actually glad of that. Not because the numbers don't hurt or depress me, but because, despite my insufficient faithfulness, I have learned more of Jesus' all sufficient faithfulness. I remember the reason I followed this call, to this church. Yes, I thought I'd be able to buck the trends and show everyone how it was done, so much for that, but I also just wanted to be somewhere where I would have to rely utterly on God; where if Jesus didn't show up I would be sunk; where I would be pulled deeper and closer into his grace. I'm sorry if it seems selfish, that I've let the church or the denomination down; but I think that of the two things, the one I have been granted, it is the better.