The Measure of a Pastor

By Ross Engel

About ten years ago, when I was fresh from the seminary and “just” a lowly associate pastor, I was invited to a “Pastor’s Appreciation” brunch at the local non-denom mega-church. The senior pastor that I served with back then was always keen on going to those social events to rub elbows with all the “big church” preachers and thought it would be good for me to attend. To be perfectly honest, it was one of those moments that I felt like a was a Padawan learner – a Jedi apprentice – dutifully following my master around, doing my best not to mess up the chance for my master to look good in front of the other masters.

At the brunch, I found myself seated in a large room at a table with a dozen other pastors from various denominations. I was the youngest guy at the table, and my senior pastor was far across the banquet hall. He and I were the only Lutherans in this room full of a couple hundred hungry pastors. I didn’t know anyone there and was not thrilled to be there in the first place, and so, if you’ve ever met me, you know that the situation is a recipe for disaster.

It wasn’t long after the cordial table introductions that conversation drifted to what I suppose must be a popular topic when you get a group of pastors together. A polite sounding Southern gentleman, who pastored a church with over 4,000 members, asked the question, “How many you runnin’?” Since he was looking at me, I answered his question, “Well, I’m not typically into running, but I do make a point of lifting weights daily.” The table erupted with laughter and while I didn’t hear any remarks of “bless your heart,” I did get schooled on the question being asked.

“How many you runnin’?” is not a question about cardiovascular fitness. It doesn’t have anything to do with health. It’s a question to find out how many people come to hear you preach and how many members the congregation you’re serving has. It’s a question about the bottom line. What’s your budget? What’s your weekly attendance? How big is your church? “How many you runnin’?” The question, more often than not, is given to mean, “Provide us with some solid numbers so we can decide how good a pastor you really are.”

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Butts in pews, operating budgets, weekly offerings, and the length of a church membership roster are often used as markers and indicators of success in the ministry. A “skilled” pastor will have more butts and more dollars than a “bad” pastor, or so “they” say. A healthy church or a successful pastor is defined by numbers, and I can’t stand that!

Recently, I was filling out some paperwork about my time as a pastor. At the end of all the documents, I was asked to declare how many sermons I have preached in my nearly ten years as a pastor. I was asked to give, as accurately as possible, a reckoning of how many weddings I have performed, the number of funerals I have officiated, how many Baptisms I have done, and how many hours I have counseled people.

“How many you runnin’?”

That section of the paperwork has stalled me. I have no interest in trying to assign a numerical value to the years I’ve served the Bride of Christ. You can’t define the pastoral office with numbers on a spreadsheet. My skills as a pastor and the way the Lord has chosen to work through me for the life of the church (or not work through me) isn’t something that can be calculated. The Lord working through His Means of Grace can’t be measured by butts in pews and dollars filling an offering plate. Trying to figure out “how many I’m runnin’,” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t want to be defined by a number, especially a number that ultimately isn’t a reflection of me or what God is doing through me among His people!

And so, if defining the “success” of a pastor or a church isn’t based on the number of butts in the pews or the dollars in the offering plates, if it’s not about “how many they’re runnin’,” then what is the measure of a good pastor?

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Ultimately, it’s pretty simple. It comes back to whether or not the pastor is doing the things he vowed to do when he was Ordained. You can measure a good pastor by the way he strives to fulfill the duties he was asked to perform, the tasks that are listed on his diploma of vocation and Call documents (included are things like preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, visiting the sick, hearing the confessions of sinners, and faithfulness to the Word and the Scriptures).

Faithfulness, fidelity, integrity. These are appropriate measures for the Called and Ordained servant of the Word. Is the man doing the tasks that God Himself put forth for him to accomplish? The tasks aren’t flashy and they don’t typically draw the admiration of crowds or prestige within the world. God places His servants into the ministry and judges them on their faithfulness to His Word and His call. Pastors aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but pastors aren’t called to be perfect or without sin (though they are to be above reproach). They’re called to be faithful to the Word. They are called to proclaim that Word in its fullness and truth. Pastors are to properly distinguish Law and Gospel and deliver both the convicting Law of God to sinners and the freeing joys of the Gospel to those who have repented, as the situation warrants. As under-shepherds, pastors are to lovingly care for the souls entrusted to their care. They are to rightly deliver our Lord’s Word and His gifts to the people that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens to receive them.

I’ve always prided myself in not being a gimmick or a program kind of guy. I do my best not to pay attention to superficial things like attendance numbers or the budget, but I’m only human and that siren song of looking for some indicator of a measureable success tries to call to me from time to time, too. When it does, we would all do well to silence that call. We would benefit greatly from pulling out the vows of ordination. Dusting off the diploma of vocation and looking instead at the tasks to which God has called His pastors to perform. Let a church and a pastor’s measure of success not be found in the shallow question, “How many you runnin’?” but rather, let us measure pastors and congregations according to the very tasks to which God has called them to perform. For it is these tasks that truly only matter in our life together.

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16 thoughts on “The Measure of a Pastor

  1. Excellent article, Pastor. You know my feeling on this; I’ve told you many times. Proper preaching of Law and Gospel isn’t important as long as you’re getting the butts in the pews. In fact, it’s probably why there are not more butts in the pews. The whole purpose of church growth. It’s all about the numbers regardless of what you have to do to get them there. Time for the dog and pony show.

    But it’s hard to believe that you were ever naïve. But if you say so I’ll take your work for it. 🙂

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  2. Pastor, I just read through the article a second time and it is really outstanding. Your faithfulness to your vocation can be counted by the number of people in service and the number in Bible study each Sunday which is a far larger number, I believe, that many churches with a much larger membership that ours. I hope you answered that question something to the effect of “My faithfulness to my vocation cannot be defined by a number, especially a number that ultimately isn’t a reflection of me or what God is doing through me among His people!”

    Amen!

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  3. Ross, thank you for your words. Your general theme — to not draw one’s identity from the fruit of one’s labors — is a good one.

    My concern, however, is one could read your post and leave thinking we should never pay attention to numbers, especially not worship attendance or baptisms. Unfortunately, Scripture is full of accounting of numbers, from a census of the Israelites to crowds gathering to hear and see Jesus to people receiving the Holy Spirit in the thousands through baptism. While I suspect it remained a challenge for Peter et al to keep a humble head in that process, there was no doubt great celebration over the results of Jesus working through them.

    Gaining our identity from the fruit of our Spirit-infused work is wrong. Celebrating that fruit and praising the Father for it, in the spirit of Psalm 115:1, is very godly behavior.

    I also happen to know many, many of our denominations sr pastors of large churches. While they are full of flaws and brokenness like all of us, to a man I know them as deeply concerned for every individual under their care. They personally bear a great responsibility of stewarding resources many of us never get to steward. They do so in humility and great anxiety, understanding the accountability they have for the souls entrusted to the ministries they lead. And to a man, they celebrate numbers because they see the people behind those numbers, men and women who are part of the Body of Christ.

    So your opening tone, publicly denigrating your senior pastor, places you above him and speaks of your lack of understanding of godly authority, both living under it and exercising it. It is both caustic and ungodly. You owe your former sr pastor a public and private apology, repentance, and request for forgiveness.

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    1. Dear sir,

      While Scripture may reference the command to count numbers in the Old Testament and describe the historical fact that numbers were counted in the New Testament, we don’t see a command to keep track of numbers in the Church, nor do we ever see the Bible say that a large amount of numbers equates to God’s blessing on a particular pastor or congregation. Even so, Pastor Engel did not say that we should never count how many people attend the Divine Service or are baptized. He is making the point that there is a danger in using this as a gauge for “success”.

      As a young person who grew up under a Southern Baptist, vision-casting leader/pastor who at times focused exclusively on what could bring in more numbers to the church, wanting to turn it into a “mega church”, I can personally attest to how damaging this can be for the individuals under such a leader. In fact, leader/cattle-driver is a far more accurate way of describing such a man than pastor/shepherd. You site that you know Lutheran pastors of large churches who are sincere in their desire to care for each individual of a large congregation. I do not doubt that sincerity, and I’m sure neither does Pastor Engel. With that said, there are pastors in other denominations who openly say that it isn’t the pastor’s job to be concerned about individual members because one man cannot physically accomplish such a task of caring for a very large congregation on his own. He explicitly stated that he and his senior pastor were the only Lutherans in the room. The fact is, those other pastors do not have the same understanding as our Confessions explain the office of the Holy Ministry.

      Furthermore, as one of Pastor Engel’s parishioners, I do not appreciate the slander on his character by insinuating that he insulted his senior pastor from his previous church and that he does not understand godly authority. He was simply setting up a story to tell so that he might better explain and illustrate his valid concern that a numbers-focused mentality ultimately hurts both the pastor and the people. He has a perfectly fine understanding of godly authority, from which I’ve learned a great deal.

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    2. Bill,
      Thank you for reading my post. I think we’re both in agreement that we pastors shouldn’t be getting our identity from or be patting ourselves on the back for the fruit of our Spirit-infused labors. (I like that term by the way, may I borrow it in the future?)

      To God alone be the glory!

      I’m not attacking the numbers or the people or the pastors. I don’t have a problem with faithful pastors who serve large congregations or who are blessed to have multi-staff ministries. God is working through them and through His Means of Grace to accomplish His purposes there. Nor do I have a problem with the faithful small town pastor who is doing his darndest to preach, and teach, and gather and grow disciples in the parish entrusted to him. God is still at work in that parish through the same Word and Sacrament.

      Just as Jesus speaks of the servants who are entrusted with many things and the servants that are entrusted with a few things, He’s not setting up a dichotomy that the one with more is better than the one with less. His measure ultimately is faithfulness with what the master has given. Of course the servant that just buries the gift and does nothing with it at all, well that’s a completely different issue altogether.

      What I was trying to capture in my writing is the danger that comes from measuring our success or considering ourselves successful pastors or pastoral failures by comparing the fruit of our Spirit-infused labors (really do like that term of yours) to someone else’s. Am I less of a pastor than the pastor of the mega Baptist church downtown that takes up a full city block and whose weekly attendance and offering are more than my congregation’s yearly attendance and budget?

      I’d like to think the answer is no. I’m not less of a pastor than that pastor. God’s measure of a man, and I would imagine a pastor too, is not the same as man’s measure. I’m reminded of how the prophet was sent to anoint David in 1 Samuel 16 and was told by the Lord, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart..”

      Many of my classmates serve in large congregations. Some are men you might even know as friends and collegues as well. Truly we do have some brilliant and wonderful men serving in the Office of the Ministry in both large and tiny parishes and everything in between in this beloved LCMS.

      My hope in writing this article was to encourage pastors, whether they serve small churches or large churches, to find our joy and the measure of our success not in whether I have more members or dollars than another brother in the ministry, or whether I did more baptisms, weddings, and funerals than another pastor, (because I know that I can so easily be tempted to do that, wretched sinner that I am), but rather to make the measure of a pastor rooted in the tasks of faithful preaching, administering the Sacraments, and teaching the Word. (Along with the many duties given to us in the Ordination Vows and Diploma of Vocation).

      I do think we should rejoice in the fruits of the Spirit’s work in our midst. There is a reason why we celebrate every baptism and wedding and new member and funeral in our parish, it is a joy to see God at work among His people, redeeming them and gathering them together to receive His gifts!

      I will stand by my words that there is danger when we measure our success as a pastor or as a church based on the numbers we’re running instead of faithfully doing the tasks to which God has called us.

      “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who caused the growth.” 1 Cor. 3:6-7

      I want pastors to be encouraged to faithfully and diligently do the planting or the watering, whichever one God has called them to do, and not to measure themselves by how much or how little fruit God causes to grow. The farmer can go to rest at night at peace that he did his labors to the best of his ability and trust that God will bring forth fruit from those labors. May the same be said of all pastors.

      Before I close off this terribly lengthy comment, I did want to get some clarification from you on your accusation that I’m publicly denigrating my senior pastor. I’ve read through this post multiple times as have others, and I’m just not sure where you’re coming from? Was it my comment about rubbing elbows with the “big church” preachers? If so, those are his own words. We were a small to medium sized congregation and going to an event like this, we were both little fish in a big pond, totally out of our element, rubbing elbows with guys who had bathrooms bigger than our sanctuary. And he and I were the only Lutherans there, so we both commented that we had better play nice. If it was the reference about being the Jedi Padawan learner trying not to make his master look bad, perhaps the Star Wars reference was a stretch, but I was fresh from seminary and we both commented on the way over to the luncheon that my duty as the young fresh from the sem associate pastor was to make sure “I didn’t make the old guys (he was in his 60s) look bad because I still had my Greek and my Hebrew.” I always pictured that conversation and our early pastoral relationship like young Anakin and ObiWan bantering about who rescued who and how to come out of the dire situation they were in, alive.

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  4. False dichotomy, both matter at least that’s how Bible reads. A good pastor is faithful and keeps his eyes in numbers as one measure of his faithfulness. Some seasons numbers are tough, some seasons they are great. Neglect your budget numbers and your attendance and you’ll soon be unemployed and no more cigars and scotch.

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    1. Tim,
      You say that “some seasons numbers are tough” and that “some seasons they are great.” Would it be fair to say that when the numbers are tough, you’re slacking off and not doing what God has called you to do as a Pastor? And when the numbers are great, would you say that you’re finally back to doing what God called you to do as a Pastor?

      May it never be! I would hope not for if that were the case, ministry would be a terror! And I don’t think that’s fair to yourself.

      If you’re preaching and teaching and baptizing and communing and visiting and doing all the other tasks that God has called you to do, than you can be at peace that God is at work, just as He promised to be. It allows you to let numbers be just that, numbers. Not markers of success or an opportunity to become self-righteous or look down on a less “successful” pastor. If you’re doing what you’ve been called to do and you’re having a tough season or a great season,Good! Keep doing what God has called you to do and trust that His Word will water the earth and not return to Him empty until It has accomplished His purposes (which don’t often look like our purposes).

      My article is an attempt to get to the heart of the issue that if we base our effectiveness or faithfulness or success as a pastor solely on the numbers, then, in the good times we’ll be tempted to pat ourselves on the back for how great we are and then when the bad times come we’ll worry that we’re a worthless pastor, the sky is falling and the time of Bourbon and Cigars will soon be over (I can’t afford Scotch yet, but I can do Bourbon).

      I am always tempted to look at the attendance book or the offering count as a way to measure whether I’m doing a good job or not. But instead of looking at those tools as a way to measure myself, I’ve found that it is useful to use it as a way for to better consider and care for the souls entrusted to my care. For example, if we “should” have 200 people in church on any given Sunday and “only” 160 show up, I rejoice that 160 were gathered to receive our Lord’s gifts but need to consider the 40 that absented themselves from our Lord’s gifts and what spiritual attention they might be in need of. In that sense, numbers can be a helpful tool, but not a way for me to measure how great or how poorly a job I’m doing.

      Knowing that you are a pastor and the administrator of a Facebook page dedicated to encouraging pastors and laypeople, I want you to see the encouragement that comes from trusting in God at work through His faithful pastors as they deliver His Means of Grace. And that whether in tough times or great times, God is still at work and His Word is still accomplishing His purposes, not ours. That is encouraging to me because it gives me rest for my weary soul as I am forced to trust that God will work both through me and in spite of me.

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      1. I’m old enough and seasoned enough to know how to hang tough in tough times. I also know that numbers reflect a reality that is going on that calls you think and rethink what you are doing, how you are doing it and why you are doing it. You are correct that numbers are not the sole measure of ministry but they sure are one. You would be wise to track the right thing. What gets measured gets done.

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  5. I think you both completely missed the point. The point is the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word and not placing the focus on how many new members are pouring through the door. The Holy Spirit will send who He will. The members will grow in faith and faithfulness by the faithful preaching of the Word.

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  6. Nope I get it and he presents a false dichotomy putting faithfulness and fruitfulness against each other. That leads to self righteousness.

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    1. Sir,

      Nope, you don’t get it. No false dichotomy. He was critiquing the idea that numbers equate to “success”, keyword: equate.

      Pastor Engel picked up on a problem among the “mega-church” Baptist preachers which is that the Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, means to them “Therefore go and make a name for yourselves and increase the number of people in your congregation”. I was a Baptist. This really happens. The pastor thinks he’s the leader of an ever-increasing, self-feeding, herd of cattle, rather than the shepherd of a hungry, needy, starving-for-forgiveness-and-God’s-Word flock of sheep. He was simply pointing out the danger in turning too much of our attention toward counting the number of people.

      Watching numbers also leads to self-righteousness, because everything under the sun can lead to self-righteousness for a sinful human being in need of God’s forgiveness, daily and much.

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      1. Sadly, I came from a Lutheran Church like that. The emphasis was always what else can we do to bring in more people. It got to be a regular dog and pony show. That was when I left to find a church whose emphasis was on the faithful teaching of the Word.

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  7. Numbers are neutral. A pastor’s faithfulness isn’t measured by large nor by small numbers, but rather, by how he serves the number of people he’s been called to serve.

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    1. How do you know the number of people you have been called to serve? Each number represents one person for whom Jesus died. Was important to him.

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      1. Sorry, maybe I was wasn’t clear. Numbers are neutral when it come to the conversation about the faithfulness of a pastor. Some faithful pastors have larger churches, some have smaller. Anyone can attract a crowd and anyone can drive them off.

        Tim, I’m kind of confused by your argument. What exactly did Ross say that you disagree with? We all agree that numbers represent people, but we would certainly never reduce each person for whom Christ died to a mere number, right? So that, whether you have 90 or 1090 on a Sunday, Christ wants his word faithfully put in each person’s ears. A faithful pastor will do that regardless of how many show up.

        The point is not that numbers don’t matter, it’s that they do not prove the faithfulness of a pastor.

        Or, am I missing the point?

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