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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